Vienna, April 18 – Russia’s 60,000-plus skinheads and their sympathizers are preparing to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday this Sunday by attacking minorities, actions that are prompting many Russians to ask why there are so many neo-Nazis among them and why the Russian government is unable or unwilling to move against them.
Human rights activists and religious leaders are warning that skinhead violence will be greater this year because of the movement’s growing strength and public support and because this “holiday” falls on a Sunday, warnings that some but far from all interior ministry officials appear to be taking seriously (www.islamnews.ru/news-11169.html).
And commentators have suggested that the violence will occur not only in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the two “capitals” of neo-Nazi activity in the Russian Federation, but in other cities, like Yekaterinburg, which have not experienced it before (www.echoekb.ru/news/excluziv/yr2008/mn04/dy17/143188/more/).
Far more interesting that the speculation about just what Russia’s neo-Nazis will in fact do on Sunday are the comments of religious and secular leaders on the reasons behind the rise of neo-Nazism in Russia and the relationship between this movement and the Russian state.
The Regions.ru news agency asked a variety of religious leaders to comment on why neo-Nazism was on the rise in a country that a half-century ago had suffered so much from Hitler’s actions (www.regions.ru/news/2137466/).
Archpriest Valentin Timakov, deputy chief editor of the Publications Council of the Moscow Patriarchate, noted that for “many of our contemporaries,” the ideas of Hitler about a wide variety of things “alas” are not only acceptable but attractive “however much we denounce them.”
“The contemporary generation is unfortunately indifferent to this,” and consequently, few in the Russian Federation either individually or through institutions like the schools take the kind of actions to drive out this “pagan” faith and return Russians to Christianity.”
Father Sergiy Rybkov, a priest at the church in the Lazarevskiy cemetery, said there was “nothing surprising at all” about the rise of neo-Nazis in Russia. “On the one hand, corrupt officials cannot and do not want to deal with guests from the near and far abroad who do not know how to act or respect our traditions.”
“And on the other,” he continued, “the ideology of the superman, of pride and national supremacy, alas, impresses contemporary youth which has grown up in new realities.” Indeed, this ideology is an expression of the paganism and occultism” regularly disseminated by the country’s mass media.
Roman Silantyev, the controversial specialist on Islam who now works for the Legal Defense Center of the Russian National Council, placed the blame for the rise of Nazism in Russia on the anti-religious policies of the Soviet system, policies that left a spiritual vacuum in many Russians.
“After many years of struggle with religion in the country a spiritual hunger began in the land which led many not to the church or the mosque or the synagogue but rather to paganism which could take the form of Nazism.” The failure to fight paganism now was only making the situation worse.
Damir Mukhetdinov, the editor of the Muslim publishing house Medina, however, however, argued that “Russian fascism is connected not with the number of migrants.” Instead, he argued, people turn to fascism because their old belief systems have crumbled and because they are looking for simple truths to hold on to.
“When we were growing up,” he said, “we always knew in what country we were living, who were our enemies and what was out ideology.” But Russians today have no such certainty, and those who offer something that looks like certainty, however ugly it may be, are going to attract followers if nothing else is on offer.
And finally Rabbi Zinoviy Kogan of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organization in Russia (KEROOR), suggested that “fascism is born as a result of the imperfections of society – social inequality, poverty, and the lack of love in the family. Such spiritually poor people become genuine pagans and cultivate hatred in themselves.”
Unlike the other religious leaders, however, Kogan, who noted that his religious community has the greatest reason to fear a revival of Nazism, suggested that no one should “exaggerate the danger” of the skinheads and others like them because the authorities have sufficient force to suppress them.
But far more pessimistic than these religious leaders about the skinhead danger in Russia were the assessments of three secular observers, Maksim Krans, a commentator for RIA Novosti, Aleksei Shiropayev, who writes frequently on Russian nationalism, and Daniil Borisov, a Nezavisimaya gazeta correspondent in St. Petersburg.
In an essay on the skinheads, Krans argued that Russians both in the government and outside have seriously “underestimated” the danger that neo-Nazism represents. He cites a Levada Center poll that found that “only five percent of Russians see in political extremism a serious internal threat to Russia” (www.rian.ru/analytics/20080416/105231041.html).
And the RIA commentator reported that the Public Opinion Foundation had found that “15 percent of our young people today are certain that there are positive sides in fascism as an ideological system.” Still worse, a third of the students in Moscow universities said that it would have not been a tragedy if Hitler had defeated the USSR.
Most Russians comfort themselves with the thought that there are “only” sixty to seventy thousand skinheads, but they forget that such groups, if not contained, can grow quickly. In 1923, the Nazis had only a few supporters and the authorities could suppress them. But a few years later, the Nazis were so numerous that they became the authorities.
Shiropayev echoed Krans’ concerns. But he added another dimension to the problem. He suggested that one of the reasons that the skinheads had grown so numerous in Russia now is that the Russian state has become little more than a bad “parody” of Mussolini’s fascist state (www.nazlobu.ru/opinions/article2655.htm).
And Borisov provided what may be the last word on this. He suggested that the state’s constant and much advertised “struggle” against the neo-Nazis among Russians was not only half-hearted – many officials seem to sympathize with those they are “fighting” – but in fact spreading the plague.
“the struggle with xenophobia,” he said, “is continuing every day and every hour. It will continue until a complete and unqualified victory. Only the methods and effectiveness of this struggle allow one to have some doubts as to just which side will in fact win” (www.ng.ru/politics/2008-04-16/3_kartblansh.html).