Non-Islamic Extremism in Today’s Russia

12 october 2006

Nikolai Mitrokhin

Resume: 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.

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 phenomena.

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 widespread.

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 Caucasians.

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 arrest.

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 kerchiefs.

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

– the continuing social stratification of society;

– reforms in the social sphere;

– 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 skinheads;

– 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 extremists. 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 cemeteries.

These 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 boards.

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 fines.

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 elsewhere.

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 injuries.

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 acquitted.

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 area.

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 club.

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 propaganda.

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” opposition.

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 activities.

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 change.

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 driver.

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.

Last updated 12 october 2006, 20:24

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