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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Suddenly, 'Fascism' Is on Everybody's Lips

The announcement this week of an imminent presidential decree to provide measures for a crackdown on extremist groups reflects a growing debate in Russia about the rise of fascism in this country.

Suddenly, the word "fascism" is on everybody's lips. In the press, on television, from the Kremlin, in the streets -- everyone is worried, or professes to be, about the rise of extremist organizations in Russia.

But it remains unclear to what extent this concern is real, or justified. Some observers see the anti-fascist campaign as a smoke screen to divert the public's attention from the government's sharp turn to the right.

"The word 'fascist' is more emotional than scientific," said German Tiligentsky, a historian and sociologist at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. "While the government fights the few extremists who bear the label, the really dangerous groups go untouched."

The real threat, according to Tiligentsky, comes from rightist nationalist groups calling for the restoration of the Soviet Union and a return to dictatorship.

"This is a wide spectrum of the population, and it is growing, especially within the ranks of the political elite," said Tiligentsky.

President Boris Yeltsin sounded the anti-fascist alarm in his address to the nation Feb. 16:

"Society is becoming increasingly concerned at the expansion of fascist ideology and fascist organizations in Russia," he said. "People are asking 'why is the prosecutor's office doing such a poor job, what are the courts doing, why are those structures that are supposed to protect our nation from this filth doing nothing?"'

The debate intensified after a program shown Feb. 22 on Russian Television.

Alexei Vedenkin, a baby-faced young man with round pink cheeks and the bright eyes of a fanatic, shocked the nation by offering to shoot public figures in the back of the head, "with no trial and no investigation," as soon as the extremist Russian National Unity Party came to power. He hinted at support within the government, and boasted of unlimited financial resources in banks around the world.

Vedenkin soon found himself behind bars, charged with, among other things, revealing state secrets.

It is easy to dismiss Vedenkin as a madman or a fool. But the publicity surrounding his case masks a deeper problem.

Acording to the Moscow Anti-Fascist Center, there are approximately 100 nationalist and fascist organizations in the country. Many of them are small -- the total membership for all groups is no more than 5,000 people. There are also over 150 extremist publications registered. The authorities are seemingly powerless to close down even those that openly call for violence.

But while the population would, by and large, recoil in horror from black-shirted toughs waving swastikas and mouthing racist slogans, the philosophy of extreme nationalism may be gaining ground in a country in crisis.

"The country has undergone a material and spiritual collapse," said Alexander Liberman, chairman of the Moscow chapter of Union of Councils, a human rights organization. "People are looking for a new ideology".

And the government, Liberman says, may not be averse to filling the void with fascism.

"The ideas of fascism are very beneficial to the state," he said. "You have the exaltation of the Russian nation, the longing for a firm hand. When government leaders start talking about 'a special Russian path of development' they are propagating these ideas."

Liberman estimates that 20 to 25 percent of the population subscribes to an extreme nationalist philosophy, a figure substantiated by Tiligentsky.

This number is growing precipitously, according to Liberman, and will soon attain dominance.

"We are on the road to totalitarianism," he said.

Gleb Yakunin, radical reformer, State Duma deputy, former dissident and Russian Orthodox priest, agrees:

"The war in Chechnya has created an atmosphere in the country where totalitarianism is on the rise," he said. "It needs an ideology. Communism has been totally discredited here. All that is left is fascism."

Sergei Gryzunov, chairman of the State Press Committee, wrote a long and alarming article which appeared in the liberal Literaturnaya Gazeta on Feb. 15.

"If anyone thinks that there are no grounds for fascists or nazis coming to power," he wrote, " let him compare the Weimar Republic and our own: the collapse of a great empire, the fall in production, inflation, growing unemployment, rightist propaganda in military and law enforcement structures, insecurity about the future, a weak government, the formation of rightist militarized organizations and the flow of people to them from the army and the police, the unimpeded publication of the fascist and nazi press ... there are grounds for alarm, serious ones."

Two weeks later Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin announced that Gryzunov was being removed from his post. Only a determined campaign of support from the liberal press and intelligentsia saved him.

Human rights champions like Liberman see the attack on Gryzunov as indirect proof for their contention that the government supports fascist ideology.

Sergei Markov, a scholar at the Carnegie Institute in Moscow, also beats a warning drum:

"Fascism is growing in Russia, there is no doubt about it," he said.

But Markov dismisses the significance of what he calls "classical, theatrical" fascists. "They have no social base, they are not popular with the people," he said.

The danger, he says, lies in the rise of a neo-fascist ideology.

"I think Russian fascism will be based, not on anti-semitism, but on an anti-Caucasus principle," he said.

Markov sees a fascist-like cult of violence engulfing the nation, which will push the government to ever harsher measures of control.

"We have already passed the first stage, when force is the only law, he said. "Everyone now knows that the government cannot protect the people."

Russia is now entering the second stage, says Markov, when the population will demand that the government use force to protect it.

The murder of journalist Vladislav Listyev on Wednesday night has become a symbol of popular discontent. In Markov's opinion it will serve as the catalyst for increasingly harsh police-state measures, bringing Russia ever closer to totalitarianism.

"The government has a choice: They can either stop trying to fight the violence, or they can impose police-state measures. And they understand full well that if they are not willing to impose such measures, they will be swept out of office. Their successors will have no such qualms."