How the regime carries on the fight against Russian nationalists amid the war in Ukraine
March 25, 2023
  • Natalia Yudina

    Expert, SOVA Center
Natalia Yudina describes how law enforcement’s approach to dealing with the ultra-right in Russia is evolving, even as one of the goals of the “special military operation” was “denazification.”
The number of participants in the annual “Russian March” declined fourteen fold between 2013 and 2019. In the photo: the Russian March in Moscow, 2019. Source: Wiki Commons
The decline of the Russian nationalist movement began back in 2012 and became obvious after the 2014 annexation of Crimea when nationalists split over the “Ukraine issue”. After the beginning of the “special military operation” in February 2022 Russian nationalist oppositionist political organizations faced a deep crisis, while the ones loyal to the regime were in a state of stagnation.

Activity of radical nationalists dropping off

The collapse of the oppositionist part of the Russian nationalist movement can be seen at least from the sharp decrease in the number of participants in the annual “Russian March” every November 4: in 2019 (that is, before the pandemic ban on public events), 14 times fewer people attended than in 2013. Note that the drop-off in activity among backers of Ukraine was much more precipitous than among DNR/LNR-backers. All that time, the state actively suppressed any street activity of the ultra-right, especially “pro-Ukraine” rightists. Still, the issue was not only their leanings toward Kyiv, but also their greater radicalism than most DNR/LNR-backers.

However, the authorities did not in any way encourage political activity by regime-loyal nationalist organizations either. In 2020-21 all their efforts to raise their political activity were blocked by the Kremlin. For example, in the fall of 2020, Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian businessman and ultra-conservative political figure, made over his organization Double-Headed Eagle as Tsargrad, bringing in a number of small groups and several well-known people from the Izborsky Club and signing a cooperation agreement with the Union of Donbas Volunteers. However, a political alliance with the Motherland party, which would have allowed Malofeev’s coalition to take part in elections, was not sanctioned by the authorities. In January 2021, a merger was completed between the degrading A Just Russia party and two spin-doctor projects with a nationalist flavor: the Patriots of Russia party and Zakhar Prilepin’s personal party For Truth. Still, this did not radicalize A Just Russia: the “Prilepin’s Guards” organization created specially for this occasion proved very weak.

Since February 24, 2022, the conflict in Ukraine has pushed all other issues off the agenda, and that is true for Russian nationalists too. Their views, as in 2014, split, though this time the majority of the ultra-right ended up supporting the “special operation,” even if many of them have harshly criticized how it is being conducted.

While the authorities have worked to hinder the political activity of nationalists who support the “special operation,” the activity of ultra-right backers of Ukraine had been just about stamped out by the beginning of 2022, and inside Russia their opposition to the war has been almost invisible. In addition, we hardly know cases of Russian ultra-righters leaving to fight on the side of Ukraine. As for acts of sabotage inside Russia, there have been arsons targeting military registration and enlistment offices, for example, some of which were committed by the far right, though clearly not most of them.
"The Russian authorities seem to see the threat not so much in ideological radicalism as such, whether right or left, but rather in the radicalization of any oppositionist activity, which they think could undermine stability."
“Extremist statements,” along with involvement in “extremist associations” and hate crimes, whether it is violence against people or vandalism, are qualified in Russia as “crimes of extremist nature”
An exaggerated perception of the role that the Ukrainian ultra-right played in the Maidan of 2013-14 is likely also a factor. As the regime sees it, its anti-extremist policy is aimed precisely at preventing any form of? Radicalization of any kind, while it has been Russian nationalists who have been targeted more often than others.

How speech is being persecuted

The constitutional reform and clashes between Alexei Navalny’s supporters and the police during the 2019-20 protests led to a sharp rise in persecution for speech. For example, in 2021 (with the average investigation lasting about a year), the number of sentences for “extremist statements,” according to Supreme Court data, jumped 70% versus 2020. This is mostly attributable to accusations of “incitement to extremist and terrorist acts” and to a lesser extent of “inciting hatred,” as well as “justifying Nazism,” “disrespecting military symbols” and “disrespecting the feelings of believers.”

In 2021, there was no major uptick in new criminal cases brought over speech. However, 2022 definitely saw one. And that does not have so much to do with the new Criminal Code articles on “fakes” and “discrediting the army” (on March 4, 2022, new repressive statutes were adopted and signed into law – among them are two criminal articles on spreading knowingly false information about the Russian army and government officials abroad generally and about discrediting them) – as there are still few cases. According to Ministry of Internal Affairs data, there were 40% more cases solved under the article on “incitement to terrorism” and “justification of terrorism” than the year before. Meanwhile, the number of solved cases dealing with “calls for extremist acts” also rose, but to a much lesser extent.

The SOVA Center was able to collect data on 244 convictions for “extremist statements” against 260 people in 62 regions of the country ( this is about half of all those convicted in 2022, calculated as a projection of the Supreme Court data on the first half of 2022) ,. Still, even based on this we can see the qualitative shift that has taken place since 2020, when such persecution started to pick up.

In 2020, judging by the convictions in 2021, law enforcement’s focus shifted significantly:
"There were many more convictions for aggressive statements against government officials (primarily against the police and siloviki), with the share of such sentences exceeding that of sentences for xenophobia for the first time."

This trend continued through 2022.

There is good reason to believe that this trend will continue when the 2022 cases are sentenced. That said, in most cases we are aware of, a call for violence did take place, though the danger it presented to society, in terms of form and circumstances, was most often minimal: for example, the person’s audience was rather small or his statements were vague, like “we need a revolution.”

It is impossible to determine the proportion of nationalists among the total number of those accused and convicted for making “extremist statements,” but they are clearly not the majority. Note that there have also been cases when nationalists were convicted not for their rather radical, xenophobic agitation, but for vague calls for regime change.

Besides the political activism of nationalists, a milieu of “autonomous neo-Nazis” who are keener on violence as a political means has to some extent continued to exist in Russia. Such groups have the attention of law enforcement agencies as well.

Prosecution of hate crimes and organizations committing hate crimes

The number of violent hate crimes is 8-10 times lower in 2022 than the peaks at the end of the 2000s: since 2016, the number of victims we are aware of (no official data exists) has fallen to 100 or fewer per year. In 2022, according to SOVA Center data, 27 people suffered from ideologically motivated violence (though the figure will be updated).

However, law enforcement has not stopped there. In 2021, the number of people convicted of violent hate crimes known to the SOVA Center rose: in 10 regions, at least 10 such convictions were handed down, with 35 people were found guilty. In 2022, we already know of about 10 convictions, with 22 people found guilty.

Some of these convictions are for very old cases. For example, in 2022, veterans of the ultra-right movement Sergei Marshakov (who started out as a member of the Skin Legion group) and Maxim Aristarkhov (Format-18 group) received additional terms for a murder captured in a popular neo-Nazi video in 2007. Members of new, only recently destroyed, neo-Nazi gangs also ended up behind bars in 2022. For example, in Belgorod, three members of the White City 31 group were sentenced to prison for a number of racist attacks on foreigners from Syria, China and other countries in 2019-20. In Astrakhan, the leader of the Astrakhan National Movement group received seven years in prison, including for hate-motivated attacks.

Ever since the Artpodgotovka movement was shut down in 2017, the authorities have been most actively going after organized groups of nationalists. One of their main tools is to ban the organizations as “extremist” or “terrorist,” which makes any continuation of their activity a crime.

The Male State movement, which promotes “racial purity” and radical misogyny, was declared an extremist organization and banned in Russia in October 2021. In the photo: founder Vladislav Pozdnyakov (Pozdnyakov left Russia in 2019). Source: VK

In 2021, several well-known far-right organizations were banned at once. The most notable was the Male State movement, which promotes “national patriarchy,” racial purity, and radical misogyny. Also banned were the neo-pagan Siberian Sovereign Union, the group Citizens of the USSR (the name of an amorphous combination of conspiracy groups who believe that the USSR still exists) in Krasnodar – infamous for its attempt to organize the murder of a rabbi – and two neo-Nazi outfits that made waves in the 2010s, NS/WP and Nevograd.

In 2022, there were fewer injunctions against Russian ultra-right organizations – only the People’s Union of the Russian Movement (NORD) in Omsk and Project Shturm in Perm. Two groups affiliated with Citizens of the USSR and four Ukrainian organizations, including the Azov regiment, were also banned.

Overall, the number of convictions for involvement in extremist and terrorist communities and organizations – when that was the main charge – rose by almost a quarter to 233 people in 2021, according to Supreme Court data, and by about a third in 2022.

In 2022, the SOVA Center knew of 78 people convicted of involvement in extremist and terrorist communities and organizations, excluding those who were clearly unfairly convicted. There were 26 Russian nationalists among the 78, roughly a third. In 2021, with the same approach, we put the proportion of Russian nationalists at about two thirds, 19 out of 32 convicted.

In 2022, members of the following Russian nationalist organizations (among others) were convicted:
  • National Revival Path of Russian Patriotism (NVSRP) – for planning attacks on police, people who do not look Slavic and LGBT+ people;
  • United Russian National Party (ERNP) – for propagating symbols and posting leaflets with symbols “outwardly similar to the emblem of the troops of Nazi Germany;” several attacks were also reported on passers-by who were thought to “lead asocial lifestyles” and on “representatives of informal subcultures;”
  • Astrakhan National Movement – for several hate-motivated attacks and a number of acts of ideologically-inspired vandalism;
  • Sakhalin Tactical Club of Nationalists (STCN) – for possession of weapons and explosives and training to commit a terrorist attack;
  • Various Citizens of the USSR splinters, including the self-proclaimed “president of the USSR” Sergei Taraskin – for publishing materials of the USSR organization on VK and distributing leaflets that contained calls for violent acts.

As one might expect, sentences were also passed for involvement in Ukrainian organizations banned in Russia: five people were convicted for calling to join Pravyi sektor (Right Sector), though it is unknown whether they were nationalists.

The biggest new group case of 2022 was clearly related to the war. In April, five members of the neo-Nazi organization NS/WP (National Socialism/White Power), banned in Russia, were arrested on the suspicion that, among other things, they planned “on the orders of the Security Service of Ukraine to assassinate the public figure, well-known journalist Vladimir Solovyov” and discussed the assassination of other prominent propagandists (Dmitri Kiselev, Olga Skabeeva, Margarita Simonyan and Tigran Keosayan). Among the detained were previously convicted neo-Nazis, including the supposed leader of the group, the onetime active NS/WP member Andrei (“Bloodman”) Pronsky.

Later, in June, a sixth suspect in the case was detained in Moscow. He was reported to have been on the run for a month and a half, during which time he supposedly set fire to several military registration and enlistment offices. Following press reports of the arrests, a far-right Telegram channel published a statement on behalf of NS/WP that confirmed the detainees’ membership in the organization while denying any connection with Ukrainian security forces or special services. In addition, on April 20 – Hitler’s birthday – the SOVA Center received an email titled “NS/WP WE’RE BACK” in which NS/WP claimed responsibility for setting fire to cars with the letter Z.

During 2021-22, law enforcement hunted down members of the Maniacs – Cult of Killers (MKU) group, with detentions continuing in 2023. MKU was founded in 2017 by Yegor Krasnov, a neo-Nazi from Dnipro (where he had been behind bars for a long time) and operated in Russia and Ukraine (there were members in other countries as well). It adhered to the ideology of people-hate, elements of which were widespread in the neo-Nazi movement at least in the last decade and a half. It is still difficult to say how many and what crimes its members committed, but MKU became famous for its Telegram channel featuring calls for murder, false reports of terrorist attacks, and videos with edited scenes of violence.

In 2022, the first sentences were handed down for members of right-wing radical groups who were previously detained in connection with MKU. And in January 2023, the Supreme Court declared MKU a terrorist organization. The decision has already come into force, so arrests simply for continuing the group’s activity are now possible.

What can be expected from law enforcement moving forward?

It is not yet possible to assess what changes took place in the past year: criminal investigations and preparations for banning organizations take a long time, meaning court decisions lag changes in anti-extremist policy, with little known about ongoing investigations.
"The kick start to anti-extremist actions that seemed to take place in 2020 led to a jump in the number of court decisions in 2021."
In 2022, the number of registered “crimes of extremist nature” was up 50%, meaning 2023 should see a new, significant rise in the number of sentences. To what extent nationalists were affected by the intensified repression in the first year of the conflict will become clear only by the end of the year.

Since the “denazification of Ukraine” was named as one of the goals of the “special operation,” it might be expected that this would entail some sort of change in attitudes toward the far right in Russia itself. However, the activity of oppositionist Russian nationalists had been minimal, and it cannot be said that there was a shift in anti-extremist policy with the start of the conflict. Meanwhile, the nationalists who backed the “special operation” in principle have limited their dissatisfaction to public criticism, of which the authorities are still tolerant, though they are still not allowed to take to the streets.

Of course, law enforcement agencies cannot ignore the real or not-entirely-real ties with Ukraine among the pro-Ukraine part of the ultra-right. The Ukrainian connections of the abovementioned MKU and NS/WP at least were regularly reported. Inevitably, militant ultra-right activists will soon face punishment for acts of sabotage, including arson of military registration and enlistment offices.

At the beginning of March 2023, an incursion into Bryansk Region by a detachment of the Ukrainian Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC) attracted much attention. The RVC was indeed founded by the influential Russian neo-Nazi Denis Nikitin (Karpukhin) and made up of Russian ultra-rightists to one degree or another. The published manifesto of the RVC is clearly fascist in nature. Of course, the incursion was hyped up by Russian propaganda. RVC began to be blamed for, for example, organizing the murder of Daria Dugina. Not long after, the FSB announced that it had thwarted an assassination attempt on the head of the Tsargrad community and group of media companies Konstantin Malofeev, which Denis Nikitin is also accused of planning. In connection with these events, we can expect law enforcement raids on youth and nationalist groups – the latter is for sure, and perhaps particularly in the regions bordering Ukraine. The actions of the RVC may toughen the attitude of the Russian authorities toward their own nationalists in general.
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