By Martin Varsavsky
Martin Varsavsky analyzes the recent surge of neo-Nazism in Russia and highlights the irony that many people in Russia, the country hit hardest by the Nazi regime in the Second World War, are now adopting that same fascist ideology. Varsavsky offers that a main cause for this phenomenon is a European identity crisis that has particularly affected Russia, where a lack of options has left a sector of young people vulnerable to this violent and xenophobic movement.
WHAT MANY PEOPLE REMEMBER as the atrocity of World War II is the Holocaust, the mass-murder of over 6 million Jews. But what most don’t realize is that Russians suffered more than three times that number of casualties at the hands of the Nazis. Why, then, has neo-Nazism becoming so popular in Russia today? Though the news is disturbing, I will try to explain some possible causes for this unsettling irony in the following article.
After 20 million people were slaughtered in the years of fighting against the Nazis, and the fervent anti-fascist sentiment that followed war, it’s hard to imagine that Russians could now succumb to the same ideology that killed so many of their relatives. But that’s the reality in Russia today. Although being a neo-Nazi in Russia is like an African American waving a Confederate flag, many Russians, even Russian Nationalists, have adopted the ideology that half a century ago, Hitler used to leave their country absolutely devastated.
But going against that logic, with survivors of the tragedy still alive, and the others turning over in their graves, violent, neo-Nazi behavior has surged in Russia. In the past few months alone, the dozens of neo-Nazi groups have attacked and killed 25 people, wounding over 150 others, and for what reason you may ask? In most cases simply for belonging to some ethnic minority unacceptable by neo-Nazi standards. Though the statistics aren’t official, an estimated 50 thousand neo-Nazis are spread throughout Russia, publishing about 200 weekly newsletters to promote their extreme-right ideology. These activities have been fuel to the fire of racism, hate and radical nationalism in Russia today.
So where has Russia gone wrong? How has Nazism, the weapon used to massacre and cause the suffering of so many Russians, transformed into a way of life for the new generation? The analysts have come up with two explanations to this alarming phenomenon: the crisis of Capitalism and the lack of a better political alternative.
Alfredo Bauer, an expert on neo-Nazism exiled in Argentina, claims that the neo-Nazi trend owes itself to the Capitalist crisis brought on by the fall of the Berlin Wall. The crisis, which has spread throughout many parts of Europe, is not limited to the economic level, as neo-Nazism can also be found in societies with high employment rates. Bauer also includes the emotional, psychological and cultural aspects of the problem. He says Europe is experiencing a serious identity crisis- increasing confrontation between the haves and the have-nots and boosting racial conflicts.
But the lack of a democratic history and the high social and economic instability that followed the end of the Soviet Union paved the way for neo-Nazi groups and laid the brunt of the crisis in Russia’s lap. The “Iron Curtain” may have fallen, but in its place surged corruption and social differences. Russian teens, feeling left out of the new economic system, have reacted by turning into aggressive social rejects that neither the government nor society are prepared to control.
The parents themselves don’t know how to adapt to the social and economic changes going on, let alone deal with their children’s problems. And when ex-activists of the youth organization Komsomol (remnant of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) ditched the club for the business world, and many of Russia’s young people, left without appealing options, turned to neo-Nazism. Some political sectors have also been blamed for the rise in violent, xenophobic behavior. President Putin is accused of boosting Russian nationalism to divert attention away from problems like poverty, while at the same time fearing that the wave of neo-Nazi intolerance will take him down on its way up.
Whatever the reasons may be, the reality is that the current political and social environment in Russia has been ideal for the growth of neo-Nazism. Parties like opposition group Rodina (Motherland) have gotten control in the Russian legislature with the slogans like Let’s Clear Our City of Trash one of the party’s campaign ads referring both to the dirtied streets of Moscow as well as to darker-skinned Caucasian immigrants and in a broader sense, to all foreigners who have settled in Russia. Surprising, isn’t it that that percentage is fairly low?
I’ll finish this post with a story to help illustrate my point. While eating dinner the other night with some French friends of ours who had been backpacking for a few months in Russia, they told us of something very disturbing. They said that although the Russians were very generous and allowed my friends to stay in their homes, on two occasions the topic of a simple family photo jolted the French couple into the harsh Russian reality. It turns out that my friend Phil’s brother-in-law is African, and that when the hosts asked to see pictures of my friends’ families, they were shocked to see a black man. On two separate occasions, the Russian hosts asked how my friends could allow such a dirty, uncivilized person into their family.
This story may just be one couples´ unfortunate experience, but the truth is that many Russians have adopted a racist mentality without necessarily reaching the level of neo-Nazism. I guess that’s what happens when an institution like the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is created and made up of people filled with hate and prejudices who don’t get along with each other. They take out their frustrations by lashing out at those different than them, the ethnic minorities, any chance they get.
The Safe Democracy Foundation would like to invite you to subscribe to its weekly electronic newsletter, delivered to you every Thursday, with analysis and commentaries from our international experts (click here).