Non-Islamic Extremism in Today’s Russia
No. 4 2006 October/ December

Extremism is a vague term. Even
the Russian Law on Counteraction to Extremist Activities fails to
clarify it, and therefore the legislation is rightly criticized by
human rights organizations. My personal opinion is that extremism
per se is a socio-political ideology that declares the right of
non-state organizations or private individuals to resort to
physical violence against particular segments of the population,
whether in their own country or on foreign territory, as well as
destroy physical (cultural) facilities. If we exclude the Islamic
factor, which is not discussed in this article, then violence
committed in Russia for socio-political motives (including ethnic
and religious ones) is represented by three groups of

Rightists and the National
Bolshevik Party.
The first group comprises right-wing
extremism, which is now waving the banner “Russia for the
Russians.” In Russia, there are now hundreds of organizations and
periodicals propagating Russian nationalism in its classical
“black-hundredist” [derived from the Black Hundred, a reactionary
movement in Russia in the early 20th century – Ed.] or
“Communist-patriotic” interpretations. Some of these organizations
publicly declare their extremist slogans. At the same time, there
is a considerable gap between these appeals and the desire to
translate them into reality.

Since contemporary Russia became
an independent state in 1991, right-wing extremism has undergone
some essential changes. In the period between 1991 and 1996,
rightist radicals clung to the hope that they would take over power
from the seemingly weak government of Boris Yeltsin. To this end,
they undertook preparatory actions; specifically, they formed and
trained paramilitary groups, which took part in the abortive coup
attempt in October 1993. Their main targets at that time were Jews
and democrats. After the 1996 presidential elections, however, the
right-wing organizations suffered an internal crisis. They realized
that the “anti-people” regime would remain in power for a long time
and that the authorities had even successfully borrowed some of the
slogans of the Russian nationalists. The rightist revolution would
have to be postponed.

A characteristic example of this
crisis was the breakup in 1999-2000 of the largest and best-known
black-hundredist organization – the Russian National Unity (RNU).
Presently, the RNU, which once had about 15,000 members, is split
into several competing organizations with a total membership of not
more than 4,000.

After 1996, the new generation of
right-wing extremists began to attack primarily those with a
“non-Slavic appearance” (for example, labor migrants and foreign
students). Nationalists implemented various methods to oust these
people from “traditionally Russian” cities. Since then, the level
of direct violence done to foreigners has sharply increased.
Pogroms and serial killings based on racial hatred – an absolutely
new phenomenon in the Russian cities – are now

Apart from a large number of
skinhead groups (not to mention sport hooligans, particularly
connected to the game of football, a subject that will be discussed
below), other major categories of right-wing extremists include
Cossack groups and small terrorist affiliations made up of veterans
of the “Slavic” wars of the first half of the 1990s (in
Transdniestria, Abkhazia and Serbia), as well as participants of
the coup attempt in Moscow in October 1993 and their followers. The
most notorious actions of the latter included grenade attacks on
the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1995 and 1999, an assassination
attempt on Anatoly Chubais, former Chief of Staff of the Russian
president and now Chief Executive Officer of Russia’s Unified
Energy Systems, and an explosion on a Grozny-Moscow train near
Moscow in 2005.

The Cossacks, who declared in the
1990s extremist ideas and participated in acts of violence, have
now largely abandoned these activities. The movement itself has
split into numerous groups. In order to continue enjoying benefits
received from the government or regional authorities, they refrain
from making extremist statements, such as promises to flog “bad”
journalists, a comment issued in 1992. At the same time, many
individuals from this movement still hold xenophobic views,
especially with regard to migrants. However, the translation of
extremist views embraced by some Cossack organizations into life is
now possible only if approved by the local authorities and at the
rural level. The Krasnodar Region is a characteristic example in
this respect – the actions of Cossack organizations into life there
add to police pressure on Meskhetian Turks and

Between the rightist and leftist
extremists there is a peculiar political phenomenon known as the
National Bolshevik Party led by Eduard Limonov. Apart from
proclaiming social slogans, it now defends the rights (interpreted
in its own specific way) of Russian-speaking populations in other
former Soviet republics and advocates the restoration of the Soviet
Union. The party has undergone various stages in its development.
From clamoring for a “national revolution” its members occasionally
found it necessary to switch to more practical actions, such as the
preparation of a Cossack uprising in North Kazakhstan. The party’s
loud statements had long drawn the attention of the Federal
Security Service (FSB). As a result of an FSB provocation (which
involved RNU members), the NBP leader and several of his supporters
were arrested in 2001. In early 2003, they were sentenced up to
four years imprisonment for the purchase of assault rifles and
munitions. In early 2005, they were all released.

Now the party implements the
tactics of token resistance, borrowing methods employed by some
leftists in Western Europe, such as throwing cake and oranges at
politicians and public figures it opposes, or smacking them in the
face with a bunch of flowers. There have also been temporary
seizures of administrative or other state buildings by party
activists. Considering Limonov’s struggle for retaining the party’s
legal status, such a transformation of the methods of the struggle
can be considered a positive outcome – although it was brought
about by pressure from the state.

Leftists. There
are many organizations, although their numbers are quite small,
that dream of carrying out another Communist revolution in Russia.
Their ideologies may differ essentially in details and in what
models to follow – from restoring the Soviet Union (with
characteristic Communist-patriotic rhetoric) to the construction of
a “truly” socialist state (be it anarchic, Communist, or the
people’s) as planned by Pyotr Kropotkin or Leon Trotsky (with
anti-Nazi slogans). Yet their passionate desire to “fight the
bourgeois” and socialize private property attests to their
ideological kinship. Many of these organizations use extremist
rhetoric in their public statements, but only a few have tried to
translate these ideas into life. In the past, such left-wing
extremists committed acts of terror against state institutions or
monuments in Moscow and its surroundings. In all the cases, the
perpetrators used explosives.

Following an investigation of
these crimes, police arrested members of two (possibly
interrelated) groups: RSFSR Revolutionary Military Council and New
Revolutionary Alternative. A member of another organization,
Vanguard of the Red Youth (AKM) – which is possibly the largest and
best-known leftist extremist organization with up to 500 members –
was also arrested and sent to a mental institution for treatment.
The organization officially denies it resorts to terrorist tactics
but is ready to defend left-wing terrorists after their

Activists of the AKM and other
leftist organizations occasionally clash with police during
demonstrations and are arrested. Generally speaking, it is only
insufficient membership that prevents these organizations from
repeating the mass disorders that took place in Russia in the
mid-1990s. At that time, the leftist radicals (for example, the
Student Defense organization) provoked three serious conflicts
between participants in antigovernment rallies and police. So, for
the time being, the AKM and other leftist radicals use mainly
peaceful methods to publicize their views, such as organizing
pickets, participating in rallies and demonstrating the seriousness
of their intentions – for example, by covering their faces with

The coming decade in Russia will
see growth in the number of leftist extremists for the following

– the continuing social
stratification of society;

– reforms in the social

– the “capitalist” image of the
existing social system;

– the increased influence of
religious organizations, above all the Russian Orthodox Church, on
the educational system, which provokes interest in atheistic
concepts in their radical interpretations;

– racism and other forms of ethnic
discrimination by law enforcement officers and by

– the ongoing dissemination of
extremist propaganda in leftist circles, in particular the
“historic” experience of Germany’s Red Army Faction (also commonly
known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, or simply RAF), Italy’s Red
Brigades, and the Latin American insurgent movements led by Che
Guevara and Subcomandante Marcos.

Non-Islamic religious
Unlike some other newly established states in
the former Soviet Union (Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova), Russia has not
witnessed incidences of physical violence on religious grounds.
This may be explained by Russia’s relatively undeveloped religious
culture (the majority of people who regularly attend church
services are elderly people and women), and by the relatively high
level of tolerance as compared with the above states.

At the same time, vandals often
damage religious structures that belong to the Russian Orthodox
Church or religious minorities. The damage is usually committed by
arson, window breaking, crude graffiti and the desecration of
tombstones. The latter three types of vandalism occur nearly every
day in this huge country, which has some 24,000 officially
registered religious organizations and tens of thousands of

activities are not part of some organized plan, except for cases of
arson, synagogue attacks, and occasional incidences at Protestant
houses of prayer. For the most part, however, these acts are the
work of groups of local teenagers who have failed to find a better
way to express themselves.

The few exceptions in the sphere
of religious extremism include the activities of the Committee for
Spiritual and Moral Revival of the Fatherland, led by Russian
Orthodox priest Alexander Shargunov. Activists of this
organization, who are also staff members of a Moscow church, in
2003 destroyed an exhibition called “Beware: Religion!” at the
Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow. The attackers claimed the
exhibition insulted their religious beliefs. This group is also
suspected of damaging or painting over “immodest” advertising

In another case that could be
attributed to religious extremism, a group destroyed an unfinished
Orthodox church in the city of Naberezhniye Chelny, Tatarstan,
which was being built at the site of a wooden chapel that had been
destroyed by arson. Three elderly women from the region, who are
members of a radical ethnic nationalist group called Tatar Public
Center, were found guilty of the crime and forced to pay

According to the Russian Orthodox
clergy, some teenagers that attack religious sites call themselves
Satanists or Neo-Pagans. Russian contemporary history knows at
least one case when a Satanist (an Afghan War veteran) killed three
monks in a large monastery, was detained and declared insane. The
majority of vandalism cases against religious buildings and
cemeteries remain unsolved and insufficiently documented by the
victims themselves. Oftentimes the latter are not interested in a
full investigation because it may reveal conflicts between the
religious community and local residents who are not always happy
about the construction of a new church or monastery (or a mosque or
a house of prayer). For example, the incident in Naberezhniye
Chelny involved not less than 30 World War II veterans and
pensioners who did not want to see a religious structure in their
park. The public nature of their actions (the destruction of the
church continued for an hour and a half and took place in the
daytime) did not allow the local authorities to hush up the
incident. Eventually, the authorities decided to build the church

Blaming such incidents on elusive
and “bad” Satanists makes it possible to maintain an outward
appearance of support of the “church of the majority” by “the
people.” This is why it is impossible to estimate the real scope of
danger posed by the activities of Satanists or Neo-Pagans with
regard to Christian religious communities.


Both rightist and leftist
extremist groups pose a certain danger. In moments of political
instability, their forces and influence can rapidly multiply. As
mentioned before, they are capable of committing acts of terrorism
and provoking mass disorders. Yet this is to speak of a
potentiality that is only occasionally implemented. Although the
extremist groups declare their “permanent readiness for a
revolutionary situation,” they are very small and disunited.
Special service agents have infiltrated these groups, and the law
enforcement bodies easily suppress them when they switch from
radical statements to acts of violence. And even when they resort
to acts of violence, buildings and structures become their primary
targets as opposed to people.

Presently, the real danger derives
from two closely interrelated communities that belong to the
right-wing flank of the political spectrum. These are the so-called
skinheads and sport hooligans (or fanaty –“hard-core fans”). These
extremist movements are the largest (experts estimate the number of
Russian skinheads alone at 50,000 people) and the most
violence-prone. In 2004 alone, the SOVA analytical center
registered at least 45 killings committed by skinheads (compared
with at least 20 killings in 2003), although the actual number of
such crimes is certainly much higher. The law enforcement agencies
prefer not to link the crimes of violence they investigate to
extremist groups. At the same time, the cases against specific
skinhead affiliations (for example, in Arkhangelsk, Perm, the
Moscow Region, St. Petersburg, and Tyumen) often reveal that
members of these groups committed serial killings on racial or
“social” (e.g., against vagrants) grounds.

In Russia, the number of people
attacked and injured by skinheads is very high and beyond
estimation. Since the late 1990s, the foreign embassies in Moscow
have repeatedly asked – collectively and separately – the Moscow
and federal authorities to protect their citizens, but these
requests have produced little result.

The skinhead movement has spread
to all large and medium-size cities in the Russian Federation. In
2001-2002, for the first time since the beginning of the 20th
century, Moscow and several other cities actually witnessed once
again ethnic pogroms. Groups consisting of several hundred people
smashed several street markets, assaulting and killing people with
a dark complexion.

Sports hooligans are no less
aggressive. Many soccer or ice hockey events – especially in the
premier leagues – end in riots between the supporters of the rival
teams. Very often, the fans will attack dark-skinned passers-by or
street vendors. Many of such attacks result in deaths or serious

Sports-related violence has
acquired such a scale that it is now perceived as the norm in
Russia. News reports frequently cover the trial of the latest group
of teenagers (usually between the ages of 16 to 18) who beat to
death people to “cleanse the town,” or another clash between
several hundred fans, which ended in two deaths and a dozen
injured. Although such stories are routinely presented among other
crime reports, in Western Europe or the United States they would be
front-page national news.

The recognition of such
developments as the norm in Russia, after the authorities were
reluctant to pay attention to the growth of large-scale extremist
affiliations for so long, is a source of serious concern. The
municipal authorities began to take measures to curb skinhead
activities only after skinheads and soccer fans organized mass
disorders in downtown Moscow in June 2002. Skinheads were suddenly
counted amongst “negative social types,” and the authorities
proceeded to launch “preventive measures,” promising trouble for
skinhead teenagers and their parents. Skinheads, dressed according
to the fashion of their subculture, began to experience
difficulties moving about the city after police, patrolling all
major junction points of the municipal transport, began to stop and
frisk such noticeable characters and conduct “pedagogical work”
with them. The lack of adequate statistics for the previous period
of skinhead activity, together with the reluctance of Moscow’s
police chiefs to officially recognize the existence of skinheads in
the city, makes it difficult to estimate the efficiency of this
crime prevention tactic. Yet the number of “canonically” dressed
skinheads has markedly decreased. Over the last two years, they
have not organized a single large pogrom, while the organizers of
some of the former pogroms have been brought to trial – although
they have been sentenced to minimum terms or even

The authorities in other Russian
cities, where skinheads failed to provoke mass riots, do not engage
in regular counteraction operations against them. The Kremlin
continues to ignore the problem, although it resorts to anti-Nazi
rhetoric in denouncing countries that once were part of the Soviet
bloc. The federal and regional authorities still cherish the
illusion that they can organize and control a mass youth patriotic
movement. Such a movement must “prepare young people for the Army”
(that is, foster sporting skills, tenacity and controlled
aggressiveness) and teach them to “love their Motherland” (that is,
support their state implicitly).

This particular Russian illusion
has a long history. In the late 1950s and the 1960s, the
authorities organized “brigades of assistance to the police,” which
were subordinate to the Interior Ministry and regional committees
of the Young Communist League. Brigade members beat and humiliated
stilyagi (Soviet bohemian types interested in Western fashions and
music) and “hooligans” (members of street gangs) to force them to
give up their asocial appearance and behavior. The same brigades
used punitive measures against females who socialized with
foreigners. In the 1980s, a group of teenagers from underground
weight-training clubs in Moscow surroundings, known as lyubery,
took on a similar role and ideology under the auspices of the local
police. In a span of no less than three years, this group beat and
robbed members of the “pro-Western” youth subculture, yet not a
single case was investigated to the end. Later, lyubery became one
of the strongest criminal communities in the Moscow

In the early and mid-1990s,
aggressive teenagers from working-class neighborhoods successfully
integrated into numerous criminal groups, releasing their
aggression in mutual feuds. Characteristically, the number of
soccer fans sharply decreased at that time: even matches between
the most popular soccer teams regularly attracted a mere 2,000 to
3,000 fans. Yet, as criminal groups turned into legal or semi-legal
business structures and yielded zones of their influence to the law
enforcement bodies (which became the largest protection racket),
the younger generation from the working-class neighborhoods and
poor suburbs had less opportunities for “bandit socialization.” At
the same time, these young people could not join the law
enforcement bodies due to their age and because they did not have
the required military service record.

The beginning of Vladimir Putin’s
presidency was marked by an effort to reinvigorate a youth
patriotic movement. They chose the realm of sports as an essential
feature of a new state ideology, especially since the new president
had the image of a sporting and even tough man. The government
boosted funding for athletes and launched a nationwide campaign to
enhance the image of sports in the state-controlled mass media. The
exaggerated rivalry between Russian and foreign athletes,
characteristic of Soviet times, rose to the surface once again.
Russian victories and defeats began to be described in terms of
state achievements and anti-Russian conspiracies.

Sports clubs, bought by strategic
investors in the second half of the 1990s, were highly interested
in boosting the number of their fans, which brought them more
profits. Putin’s desire to popularize sports in the country
provided them with additional political support. Against this
background, the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service
(FSB) took no notice of the mass altercations and attacks on
dark-skinned or Asian-looking people, which took place after almost
every match. As a rule, the instigators of those attacks remained
unpunished – that is, as long as they did not inflict serious
damage on the law enforcement officers, of course.

Official fans’ organizations
supported by sports clubs are now actually part of the sports
business. However, they are unable to control the behavior of what
they call “quasi-sports hooligans,” just as they have failed to
control the consumption of alcoholic drinks by minors at the
stadium. On the contrary, they are highly interested in increasing
the number of supporters of their team, regardless who these
supporters are – even though some groups of fans have for at least
a decade declared themselves to be “fighting units” specially set
up to organize brawls. The only requirement for the fans is that
they refrain from any display of aggression in the stands, which
may result in the termination of the match and penalties for the

The rampant proliferation of
sports propaganda was curbed only after thousands of drunken soccer
fans rampaged through downtown Moscow on June 9, 2002, following
Russia’s defeat by Japan in the World Cup finals. Many soccer fans
were watching the match on a giant outdoor screen on Manezhnaya
Square near the Kremlin. Angered by the defeat, they damaged and
set fire to dozens of cars, smashed shop windows and even tried to
break into the State Duma building. Yet support for the fans’
movement continued, including through the efforts of state

It is difficult to organize
rank-and-file fans for political demonstrations; they seem to be
only capable of engaging in post-match disturbances or hunting down
members of rival groups. However, the rallying point of the
movement, above all amongst the groups of “street fighters,” made
it possible to involve them (along with “young sportsmen”) in newly
established pro-presidential anti-democratic organizations, such as
Idushchiye Vmeste (“Going Together”) and their tougher variant,
Nashi (“Ours”), sponsored by the presidential administration. The
movement’s organizers planned Nashi to prevent by force all
possible mass demonstrations by the “pro-Western”

There is no doubt that Nashi
actively cooperates with the Interior Ministry in this issue, which
follows, for example, from the coordination of actions between the
Interior Ministry and fan groups in suppressing the National
Bolshevik Party in 2005. At present, the authorities view the NBP
as part of extra-system opposition and a potential organizing
element of an “orange revolution.” This is why it is being
consistently destroyed by administrative and extrajudicial methods
(such as the expulsion of NBP organizations from headquarters
buildings, or the inspection and seizure of party documents), taken
by the Interior Ministry, and by criminal actions, such as the
beating of NBP activists by unknown people using baseball bats and
stun guns. NBP activists and journalists who investigated the
attacks found out, however, that members of the Gladiators group –
fans of the Spartak Moscow soccer club – carried out some of the
attacks in 2005. Meanwhile, the individual who organized the
attacks is known not only as an ardent soccer fan, but also as the
head of the Nashi movement’s regional development program.
Furthermore, agents of the Russian Communist Party allegedly
spotted several of the Gladiators in the summer of 2005, wearing
guns, among members of a private security agency employed to
protect a Nashi congress on Lake Seliger. But even there they
continued to hunt down and beat members of rival fan groups, which
caused a scandal. Then there are reports that Alexei Mitryushin,
the leader of another radical fan group, Gallant Steeds, which
supports the CSKA sports club and whose magazine in the early 2000s
published pro-Nazi articles, was discovered by a journalist of a
quasi-government newspaper as the actual head of the Nashi
movement’s Moscow organization.


The lenience displayed by the
federal and local political leadership and law enforcement bodies
toward mass extremist movements – skinheads and sports fans –
prevents them from taking specific measures to localize and
suppress asocial and often criminal extremist

Despite the mass character of the
aforementioned movements, there are only a few staunch supporters
of outright violence, ready to operate in unfavorable conditions
and “sacrifice” themselves. Attempts by Russian nationalists of the
“black-hundredist” type to enlist the many thousands of members of
the skinhead movement, sharing their hatred toward Jews and
“blacks,” have failed. Likewise, the hopes of the skinhead
ideologists that the sports fans would embrace their ideology,
thereby replenishing the skinhead movement, have not been
fulfilled. The reason is that participation in street gangs and
especially in street violence has a socializing effect, as it lets
an aggressive teenager grow in the estimation of his friends, who
give him the privilege to join their “yard games.” When he grows up
and moves from his yard company to another social cell, the former
skinhead, as a rule, will lose the motivation to participate in a
radical movement, although he preserves some of his former
convictions. But since mythologies supporting these convictions are
so primitive and poorly grounded ideologically, the political views
of the former skinheads (not to mention sports fans) could always

Therefore, it is possible that
manifestations of extremism and physical violence will decrease,
although factors arousing such manifestations are expected to
persist in the medium term. These factors include social
stratification, intensive migration, and the isolationist and even
xenophobic rhetoric of the federal center. The authorities in a
large number of regions, as well as the mass media, which often use
the “language of enmity” on their own initiative, are other
contributing factors.

The first set of measures that
must be taken is obvious: the observance of the existing
legislation, which calls for the consistent punishment of those who
commit physical violence for “socio-political” motives, as well as
those who propagandize extremism.

However, one can hardly expect a
consistent policy in this sphere while a significant number of law
enforcement officers support extremist views. Society as a whole,
together with a large part of the political elite, admits that the
degree of corruption and inefficiency of the security agencies has
reached intolerable proportions. Measures for the medium term must
include the re-certification of members of the law enforcement and
security agencies, fighting corruption within these organizations
and reducing their personnel. This long-awaited reform must reveal
those officers who support extremist groups or are guided by
extremist views in their work. These officers must be dismissed,
together with their views (for example, their attitude to
migrants). This must be achieved through harsher administrative
control inside the law enforcement agencies, together with the
retraining of active officers. Finally, there must be a change in
the ideological content of the cadet-training process.

Another set of measures must
target the educational system in the country as a whole, and
secondary schools in particular. According to the Law on Education,
the educational system of Russia rests on a humanistic ideology,
but neither teachers nor pupils understand what this means when the
country lacks a clearly formulated state ideology. The surviving
generation of Soviet teachers maintains humanistic traditions (such
as “friendship among peoples” and the protection of and assistance
to the weak), although they teach these ideas in rather outdated
forms. However, the younger generation of teachers does not receive
a regular humanistic education and, therefore, is unable to share
it with their pupils. On the other hand, young teachers and public
sector staff with a higher education are susceptible to embrace and
propagandize leftist ideas, which will inevitably grow stronger
among the opponents of “capitalist society.” Therefore,
strengthening the humanistic content of a pedagogical education,
thereby ensuring its conveyance from teachers to pupils, is now a
major strategic task.


There are doubts, however, that
these measures can be implemented in the current political
situation. After the dramatic events of autumn 2004 (the terrorist
attack on a school in Beslan, and the Orange Revolution in
Ukraine), the Russian elite has made a choice in favor of a
right-wing conservative and isolationist ideology and policy, which
is reminiscent of the era of McCarthyism in the United States. The
authorities and large national capital defend their property and
domestic market from strangers and occasionally expand, if need be.
The middle class, after a long period of relative poverty, now
consumes with pleasure ever new kinds of goods and services and,
therefore, prefers not to pay attention to social conflicts and
even violations of democratic freedoms. Internal and external
migrants with a dark complexion risk falling victim to
Ku-Klux-Clan-type organizations or racist police, yet this risk is
compensated for by their ability to find a “promising and payable”
job in Russia, such as a construction worker or a streetcar

If the present situation in the
Russian economy persists, then the backwardness and unsettled
social conflicts inside the country, a contributor to growing
extremist activity, can continue for at least another decade until
well-fed and dauntless children of the middle class and colored
gastarbeiters receive a higher education, thus providing all the
necessary conditions for another explosive 1968.