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Nationalism and fascism in contemporary Russia

Nationalism and fascism in contemporary Russia
Article by: Olena Matusova
Translated by: Mariya Shcherbinina
Edited by: Phil Cooke

The entire world commemorates the victims of the Holocaust on January 27th. On this day, in 1945, the Soviet army freed Auschwitz. 10 years ago the 60th anniversary of the occurrence was celebrated with much grandeur. This year, everything is different. The Russian President was not invited to the 70th anniversary, and Russia reacted angrily to this. They claim there is no point in celebrating the anniversary without all the victors. However, a very important fact has been overlooked in this controversy. In Russia, which has made the accusation of fascism in other countries a central tenet of its foreign policy, there freely exist organizations which do not hide their openly nationalistic and xenophobic nature. Experts think that the lessons of the past have not been learned, and that this has dangerous consequences for the present.

Today’s reality is that fascism, Nazism and patriotism in contemporary Russian society are now one and the same. State propaganda skillfully manipulates many foreign nationalist movements (even very minor ones), accusing entire countries and peoples of fascism, without showing the ‘grateful’ viewers of Russian state television, the people who march throughout Moscow with swastikas and Nazi salutes. Even in the USSR, the country which had helped to defeat fascism, there were groups propagating this ideology, and they became known during Perestroika. However, according to Oleksandr Verkhovsky, head of the information and analytical centre, SOVA, which studies instances of nationalism and xenophobia, they appeared much earlier than that.

“Essentially, the first underground groups that called themselves fascists or Nazis, were active back in the 1950’s in the USSR. This existed all the time after the war, practically. It is clear that it all became public when freedom came. The current wave of neo-Nazism is different from what the elders remember from Perestroika in the first half of the 1990’s. In that sense, the wave that came at the end of the 1990’s and the beginning of 2000, is a new youthful wave of people who really call themselves Nazis or nationalist socialists, or stand for ‘white power,’ which in European terminology is still considered to be neo-Nazism. There is quite a large number of such people. Essentially, they constitute the majority of the Russian nationalist movement,” Verkhovsky notes.

Historical parallels

Parallels between modern Russia and Germany at the end of the 1930’s are becoming less and less unrealistic recently. Human rights activist, Svetlana Gannushkina, laments the fact that Russia did not learn the lessons from the tragedy of World War II.

“As is known, history mostly teaches one thing – that it teaches nothing. Other peoples’ experiences aren’t taken seriously. We see today that out country, and not only individual groups, is behaving like those who had led their country to catastrophe, the creation of Auschwitz, Buchenwald etc. History repeats itself frighteningly. Hosting the Winter Olympics in a country which in reality is against human rights, then the annexation of Crimea, then military intervention in the Ukrainian conflict. It is unfortunately spreading. Therefore, to speak of fascist groups which, have existed practically for a very long time, their activity hasn’t stopped. For the fist time since 2005, we haven’t had a Russian March on November 4th. What does this mean? Maybe because nationalist moods have captured quite a significant part of the population, including the government. It is frightening and shameful to think of this,” says the activist.

Lessons not learned

War against fascism was one of the means of the ideological machine in the USSR, wherein some things were written about and others were silenced, notes Oleksandr Verkhovsky.

“I remember very well in Soviet schooling, that the main complaint against Hitler’s regime was that Hitler killed communists and attacked the USSR, and other countries. Of course, Nazi Germany was seen first and foremost as the aggressor. However, if one is not a German neo-Nazi but a Russian neo-Nazi, this complaint disappears. Communism is also outdated. The rest was silenced in Soviet school, the Holocaust too, by the way,” notes the head of SOVA.

Neo-Nazi moods that have always existed in the masses, have very fertile ground to grow in the current political landscape in Russia. The propaganda machine plays on this skillfully, not only forgoing the elimination of animosity and hatred, but inciting them. Gannushkina says that state propaganda forgets about its people once its job is done.

“Unfortunately, it is possible to explain the reasons why nationalism started to coincide with so-called patriotism, that they are uniting even though they are practically opposite ideologies. We can explain it with the mental mechanisms, negative cultural mechanisms, which the government’s message to the people grounds itself in today. First, we are renewing a great state, second, we are fighting fascists (meaning Ukraine). This, I think, is the most important thing because the third measure used in the beginning was ‘aiding our brothers’. The establishment of refugees from Ukraine lost its importance. More and more Ukrainians are asking for help because they cannot renew their residence, who cannot get temporary shelter”, concludes Gannushkina.

Europe should take notice

It is no secret that nationalist groups are actively participating in the military conflict in Ukraine, on both sides. The activity of Russian fascism is far from being Europe’s primary concern, even though European politicians should take heed, thinks director of SOVA, Oleksandr Verkhovsky.

“The fact that Russian nationalist groups are involved in all this, I think that for Europe, this issue is secondary. Though they should think about all this, because it has to do with the Western far-right wing. While most of the neo-Nazi European groups involved in the war are on the side of Ukraine, such as volunteers from Azov and other places, more established ultra-right wing parties from a number of European countries are mostly oriented towards Russia. They get aid from there, and they have quite active relations. As far as I understand, our Russian politicians are sort of competing for the connections with the European ultra-right wing. The task here is clear – the Kremlin has no other allies in Europe. Maybe the Kremlin doesn’t like these people very much, but it will cooperate with them – from big parties like the French National Front, to some small Flemish nationalists which agree to attend some conference or other, to be observers in the Crimean ‘referendum’ or something else. Europe, I think, should be interested in this.”

This year the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is celebrated in Russia at the state level. The elimination of fascism is spoken of in the past tense. The question of whether contemporary Russia will eliminate it now remains open.

Translated by: Mariya Shcherbinina
Edited by: Phil Cooke
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