Fascist chief spreads fear over Russia

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The Independent Online
WITH HIS greasy ponytail, he looks absurd. But so did Hitler with his moustache. Russia and the world would be mistaken to laugh off Alexander Barkashov. His Russian National Unity (RNU) party may be small but history teaches that a radical minority can turn a passive majority into a nation of scared yes-men.

Mr Barkashov has replaced the nationalist MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky as the bogeyman of Russian politics. In retrospect, it is clear that Mr Zhirinovsky, who spoke of "Russian soldiers washing their boots in the Indian Ocean", was only a licensed jester, a lightning rod for extremism and opposition to President Boris Yeltsin.

Mr Barkashov is an altogether more sinister figure. Outside parliament and the establishment, he is quietly building up his forces and biding his time. Few people can say with any certainty how large those forces are. Russian television has shown pictures of RNU rallies in provincial cities at which hundreds of youths in black shirts and swastika armbands have given a salute identical to that of the Nazis. Liberals say the RNU has infiltrated the police and army.

The mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, almost certain to be a contender in presidential elections next year, is sufficiently concerned to have banned rallies by Barkashov's supporters in the capital.

In a rare meeting with the press just before Christmas, Mr Barkashov, surrounded by icons, hit back, declaring that he would challenge Mr Luzhkov for the constitutional right of assembly.

He also let slip that the RNU was planning to field "independent" candidates in parliamentary elections in 1999. This opened up the prospect of an unknown number of fascists attempting to take the Russian legislature by stealth.

In a country that suffered appallingly at the hands of the Nazi Germans, "fascist" is still a dirty word and Mr Barkashov is careful to deny the RNU is fascist. Yet, what else is a party that models itself on Hitler's, only adapting the design of the swastika slightly and exchanging the idea of an Aryan master race for the notion that Orthodox Slavs should impose "Russian order"?

"At the present time, the world is dominated by America, which bows down to money," say the RNU pamphlets. "But in its path stand the Russian people, carriers of the best human qualities, placing the spiritual over the material."

This was before the bombing of Iraq, which can only have hardened the RNU's hatred of the West and all it represents.

The pamphlet added that Russia's "little brothers", a term used in Communist times to describe people from other Soviet republics, had become "impudent, abusing the goodwill inherent in the Russian national character".

The New York-based Russian academic Alexander Yanov has for some time been warning that Russia resembles Weimar Germany, or rather perhaps Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, only with quite a few nuclear weapons.

Certainly, after seven years of bungled reform that has impoverished millions, Russian patience is wearing thin and some are seeking scapegoats. The hardline Communist MP Viktor Ilyuchin recently blamed Jews in President Yeltsin's entourage for the "genocide of the Russian people". The RNU casts its net wider and is ready to blame anyone who is not a pure Russian.

It is hard to believe that this ideology of hate still has currency, but it is so. Recently, I visited a commercial college in Moscow and had a sobering conversation with a youth who for his own protection I will call only Maxim K. He said he had been attracted by the idea of "Russia for the Russians" and, after reading one of the RNU's pamphlets, had telephoned and offered himself as a recruit.

"I was taken to a small military training camp in the Moscow region. I do not know exactly where it was because we went in a closed van. There were about 1,500 young people there. I was shocked when I saw boys and girls being turned into killing machines. I realised that was not my way."

Nevertheless, he argued that the concepts of duty and honour were more important than human rights and that Russia should pull itself out of the economic mire by increasing arms sales.

There are others ready to follow the RNU leader, an electrician and karate champion who made his name by fighting in the hardline uprising against President Yeltsin in October 1993. Earlier, Mr Barkashov had belonged to post-Soviet Russia's first extreme nationalist organisation, Pamyat (Memory), but left because he said the members did nothing but "engage in empty talk and dressing up in uniforms".

Mr Barkashov wants more and there are provincial Russian leaders ready to help him. After the RNU was banned in Moscow, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the leader of the region of Kalmykia, where an outspoken liberal journalist was murdered last year, said the party was always welcome to rally on his territory.

However, Russia is not doomed to repeat the worst chapters of 20th-century history as a new millennium dawns. The assassination of the leading liberal, Galina Starovoitova, in November, galvanised Russia's divided democrats; President Yeltsin has declared war on extremism and a new anti-fascist movement in Moscow shows there are Russians with an historical memory and the courage to stand up and be counted.