Putin’s Teens Gleefully Fight Fascism
Justin E. H. Smith
What does it mean to be ‘antifascist’? Is this position laudable by definition, or is it just as prone to sinister deformation as any other?
Here in Berlin the meaning of ‘Antifa’ appears crystal clear: it applies to the squatters of Neukölln and Friedrichshain, the pierced-faced riff-raff out to cause trouble and have fun at G8 summits, the gays and lesbians throat-kissing on the U-Bahn platforms in full sight of awkward and silenced Turkish families, the humane defenders of immigrant workers against the thuggery of former-DDR skinheads, the proud drinkers of politically correct beverages such as Afri-Cola, the jubilant blonde supporters of Brazil’s sinewy dark-skinned heroes in their World Cup match against Germany itself. That is, German antifascists are against big capital, nationalism, racism, and the constriction of individual liberties, even where the exercise of these might offend tradition. We can of course argue about whether these kids should really be getting away with not paying rent, and about whether the evils of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola really have much in common with the evils of Dachau and Buchenwald, but one thing is clear: as far as their view of their own national identity relative to others goes, the prevailing ethos of today’s German youth is genuinely antifascist. Things could not be more different in Russia.
I first came to realize that the Cold War was not at all over when, on a night train from the Russian Baltic colony of Kaliningrad to Berlin in 1999, I found myself stuck in a compartment with a drunk and obese Russian man. At some point, my neighbor got it into his head that he would be more comfortable shirtless, thus revealing a gross collage of prison tattoos carved into his massive rolls of fat. He and his scrawny friend with no teeth had a crate full of Ostmark beer to drink, and a bag of sausages and tomatoes. They sang for hours what sounded like army songs, talked rudely of Russian women, and, when the little fellow dozed off momentarily, the big lug responded by vomiting out his beer and sausage and tomatoes upon the floor.
It was at this point that I went to complain to the diminutive Polish steward, who replied sensibly that he knew better than to make trouble with a brute like the one with whom luck had stuck me for the night. I returned to the compartment and discovered that the two friends had quarreled. The big one had gone to throw out the paper towels with which he had sloppily attempted to clean up his mess. It reeked, but at least he was gone. I had an idea. I slammed the compartment door shut and locked it. The skinny friend signaled his approval. We opened the window wide and did the best we could to breathe.
When the fat friend came back he was of course furious, not so much at his little mate, whose ruse he seemed to think was all in good fun, but only at me. “Fashist! Fashist!,” he bellowed, marching back and forth in the corridor making Hitler salutes. “Proklyatyi nemets [Damned German], I’m gonna slit your fucking throat!” “I’m not German,” I said, but it didn’t matter. He grew tired, and collapsed on the floor outside the compartment. Periodically he would get back up, grow enraged all on his own, and begin to bang on the door and shout “Fashist.” That is an odd use of the term, I thought to myself.
There would be no sleep that night. When I finally stepped out into Berlin’s Ostbahnhof, within minutes I could feel my bowels starting to move. It had been more than a week. After a squalid, 24-hour train ride following upon a stressful eight-day stay in what remains perhaps the most Soviet city in the world, where I had been able to eat scarcely anything but white bread and potatoes, where every small-time money-changing booth is guarded by some rough goon with an automatic weapon and a black t-shirt bearing the English word ‘SECURITY’, where on the street still featuring the name of the KGB mastermind Feliks Dzerzhinsky women with fat ankles porting enormous sacks of potatoes will still avert their eyes in fear if you attempt to ask them for directions– after all of this, my sense of relief was deep and corporeal. Even my lowly colon knew the difference between Russia and the West, yet the politicians and the analysts were carrying on as though that were all ancient history.
I should have figured it out sooner. A few years prior I had been the roommate, in a small German university town, of a young Russian physicist. Yebannaya Germaniya, he would complain after the slightest frustration during his day at the university. Mne nadoeli eti fashisty. [Fucking Germany. I’ve had it with these fascists.] His principle complaints, if I recall correctly, were that the Germans’ paprika-flavored Doritos were too spicy, and that his colleagues at the lab were not interested in looking at zoophile porn on the Internet with him.
But surely ‘fascist’ must still mean something more than that? Apparently not, if we look to
Nashi, the latest pro-Putin youth group to emerge in recent years, for our enlightenment.
The word means ‘ours’, and it is in the nominative plural. That is to say, there is more than one thing that is ‘ours’, but nowhere in the literature is a precise inventory offered. The clean teens of Nashi are, as we learn from the ‘Ideologiia’ section of their website, strong defenders of tradition, of respect for parental and political authority, strong opponents of corrupt morality (sex, drugs, laziness), and wary watchers of the non-Russian peoples within Russia’s boundaries. In view of all this, one might be surprised to learn that they are also the staunch opponents of something they call ‘fascism’.
At the same site, we hear from a division of Nashi youth in Ivanovo, reporting with pride that it has succeeded in removing every last spray-painted swastika from the walls of this besieged city. We read effusive praise for Putin’s management of the situation in Chechnya. And we find no shortage of images of teens who most closely resemble those you might find at a Christian pop concert in Kansas (though the clothing would schedule the concert circa 1988: for all its billionaires buying up designer brands, sartorially Moscow still lags behind Wichita by at least a few decades), or maybe some fundamentalist abstinence rally, in any case an event at which the level of enthusiasm cannot be entirely explained by the sheer goodness of the thing celebrated. Whether it is a Midwestern stadium filled with Promise Keepers or a teen pep rally orchestrated by Putin’s aides, Kraft durch Freude seems to be the guiding principle of all such events, and that is why thinking people are frightened of them.
But what is most incongruous in the photos on Nashi’s website are the numerous signs and symbols of their pronounced commitment to antifascism, even their adoption from the hardcore German Left of the abbreviation “antifa”, as in the cutesy logo above. Somehow, when these six letters are transliterated into Cyrillic, the word takes on a quite different meaning. For the fascism in question is not that of immigrant-bashing skinheads, but rather that espoused by Eduard Limonov, the founder of the so-called National Bolshevik Party.
In an earlier stage of life, Limonov was the author of a curious and occasionally touching novel with the absurdly infantile title Eto ya- Edichka! [It’s Me: Eddy!]. In it, the scarcely disguised narrator describes his years in New York in the 1970s as a political refugee from the Soviet Union. His account of how he works his way into bed with an activist beauty from Long Island by convincing her of his proletarian cred almost rises to the level of a Bukowski, and just to see such a thing coming out of Russia in that period was at least an interesting novelty. The novel is perhaps best remembered for the chapter in which its hero, in the aim of living life to the fullest, or something, has anal sex with a homeless man in a New York alley. It was for this that Solzhenitsyn, once the very conscience of Russia in exile, denounced Limonov as “that little insect who writes pornography.” One would have thought that such a candid tale of ‘70s excess would have disqualified Limonov from the role of fascist leader, but his followers seem to take it in stride, and even to celebrate their hero’s flaunting of ordinary morality.
And in any case fascism, as an actual political program, seems to have little do with the Limonov phenomenon. I sat and spoke with Limonov in Moscow in 1996. Hoping to loosen him up a bit, I thought I would start with a few questions about New York. I asked him if he’d been to CBGB in the club’s golden age. He was ready to play up his own myth, and talked about the ‘70s New York music scene with astounding authenticity. It struck me at the time –and nothing since has disconfirmed this impression— that Limonov is but a performance artist and an opportunist, who borrows some elements of his routine from early 20th-century fascist iconography, others from Trotsky, and most from Dada and punk rock. Yet the Putin regime is concerned enough about this jester to have convinced his youth cadres of the urgent need to silence him.
Why? Again, the answer seems to have very little to do with any real concern about the rise of fascism; indeed, that would be impossible, considering that the mission statement of Nashi describes a program that is, if not itself fascist, at least a neo-Czarist, autocratic, statist cousin of fascism. Thus in Russia we find a curious state of affairs, in which the leading fascist is a counterculture rebel, while the antifascists are the ones promoting hygiene, order, tradition, hard work, respect for elders, and all those other suspicious ends. As reported in an informative New York Times article of July 8 (“Youth Groups Created by Kremlin Serve Putin’s Cause in the Streets”): “Nashi’s platform is defined by its unwavering devotion to Mr. Putin and by the intensity of its hostility toward his critics, including his former prime minister, Mikhail M. Kasyanov, the former chess champion Garry Kasparov and a nationalist writer, Eduard Limonov. Nashi’s members denounce the opposition leaders as fascists with a fervor that can be disquieting.”
According to a 2005 report on Nashi from the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (they still exist, though these days, like the NAACP, they prefer not to spell out their acronym), the goal of the new ‘anti-fascist’ movement is to put an end to the “anti-Fatherland union of oligarchs, anti-Semites, Nazis, and liberals” (note the astounding heterogeneity of this list). Critics of the movement, the report continues, claim its chief aim is to prevent Russian youth being infected by the liberal ideas that helped produce the Orange Revolution in neighbouring Ukraine. Confirming the NCSJ’s reading of the Nashi phenomenon, a 2005 article in Moskovskii Komsomolets quotes a leader of Idushchie vmeste [“Walking Together,” a pro-Putin group that preceded Nashi] who fears that “organizations in Russia are growing, on the basis of which the U.S. will create groups analogous to Serbia’s Otpor [that is, the democratic, anti-Milosevic reform movement], Georgia’s Kmara, or Ukraine’s Pora [that is, the youth movement that helped to bring about the Orange Revolution]. These groups are Eduard Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party and Avant Garde Red Youth.”
The italics in the concluding sentence are mine, for it is here that we begin to see how little it all adds up. Whatever Limonov is promoting, it is nothing like the liberal reformist platform of the Serbian Otpor movement. In fact, Limonov remains a staunch defender of Serbian ultranationalism, and in 1991 was caught on video with the warlord Radovan Karadzic firing shells into Sarajevo. When I spoke with him in 1996, this incident seemed to be shelved in his mind right alongside the encounter in the New York alley, as just another moment in his long quest to live life to the fullest. But to the extent that he has political convictions at all, rather than just a sense of showmanship, Limonov remains a pan-Slavist and a nationalist, and has nothing at all in common with the democratic activists of whom the Putin regime is equally afraid.
Again, Limonov is a foolish extremist, and the world is worse off with him in it, but this is not why the Nashi youth have been called into battle against him and his minions. For them, Limonov is a threat of exactly the same caliber as Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion who founded the United Civil Front to push for true electoral democracy in Russia, or as the kids styling themselves the ‘Avant Garde Red Youth’, or as the democratic reform movements of Ukraine, Georgia, and Serbia. All of these motley groupings –some admirable, some not– have been elided under the heading of extremism, and often, however implausibly, under that of fascist extremism, on the sole basis of their opposition to the Putin regime.
In fact, as of October, 2006, after a hearing of the Federation Council dubbed ‘Condition and Problems of Legislative Guarantees for Combating Extremism in the Youth Sphere,’ extremism is now legally defined in Russia to include not only political violence, but, as the newspaper Kommersant reports, “any action by a radical opposition organization” (“Authorities Find Way to Fight Extremism,” October 26, 2006). But radical opposition, as opposed to healthy democratic opposition, is nowhere clearly defined, and seems to include democratic liberalism as well as fascism. Opposition parties of any sort are the real threat, and it just so happens that under the circumstances virtually the only opposition leaders crazy enough to continue making noise are the extremists like Limonov. By grouping all opposition under the heading of extremism, Putin has effectively made democratic opposition impossible.
As an American individualist, I have always been of the opinion that youth groups are, well, for kids, and in my reading of the news I am all too ready to dismiss their contribution to world history. I did spend a year in the Cub Scouts, with a pill-popping housewife as our troop leader, who let us lounge around on the shag carpet and take turns in the vibrating egg-shaped chair as she blankly soaked up the romance of General Hospital and as her soon-to-be out-of-the-closet son tried out perfume samples on our wrists. But after that annus mirabilis my voice began to crack and I was forced out into the harsh Hobbesean reality of the Boy Scouts, the big boys, where I was barked at without rest by a gruff Vietnam Vet with a massive tool belt who did not like the way I was pitching my tent, or something, and surrounded by crude little conscripts bearing slogans on their t-shirts such as “Kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out.” No, it was not for me to earn an Eagle Scout badge. But I believe it is important to attempt to understand the role of these indoctrination camps, and their counterparts elsewhere, for the formation of future political classes.
In all honesty, I find myself far more unsettled by earnest Eagle Scouts than by the rebellious youth who venture out to an Oi! concert or an NBP rally and irresponsibly flirt with fascist iconography. The former are bound for power, and unreflectively convinced of their inborne right to it. They find joy in pitching their tents and tying their knots just as commanded, and they are conditioned to believe that the accomplishment of these tasks somehow reveals their enviable position in the natural hierarchy of men. The latter know they don’t have it, and teem with an outsider anger that, helped along by a leader more mature than Limonov, can be a very creative thing. “Strength through Joy,” went the slogan of the Nazis’ leisure camps, and it echoes wherever too much pep is exhibited for a part of life (politics, premarital abstinence, monogamy) that can at best only be a solemn duty. “Strength through Oi!” was the title of the 1981 skinhead hardcore album compiled by Gary Bushell, playing on the fortuitous rhyme between the English word for “Freude” and the chant of choice at punk concerts frequented by UK skinheads. The slogan dating from the 1930s is sinister; it suits a world in which I want no part. The slogan from the 1980s is kind of funny. I’ll take “Oi!” over “Joy!” any day, and any limonovets over any nashist. And what about Putin and Limonov themselves? May the devil take them, as the Russian saying goes.
Berlin, July 17, 2007
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.