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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Fascist Present

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Sixty years ago, on May 9, 1945, Russia rejoiced at the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. I was 7 years old at the time. I remember how people came together on that day as they never would again. After the war, the world seemed to do everything possible to ensure that the horrors Nazi Germany had unleashed on the world would not be repeated. In the name of their fascist ideology, the Nazis had systematically murdered 6 million Jews, whom they considered an inferior race. Another 54 million people died in the war. Unfortunately, mankind will always pay a hideously high price when any one nation attempts to assert its superiority over others based on race, religion or social status. This is the lesson of history. But have we learned that lesson?

On the face of it, there would seem to be no way for fascist ideology to take root in Russia. But in the 1970s, it was widely rumored that youth groups professing a fascist or quasi-fascist ideology had been rounded up by the authorities. Fascist literature and regalia had been confiscated along with weapons. According to the rumors -- which have never been confirmed -- the children of highly placed party functionaries and of top brass in the KGB and the Interior Ministry belonged to these underground fascist organizations. This was long before glasnost, of course. The rumors nevertheless received a mixed response. On the one hand, people were pleased with the chekists for rounding up these groups. On the other hand, they found it difficult to believe that such groups could exist in a country that had suffered so terribly from fascism.

Those rumors from the 1970s would have long been forgotten if not for the recent surge of xenophobia, racism, religious intolerance and nationalism that quickly spilled over into plain old Nazism.

In the early 1990s, an organization called Pamyat, or Memory, responded to a natural desire to restore values lost during the Soviet era with an ideology of Russian superiority. Pamyat's ideologues didn't shy away from using terminology and regalia -- black shirts and armbands -- based on Nazi models.

Pamyat eventually disappeared, but it gave rise to hundreds of as-yet-uncoordinated fascist, nationalist and xenophobic organizations across the country, all claiming to defend Russia against alien elements that are ostensibly turning Russians into drunks, swindling them in the marketplace and stealing their jobs.

The authorities traditionally regarded such developments as the work of agents of influence and fifth columns. In fact, in times of social and economic instability, the regime has always sought to deflect popular discontent by blaming the current state of affairs on various enemies.

In recent years, Russia has been gripped by serious socioeconomic instability. When the Soviet system collapsed, it left a legacy of empty shelves and a socialist economy incapable of meeting the country's basic needs. The constant shortage of food, the lack of goods and services, and the terrible living conditions in dormitories and communal apartments all reached a breaking point in the early 1990s. To get out of this mess, the country needed new leaders capable of implementing new ideas. Instead, the old party nomenklatura retained control of the country's chief resources and went about reforming them insofar as their limited understanding of reform and democracy allowed. As a result, a chosen few thrived while most people endured grinding poverty.

This created an opportunity for Pamyat, the skinheads and faux patriots to capitalize on this popular discontent, blaming people's atrocious living conditions not on the political leadership, but on oligarchs , merchants and minorities.

At the same time, Russia's "traditional" religions -- which often leave little room for Catholics, Protestants, atheists or the non-religious -- began to assert themselves. Nationalists of all stripes, intentionally set loose by the authorities, have gone to war against anyone they consider "alien." Hundreds of newspaper and web sites advocate ridding the country of non-Russians. Meanwhile, there are numerous attacks on and killings of non-Russian university students, workers and even defenseless young girls.

Yet the trials of neo-fascist groups drag on for years. Evidence is analyzed by expert after expert until one of them finally concludes that the obviously inflammatory texts involved do not incite ethnic hatred. Those convicted of promoting Nazism, fascism and racial intolerance have even been amnestied in connection with Russia's victory over the Nazis.

In the short term, the regime clearly benefits from shifting the blame for the country's woes onto "alien" elements. But in the long term, the country as a whole suffers as people are made to believe that they are superior to others simply because they were born into the right ethnic group. This mindset is almost a guarantee of future tragedies.

Newspapers and web sites sow hatred and anger, but the authorities helplessly throw up their hands. And we have learned nothing from history.

To many, fascism seems like a good diversion. Some may secretly share this belief in the purity of the Russian people, although the Nazis included the Slavs among the inferior races. Our wars of imperialism only add fuel to the fire. It wasn't Russia's leaders whose decisions killed and maimed Russian soldiers in Afghanistan and Chechnya, so the story goes. It was the Islamists and the terrorists. They're to blame when thousands of young men's lives are ruined.

The old nomenklatura who preside over our current distorted prosperity ensure that extremists of all stripes go unpunished because they serve the regime's purpose: deflecting society's anger about the way they run the country. Is there room for fascism in a country that 60 years ago helped to crush fascism in Germany, providing all people with the hope of peaceful coexistence?

Yury Vdovin is co-chair of the St. Petersburg branch of the human rights organization Citizens' Watch. He contributed this comment to The St. Petersburg Times.