Dmitry Vasilyev

Leader of the extremist Russian nationalist organisation Pamyat
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The Independent Online

Dmitry Dmitrievich Vasilyev, actor and politician: born Kirov, Soviet Union 30 May 1945; leader, Pamyat 1985-2003; married (two adopted sons); died Pereslavl-Zalessky, Russia 16 July 2003.

Tanting to an audience at a Moscow culture palace in October 1985 that the blame for the destruction of the city's unique architectural heritage over the previous 65 years should be laid at the door of "Zionists", Dmitry Vasilyev was launched on the path to notoriety. Then a barely known photographer and minor film actor, Vasilyev was soon propelled into the leadership of the Russian nationalist organisation Pamyat, which lurched towards extremism after he took the helm.

Vasilyev was at the theatrical end of Russia's far-right spectrum. He was an unpleasant but effective demagogue, whose high-decibel, rapid-fire delivery galvanised crowds of supporters. Despite turning Pamyat into a leading force on Russia's far right, Vasilyev failed to maintain his grip on the fractious neo-Fascists who emerged at the end of the Soviet era.

When Pamyat ("Memory") was set up in 1979, its aim was cultural. But Vasilyev shook it out of its calm ways and by 1986 had launched a series of violent and angry anti-Semitic speeches, moving into street demonstrations the following year as the glasnost policy of Mikhail Gorbachev, then Communist Party leader, began to take shape. An inchoate mix of anti-Semitism and xenophobia, and admiration for Tsarism and Nazism, Pamyat's ideology found a ready audience with those losing out as the Soviet Union gradually began to reform.

Some Russians eagerly agreed with Vasilyev that their nation had suffered "the cruellest political genocide", that the Bolshevik revolution had been a "Jewish conspiracy" and life under the Tsars "a million times better". Initially, his message spread through the clandestine circulation of tapes of his speeches. But by the late 1980s he was a frequent fixture on Soviet television, calling for the return of the monarchy and generously admitting that he would not mind being the new Tsar.

As liberals, intellectuals and Jews in Moscow became increasingly concerned, the KGB warned Vasilyev that he risked prosecution for inciting ethnic discord. But no prosecution ever followed, leading many to believe he was secretly supported - if not promoted - by senior Communist leaders.

Born as the Second World War ended to a Don Cossack widow whose husband had been killed at the front several years earlier, Vasilyev used the mystery of his birth to hint at a distinguished ancestry. Graduating in 1963 from acting school, he then spent his three-year military service in Hungary, acting in an army troupe.

After military service, he found work in the prestigious Moscow Arts Theatre, but was soon kicked out. In the 1970s he became secretary to the artist Ilya Glazunov, but by the early 1980s had fallen out with him. It was during this time that he played his first significant film role, as the Tsarist minister Pyotr Stolypin (one of his idols) in Sergei Gerasimov's 1984 film Lev Tolstoy.

In newly independent Russia, the nationalist message began to lose its mainstream appeal, while on the far right Vasilyev faced increased competition, much of it from former Pamyat members he had expelled. Pamyat later faded into the background.

Vasilyev, although suffering from a blood disease, tried to revive his political fortunes in 1999, declaring his intention to run for mayor of Moscow and turn the city into the capital of an ethnic Russian state.

Felix Corley