Keep off the grass - or the neo-Nazis will sort you out

They wear black shirts and fatigues, and don't like outsiders
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The Independent Online
It Is a scene as familiar to most Russian eyes as a field of potatoes. An elderly woman is pushing a pram slowly along an avenue of silver birches. A knot of old men is huddled over a game of dominoes. A couple of children tramp through piles of bright yellow leaves under a glowering autumn sky.

The place could, at first glance, almost be any one of the scores of Moscow's municipal parks where the city's residents go to escape the pressure of living in shoe-box apartments, or to picnic, or promenade on national holidays - chests bedecked with Soviet-era medals - or, simply, to walk the dog.

Almost, but not quite. Flying above a small brick administration building is a red flag, bearing a symbol that strongly resembles a swastika. In its entrance a gaunt young man loiters, coldly eying the newly-arrived foreigners. The same emblem shines from the side of his black beret, the finishing touch on an outfit that includes a black shirt and leather jacket with armband, a leather chest strap and holster, black gloves, paramilitary fatigues and combat boots.

He does not look much like a park warden, that friendly fellow whose job it is to fulfil such perilous missions as chasing drunks off the premises, helping kids who have fallen off their bikes or keeping out cars. But that is what he is. His organisation, a neo-fascist group called Russian National Unity, has moved into the park-keeping business. And the youngster, a 22-year-old catering student, seems very pleased to be on patrol. "We keep order," he said officiously, before demanding to see my press credentials. "There are no problems here."

Some of his wards are not so sure. "I find it very strange," said an old man, who fought with the Soviet army against the Nazis, when asked whether he found the paramilitaries offensive, "but if I told you what I really thought, they may decide to beat me up." He signalled, with the mere flicker of a sidewards glance, at another young pseudo-storm-trooper in a black cape who had sidled up nearby.

Scores of ultra-nationalist groups have existed on the fringe of Russian politics for years - there were an estimated 80 in Russia in 1995 - so it would be wrong to conclude that the presence of this group in Terlyetski Park, north-east Moscow, is a symptom of political change. Their hierarchical organisation, headed by a karate instructor and Hitler admirer called Alexander Barkashov, has been a source of liberal alarm ever since he set it up in 1991, after splitting with the notorious anti-Semitic and tsarist Pamyat (Memory) organisation.

A video sold by the group dispels any doubt about its rabid political beliefs: it shows several dozen men performing Nazi salutes in front of St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square, practising hand-to-hand combat and conducting shooting practice (although the wardens in the park were unarmed). The Second World War, the video blithely explains, was the work of a conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was also a plot by Jewish bankers. Russian nationalism, the Motherland and the Orthodox Church is the only true faith. And so on.

Talk to one of its newest recruits, and racism does not take long to surface. "Ours is an organisation that defends order," explained a 13- year-old boy, one of the paramilitary park-keepers. "All the blacks, Georgians, people from the Caucasus, they simply won't bother women here. They shouldn't even set foot in this park."

What the group's presence here does reflect, however, is the alarming consequence of the collapse of municipal services caused by Russia's financial crisis. The city authorities have agreed to let it run the place because they can't afford to do so themselves. According to Sergei Maltsev, an official with the local administration, they have been appointed "public order volunteers". (He said they had caused no problems, although a local policeman on patrol described them as "nothing but trouble".)

So the absence of civic control has left a vacuum into which the self- appointed arbiters of order have happily goose-stepped. Not far away a fire station has found a different solution to a similar dilemma; an advertisement stands on the street outside, offering car washes.

"Russia's parks are dying," said a spokesman for the Association of Russian Parks, who declined to give his name. "Workers haven't been paid for months. The authorities are keen to find any way of raising money. Sometimes they forget their political sympathies."

And it also betrays another alarming phenomenon. Although these groups appeal to a minority, usually uneducated and impoverished young men, their tentacles stretch further. A Moscow city bureaucrat who tried to evict the group found that colleagues gave her no support, especially after her home was mysteriously vandalised.

The black-shirted park keepers may represent a small number of men from the underclass, but - in a country where many millions have voted for the nationalist showman Vladimir Zhirinovsky - it should be no surprise that they have friends in high places.