April 1, 2005

  In Russia, Group Takes Radical Steps To Defy Kremlin

Mr. Limonov's Bolsheviks Play to Growing Nostalgia For Country's Past Greatness


by Alan Cullison   -   The Wall Street Journal


MOSCOW -- One day last summer, a few young men in the blue uniforms of Russia's emergency-services department pulled up in a truck at the offices of the Ministry of Health, announcing they needed to sweep the building for bombs.


The staff quickly evacuated. But the young men weren't bomb-sweepers: They were members of a radical political group, the National Bolsheviks. They unfurled their red, white and black party flag from the ministry's windows and tossed leaflets into the street. A framed picture of President Vladimir Putin crashed onto the sidewalk.

"We have to expose the fallacy and stupidity of Kremlin power," says their leader, Eduard Limonov, a 62-year-old onetime punk author. "Everyone else is afraid."


Though his followers number only 15,000, Mr. Limonov's party is a rare phenomenon in Russia today: an opposition movement the Kremlin seems genuinely afraid of.

Today the National Bolsheviks boast more members behind bars than any other major political party. Forty-seven of Mr. Limonov's supporters are in prison, most for serious charges like creating mass disorder.


The crackdown on what started as an avant-garde movement of Russian punks and skinheads has only fueled its popularity.

This year, Mr. Limonov's supporters helped organize nationwide demonstrations against cuts in government welfare payments. The demonstrations have posed the first mass challenge to Mr. Putin's power since he took the presidency in 2000.


The National Bolsheviks play to a growing nostalgia in Russia for the nation's past greatness. Mr. Putin's own talk of restoring Russia's might resonates with millions of Russians, and Mr. Limonov's party takes it to the extreme. The party flag has the same colors and layout of the Nazi one: a white circle on a red background with a black symbol in the middle. The symbol itself is a hammer and sickle instead of a swastika.


After youth protest groups played major roles in toppling regimes in the former Soviet states of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, many critics of Mr. Putin's rule have been hoping Russia will join the trend. But a populist groundswell in Russia might not bring the type of change Western liberals are comfortable with -- as the National Bolsheviks' symbols suggest.

Western-style democracy has a bad name in Russia, tarnished by a decade of oligarchic capitalism that impoverished millions. Polls show half of Russians think Stalin played a generally positive role in the country's history.


"For Russia, fascism is an absolutely serious, fundamental political danger," Anatoly Chubais, one of Russia's leading liberal politicians, said in a recent interview. Mr. Chubais, who also heads Russia's state electric company, is widely reviled for directing a controversial privatization plan in the 1990s and recently survived an assassination attempt. Police have charged a retired army colonel in the attack.


Mr. Limonov's followers say their radical measures are needed in Russia's repressed political environment. The National Bolsheviks pull in disaffected young people with a humor-tinged rebellion: Mr. Limonov's followers have pelted the prime minister with an egg and squirted the chief of Russia's electoral commission with mayonnaise.


Taya Osipova, 20, swatted the Kremlin-backed governor of Smolensk with a bouquet of carnations two years ago. After serving three days in jail and a year of probation she moved to Moscow where she devotes herself to party work. "The other parties just don't do anything," she says. "You sign up, go to a meeting or two, but you know that nothing comes of it. The National Bolsheviks actually do something."


Grigory Yavlinsky, founder of one of Russia's oldest liberal parties, says his young followers are attracted by the antics. "Every day more of them go over to Limonov," says Mr. Yavlinsky.


Mr. Limonov, who has written 37 books, rejects suggestions that his party is chauvinist or anti-Semitic. Aides point out that the head of the party in Latvia is half-African, and the deputy head in Russia is Jewish. "I'll admit that we use powerful symbols, and they're provocative," he says. "But that's what brought the party its activists."


Mr. Limonov says some of the party's main planks -- an end to the war in Chechnya, an election system less favorable to Mr. Putin, and greater subsidies for students and pensioners -- are expressions of the popular will. His party, he says, is on a drive to register 50,000 members so it can compete in parliamentary elections in 2007.


In apparent response, a new pro-Kremlin youth group has formed. Its opening conference included workshops on how to foil sit-ins by the Bolsheviks.


In an interview with the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda last October, Mr. Putin's right-hand man, Vladislav Surkov, dismissed the Bolsheviks along with Mr. Yavlinsky's liberals as traitors unlikely to win broad popular approval. "They each have sponsors of foreign origin. They share a hatred of what they call 'Putins's Russia' -- in reality, a hatred of Russia as such," Mr. Surkov said. "They promote the idea that it would be a good thing for their own country to lose the war on terror."


Mr. Limonov reminds some critics of czarist-era intellectuals who toyed with radical ideas and regarded politics as a sort of performance art. Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who has close ties to the Kremlin and is a frequent spokesman for its views, says the sophisticated motives of Mr. Limonov are probably lost on his supporters. With real political parties barely formed in Russia, Mr. Limonov's group is "filling the vacuum," says Mr. Pavlovsky. "They need to be banned."


Mr. Limonov directs his party from a sparsely furnished apartment in central Moscow. He can't attend rallies, he says, because he is on parole from a prison sentence for trying to overthrow the government of Kazakhstan, a charge he denies.

       He greets visitors in a black suit and tie, and soft-spoken English that he learned as a Soviet-era dissident in New York. With a goatee and heavy-rimmed glasses, he looks like a modern-day Leon Trotsky.

His real name is Eduard Savenko, and he grew up in the industrial Soviet city of Kharkov, now part of Ukraine. In his early 20s he arrived in Moscow and, using his pen name to elude authorities, gained fame as an angry counterculture poet who sold his verses illegally. The KGB eventually caught on and gave him a choice in 1974 -- go to the gulag or emigrate to the West.


    He moved to New York, where he got a job as a housekeeper for a rich Manhattan family, and continued to write in his spare time. Unable to make it as a writer in the U.S. -- his first book, Diary of a Loser, was rejected by 35 publishing houses -- he moved to France where he became the darling of nationalists and Communists in part for his writings about the banality of American consumer culture.


One night at a literary conference in Budapest in 1989, he got into an argument with the British novelist Paul Bailey over capital punishment. Mr. Bailey said he was against it. After an angry exchange, Mr. Limonov ended up knocking Mr. Bailey unconscious with a bottle of Mumm's Champagne, both men recall.

The collapse of the Soviet Union drew Mr. Limonov back to Eastern Europe, where he became embroiled in nationalist causes. He befriended Russian fighters in Transdniester, a breakaway sliver of Moldova that today is a Russian-backed haven of arms trading. In Yugoslavia, he praised Slobodan Milosevic, now facing a war-crimes tribunal at The Hague. When Mr. Limonov returned to Russia he espoused giving nuclear weapons to Serbia to defend itself against the West.

 'The Bunker'

In 1994 he opened his own headquarters in the center of Moscow in a warren of basement rooms guarded by a steel door that he and his followers nicknamed "the bunker." An eclectic collection of heavy-metal fans, vocational-school students and army veterans used the bunker for party meetings as well as rock concerts and counterculture poetry readings.


Authorities paid little attention. "I didn't know how to run a political party, and I had to learn," Mr. Limonov said. "I was always a writer, not a politician."


Gradually, the party coalesced around Mr. Limonov's biweekly newspaper, "LIMONKA," a Russian slang word for "hand grenade," pounded out by devotees in Mr. Limonov's bunker in a room festooned with posters of Che Guevera, Benito Mussolini and Kurt Cobain.


The party also got a boost in 1999, when Mr. Putin became prime minister and started talking about restoring Russia's greatness and defending the rights of Russians living elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

Mr. Limonov thinks his own party's similar agenda aroused the jealousy of the Kremlin. In 2000, shortly after Mr. Putin took the presidency, Mr. Limonov noticed he was being followed. He was at a retreat in Siberia in 2001 when more than 70 special agents closed in on his cabin with submachine guns and arrested him.


Mr. Limonov was sentenced to four years in prison over an alleged plot to carve out an independent Russian-dominated enclave in neighboring Kazakhstan.

He feared the party would die without him. Instead, it blossomed -- thanks, oddly, to a documentary on state television. The documentary accused the party of brainwashing its members and hoarding arms for the Kazakhstan operation.

Party members say the portrayal helped turn Mr. Limonov into a pinup for Russian ultranationalists. A steady stream of admirers visited him in prison with gifts and requests for interviews.


He wrote eight books in prison. One was "Another Russia," in which he calls for the creation of a giant "Eurasian state" populated by "armed nomadic communes" whose youthful members would practice free love.

To ensure sufficient population, he said all women would be required to give birth to four children while they were between the ages of 25 and 35. In the coming revolution, he writes, "people will perish young but it will be joyous."


Mr. Limonov's followers hailed his book as their political credo. His publisher, Alexander Ivanov, compares Mr. Limonov to Vladimir Lenin and Fyodor Dostoevsky, each of whom wrote seminal books while behind bars in Russia.


Mr. Limonov's movement raised its profile during 2003 parliamentary elections, which took place shortly after he was released from prison early for good behavior.

Western-style moderates tried to compete, even though they knew they were no match for Mr. Putin's political machine. The National Bolsheviks, by contrast, treated the elections as a farce from the beginning. They opened a blitzkrieg of "food terrorism" -- throwing eggs, tomatoes and mayonnaise.


During the campaign, Mr. Putin's elections commissioner, Alexander Veshnyakov, held a conference entitled "For Honest Elections."

Mr. Veshnyakov was standing before a bank of television cameras and photographers when one of Mr. Limonov's followers squirted a bag of mayonnaise on his neatly tailored dark suit. The next day his picture appeared in newspapers across the country.

Harsh Response

The Kremlin responded with arrests and threats of long prison terms. But Mr. Limonov's followers upped the ante.

The takeover of the Health Ministry, in which Mr. Putin's portrait was tossed out of a window, took place last summer as part of protests against the planned changes to welfare payments. Police eventually battered down the door and arrested the protesters, who received sentences of three years in prison.


Undeterred, Mr. Limonov's followers held a sit-in at the offices of the presidential administration in the center of Moscow. For two hours they refused to leave and handed out fliers protesting the war in Chechnya, election irregularities and the closure of an opposition television station. Police arrested 40 of them and charged them with organizing a mass revolt, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.


On Jan. 1, the government began to implement the welfare changes, which withdrew privileges for pensioners such as free bus rides in return for cash payments that often failed to arrive on time. Protests sprouted up across Russia, forcing the Kremlin to backtrack on the plan.

The National Bolsheviks were at the center of many protests. In St. Petersburg, the scene of the largest protests, the governor invited National Bolsheviks along with Communists and members of Mr. Yavlinsky's liberal party into talks on ending the unrest.


As the party grows, it is bracing for a fight, Mr. Limonov says. Eleven members have died under mysterious circumstances -- some stabbed, others beaten, one thrown out of a window -- in the past few years, party members say. Last month a group of men showed up at the Moscow bunker and broke the jaw of a young man guarding the door.


The party is giving boxing lessons at the bunker on Friday nights and asking members with fighting experience to volunteer for guard duty.

Ivan Prokhorov, 20, now takes the train once a week from St. Petersburg, where he is earning a degree in political science, to sleep for three nights in the bunker. "A lot of people say that we're the fascists," says Mr. Prokhorov, whose knuckles are scratched and bandaged from boxing practice. "But I think we're fighting the fascists."

                                         The Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2005


Write to Alan Cullison at alan.cullison@wsj.com