PUTIN’S RUSSIA is often associated with two overlapping concepts, “the power vertical” and “sovereign democracy,” which both imply a military-style top-down chain of command in the sphere of public governance, where the key actors at the central, regional, and sometimes even local level are ultimately answerable to and monitored by the Presidential Administration, rather than by the electorate. Unsurprisingly, these concepts are somewhat removed from reality, partly because Russia is simply too large and diverse for Moscow-imposed control. What’s more, the opposite phenomenon in the governing process also takes place from time to time — that is, genuine grassroot activity (i.e., not orchestrated from above) changes the way things are run, long-term and countrywide.
Those interested in the lasting influence of the marginal over the mainstream, or the tail wagging the dog, should perhaps look no further than the history of the National Bolshevik Party (NBP) and the Eurasia Movement (EM), elegantly outlined in Fabrizio Fenghi’s It Will Be Fun and Terrifying: Nationalism and Protest in Post-Soviet Russia.
Both NBP’s and EM’s backbone is, by and large, made up of young(ish) disaffected creatives. The NBP was established in 1993 by two countercultural figures of note: the legendary author and provocateur Eduard Limonov, who died earlier this year, and the philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. The party sought to tap into the resentment of many ex-Soviet nationals who had lost their jobs, life savings, common ideology, and sometimes even citizenship when the Soviet Union collapsed, defeated by the West (or so some felt).
What set the NBP apart from other political movements emerging at the time was its embrace of both right- and left-wing political discourse. The latter — Bolshevism — appealed to people’s demand for social justice, sharpened by the excesses of an accelerated transition to capitalism that led to massive impoverishment; the former — nationalism — appealing to people’s sense of national pride, which had been wounded by the Soviet Union’s perceived defeat.
Even though the attention-seeking, controversy-courting NBP challenged liberal post-Soviet political correctness by styling itself after the German Nazis, the Italian Fascists, and the Spanish Falangists (all at once), the party’s version of nationalism was meant to be of a rather inclusive variety, at least in theory. Its leadership dreamt of restoring Russia to glory as a multiethnic empire of equals. Among NBP members, a.k.a. natsboly, there were not only Russians, but also Ukrainians, Belarusians, Tatars, Roma, and Jews. The party even had a small but colorful branch in Israel.
It was the defense of the rights of Russian-speaking minorities in the former Soviet republics (such as Latvia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan) that became the central plank in the NBP’s platform. The natsboly were standing in, as it were, for the Russian government, which, in the NBP’s view, had left these groups stranded. Some of the most spectacular public actions that the NBP habitually staged aimed to highlight the claim that in some newly independent countries Russian speakers were treated as second-class citizens and therefore urgently needed protection.
Thus, on August 24, 1999 — which happened to be the eighth anniversary of the proclamation of independence of modern Ukraine — 16 NBP members, most of whom arrived from Russia, chained themselves for several hours to the railings of the tower of the Sailors’ Club in the Crimean city of Sevastopol (in what was then Ukraine), to make a point that the Crimean peninsula, which is overwhelmingly populated by Russian speakers, should be returned to Russia. The natsboly were arrested for attempting to damage the territorial integrity of Ukraine, a charge that carried a possible sentence of up to 10 years.
However, only five months later, after the intervention of several prominent Russian parliamentarians, the charge was amended to the capture of state or public buildings, punishable by corrective labor for a term of up to two years. Those detained were extradited to Moscow, to be set free promptly after their arrival. Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister and subsequently acting president in those days and months, must have been following these high-profile events with some degree of appreciation. Fifteen years later, he finished the NBP’s job by annexing Crimea.
It may also have helped that, by 2014, the year of Crimea’s annexation, Dugin had become a Kremlin advisor. He left the NBP as early as 1998, transitioning from the underground to the establishment after the success of his 1997 book Foundations of Geopolitics. He was invited to lecture on the subject at the Russian Military Academy of the General Staff, and he couldn’t afford to jeopardize this prestigious appointment by an association with the NBP’s trademark scandalous street provocations. Yet Dugin has never abandoned National Bolshevism as a concept (as he interpreted it), including the aspiration to reconstitute the Russian Empire. Indeed, this goal was the very foundation of his geopolitics.
As a kind of complementary alternative to the NBP, and relying on support from the Kremlin, Dugin founded the so-called Eurasia Movement (EM), which drew together some of those who had left the NBP in his wake. The movement’s name refers to the Russian Eurasianists of the 1920s and 1930s, who proclaimed that Russia belongs to neither Europe nor Asia but should pursue its own separate path of development — whatever that was. For Dugin, аs far as one can judge, the path was one of anti-liberalism, anti-individualism, and anti-secularism. This is hardly what many of the original Eurasianists had in mind, but that didn’t stop Dugin from branding himself a Eurasianist. As Fenghi explains, Dugin’s writing and thinking are “largely based on the appropriation and subversion of discourses that the author perceives as ideologically opposite to his own.”
While NBP members were renowned for their headline-grabbing street politics, Duginites took the internet as their principal operational field. Their aim was, to use Dugin’s own words from 2001, “not to reach power and not to fight for power” but to “fight for influence over the regime.” Dugin’s right-hand man, Valery Korovin — interviewed by Fenghi personally, among many other former and current NBP and EM members — reveals how this works. If people look up “Eurasianism” on Yandex (a Russian search engine similar to Google),
the first 100 links are to our [the EM’s] resources. We write it, and they steal it and use it. And this actually works. Some bureaucrat calls his aide and says: “go and steal somewhere: ‘what is Eurasianism?’” And that one goes and steals it from me, and I give it to him. And this is a form of influence.
To maximize the effect, “Dugin and his followers have created an online network of Eurasianist websites within the Russian blogosphere with the goal of promoting the most destructive and inflammatory ideas.” One wonders, incidentally, if the notorious Russian troll factories that apparently interfere in all sorts of political conversations during elections and referendums across the globe weren’t directly inspired by the EM’s online activities.
The seizure of Crimea and, possibly, the creation of politically motivated troll factories are not the only examples of the NBP’s and EM’s impact on Russia’s official policies and practices. Others include the Russian youth movements Idushchie vmeste (Marching Together, 2000–’07) and Nashi (Ours, 2005–’19), modeled by the Presidential Administration on the NBP and Evraziiskii Soiuz Molodezhi (the Eurasian Youth Union, the EM’s youth wing) to pursue the administration’s own goals by adopting some of the means associated with the opposition.
At its height, before the party was banned for extremism in 2007, the NBP’s membership numbered only several thousand activists, by Fenghi’s reckoning. The NBP repeatedly fielded its candidates in an attempt to enter the Russian parliament but invariably failed. So how did this non-parliamentary opposition, the semi-visible groupuscule (which still persists, under the new name of Other Russia), manage to affect the authorities in such a profound way?
According to Fenghi, “[t]he NBP could well be considered an artistic and political avant-garde, one that anticipated larger intellectual and ideological trends in Russian culture and society[,] a network and community of radical artists, intellectuals, and political activists.” The same, to a significant degree, could be said of the EM and Dugin, whose opposition to the Kremlin remained strong even after he left the NBP and chose to collaborate with the powers-that-be to disseminate his ideas more efficiently.
Together, yet partly independently from each other, the NBP (mostly by means of highly visible politically charged interactive happenings) and the EM (chiefly through intellectual stealth) made a deep imprint on everyday life in Russia, and elsewhere, by eliciting a reaction from the country’s rulers — sometimes unbeknownst to the rulers themselves and sometimes quite against their will.
This is how the latest iteration of the Russian avant-garde — which Mike Sell defines as “a minoritarian formation that challenges power in subversive, illegal or alternative ways, usually by challenging the routines, assumptions, hierarchies and/or legitimacy of political and/or cultural institutions” — has affected the world we live in. But has it done much good for any of us?
When describing the Eurasianist version of a desirable future, Dugin’s follower and renowned artist Aleksei Beliaev-Gintovt told Fenghi: “It will be fun and terrifying.” This phrase, which Fenghi wisely selected for the title of his book, perfectly illustrates the NBP’s and EM’s seductive strategy of combining the uncombinable, and thus attracting support from radicals of every persuasion. Yet when one thinks of how, throughout the 1990s, Limonov’s and Dugin’s avant-gardists merrily shouted that Sevastopol belonged to Russia, and of how, in the 2010s, some of them actually went on to kill and be killed in the war in Eastern Ukraine, does one not conclude that fun and terror should be kept well and truly apart?