Back in March Russia watchers stood agape as St. Petersburg hosted an international conference of neo-fascists and far-right parties. This was not particularly surprising to me, as Russia has hosted such conferences numerous times over the years, and in fact these conferences were once known as the “White World Future” conference. “White World,” by the way, isn’t a reference to countries which experience significant snowfall in the winter. Also not at all surprising to me was the fact that this conference concluded without any hindrance from state investigatory or law enforcement organs, who are often able to find signs of “extremism” in the most innocuous expressions.
What was somewhat surprising to me, however, was how little these European and American Kremlin supporters actually know about the country they have decided is a bastion of traditional values and the last hope for Western civilization. It seems to me as though if you really believed that was the case, you’d voraciously devour anything about Russia, and in particular you’d want to learn the language to aid you in that process. On the other hand, if you’re aim is really just to attend a circle jerk to pretend you’re relevant and maybe patronize an escort service far from the prying eyes of your own country, well then…
Now when I speak about right-wing misconceptions about Russia, I’m usually referring to their laughably naive belief that Russia is a land of “sacred traditional values” where they will find refuge from their sexual insecurities and inadequacies. Anyone who actually lives in Russia, has even a passing level in the language, and actually interacts with ordinary Russians and follows the local news will quickly be disabused of any idiotic beliefs about “family values” in Russia. From the extremely casual attitude of men towards things like adultery, prostitution, and cruising for girls in the age range of 16-17 to women who openly admire gold-digging, see nothing wrong with marriage as an “economic relationship,” and who flock to dance studios offering striptease or pole-dancing courses, Russia isn’t exactly winning awards in the field of traditional conservatism as its generally imagined. Add to that the high rate of STD’s, HIV, teenage pregnancy, abortion, and drug use coupled with often far more brazen expressions of consumerism, and the idealistic moral crusader for conservative values is faced with a tough choice after being confronted with Russian reality. He can either accept that at the very best, Russia is no less “decadent” or “degenerate” as his own terrible, decaying Western country, or he can do what a few long-term right-wing expats have done, i.e. construct a fantasy land, possibly with the help of mass quantities of alcohol and self-imposed isolation from most of Russian society.
To be fair, I could also talk about other misconceptions these conservatives have in regards to Russia, such as their misplaced faith in Russia’s economic or military power, or the rather hilarious idea that BRICS is some kind of alliance that is building an “alternative” to the Anglo-American-Zionist-Atlanticist New World Order. But in more recent times I’ve noticed a far more hilarious blind spot among these rightists when it comes to Russian society, and a story appeared yesterday which called this to mind.
In case the reader hasn’t heard, Head of Chechnya, luxury car collector, and avid Instagram user Ramzan Kadyrov recently gave a speech to his own Ministry of Internal Affairs personnel, in which he ordered them to “shoot to kill” any non-Chechen officials engaged in armed operations within the territory of the Chechen Republic.The story created a buzz all day among Russia correspondents and their followers, but if you’re not too familiar with the relationship between Russia and Chechnya, let me break it down with an American analogy. Say the FBI wants to raid a drug operation in your city, but the governor of your state doesn’t approve so he tells his state and perhaps local police to “shoot to kill” any FBI agents carrying out raids within his jurisdiction. If you’re American, you know we had a little dispute over the issue of states vs. the federal government, and you also know it escalated quickly.
The reason why this is so significant is that it is no small secret in Russia that Kadyrov is a special case. Tons of money flows to Grozny, so much so that it boasts an impressive, though supposedly mostly empty business district in its center which puts numerous major Russian cities to shame. Kadyrov himself is a collector of luxury sports cars; he is the owner of one of only twenty Lamborghini Reventóns ever made. In addition to that, he’s a fan of gold-plated pistols, which never fail to remind me of Nicholas Cage’s character Castor Troy from the 90’s action film Face/Off.
Aside from all the money Chechnya receives, Kadyrov is also a collector of Russian state awards. He has eleven different awards, including Hero of the Russian Federation, for a total of twelve. When Putin mysteriously disappeared for almost ten days, Kadyrov received a number of Russian state awards, one of which was handed down by Putin himself. Putin has increasingly deferred to Kadyrov in recent years. His most recent statement ordering his own police forces to shoot Russian federal personnel is only the latest, most brazen example in a country where it recently became illegal to publish calls for more regional autonomy or referendums on independence, i.e. the same thing Russia sponsors in Ukraine.
So what’s all this have to do with European and American right-wingers and their shindig in St. Petersburg? Even a cursory glance at the statements of such people and organizations reveals that among the many things they hate and obsess over, Islam and particularly Muslim immigration are usually at the top of the list, or at least a close second. This is almost always the case with European far right organizations, including some of those who were prominently represented at the conference. These people are constantly putting out propaganda with dubious statistics about how immigration is Islamifying Europe, transforming it into Eurabia, replacing Western values with Sharia law, and so forth. They are quick to jump on any example of violence involving Muslims in Europe and exploit it as a talking point against immigrants. They frequently allege that even though Muslims are still a minority in their respective countries, they wield power far out of proportion to their numbers because cowardly politicians kowtow to them and “political correctness” stifles all criticism. For this reason these right-wingers act as though they are persecuted at home, and by contrast they see Russia as a haven from this horror of Muslim-coddling PC.
Just one little problem- Ramzan Kadyrov is a Muslim. In fact he is, at least outwardly so, a very devout Muslim and a member of a people whose identity is very bound up in their Sufi Islamic tradition. Kadyrov is always making public displays of piety, and these days he is almost never seen without his shirt bearing a crescent and star. What is more, Kadyrov has openly spoken out in favor of honor killings, and recently he answered the West’s unity march in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre with a “million ” Muslim march in Grozny in support of the Prophet Mohammed. On that note, Kadyrov has routinely condemned those who portray or malign the Prophet. It has been said by many that there is no line in Russia that Kadyrov cannot cross, possibly posting pics on Instagram in the process.
Russia’s own far-right has agonized and gritted its collective teeth at the rivers of cash flowing to Grozny while ordinary Russian cities and towns crumble and decay. Not surprising considering that Kadyrov was of course himself an anti-Russian guerrilla fighter at one time, who allegedly once said that he killed his first Russian at the age of 16. Rumors also abound that he was present during the beheading of Russian soldiers during that time when he was part of the resistance. Incidentally, many of the Russian nationalists and nationalist organizations which continue to espouse anti-Chechen views are those which do not enjoy the full sponsorship of the Kremlin, or its protection from prosecution, for that matter. There’s “political correctness gone mad” for you. In the minds of Russia’s independent far right, Putin’s rule is associated with subservience to Kadyrov, which is what brought many nationalists to opposition protests in 2011 and 2012. And while racism and xenophobia are their main motives, their perception about Chechnya’s dominant position in Russia is not inaccurate.
This is what makes it doubly hilarious when foreign right-wing nationalists come to St. Petersburg to lavish praise on Russia as the defender of Western civilization. During one presentation, one Scottish representative showed a slide of Vladimir Putin posing bare-chested for a photo-op, and lovingly gushed about how manly Russia’s president is. No word as to whether that speaker prefaced or concluded his profession of man-love with the magic phrase “No homo,” thus rendering that eyebrow-raising spectacle entirely devoid of any homoerotic connotation whatsoever. What he and his audience didn’t know, or perhaps pretend not to know in the case of Russian attendees, is that bear-riding manly man Putin is, based on well-documented behavior, the lapdog of the very loud and proud Muslim, Ramzan Kadyrov. Scream about political correctness all you want, but the Russian communications watchdog Roskomnadzor has made it clear several times that depictions of the Prophet Mohammed are forbidden under Russian law, a regulation which I’m sure took Kadyrov’s politics into account when it was being formulated. The Great Third Rome, savior of Western civilization, is essentially deferential to Islamic Grozny. How appropriate that Kadyrov clearly drew the inspiration for his cathedral mosque from Ottoman designs. Yep, it’s almost as if comedian Dave Chapelle’s famous sketch about the blind black man who becomes a KKK leader has come to life in a way bigger than anyone could have ever imagined.
And so once again we see how Russia represents itself one way to the outside world, while its internal reality is something totally different. This illusion relies on ignorance to sustain itself- ignorance of the language, ignorance of Russian culture, and lack of experience with ordinary life in the country. This in turn creates a bigger problem, because in order to make worthwhile allies, they have to care about your country. They have to know more about it. If you attract them, they will want to learn more. So what happens when they totally buy into Russia’s propaganda, start learning about Russia, and then ultimately find out that it’s all a sham? Obviously people react to catastrophic disillusionment in different ways, but rarely are they positive, or useful. Essentially, Russia’s using the old bait-and-switch tactic.
This is something people need to keep in mind when hearing panicky diatribes about how Russia is “beating the West” in the “information war.” Russia has a natural disadvantage in this war, in the sense that it is incoherent, it literally cannot build a coherent narrative, and the more people are attracted to her, the more they learn the truth, either rejecting their previous beliefs or going into denial and becoming burnt out- essentially rendered ineffective. It would be far better for people concerned about the effects of Russian propaganda in this respect to examine the causes behind any increase in far-right beliefs in their own countries, and work to right the various social problems or misconceptions that fuel reactionary, populist politics. As for these right-wingers gathering in Russia year after year, it’s really just a source of tragic comedy at this point, as these raging anti-Muslim crusaders rely on the hospitality of the world’s large nation, which is the de facto vassal of a publicly-pious Muslim warlord in Grozny. If only they knew.