Shadowboxing (Petersburg Antifa)

Anna Rudnitskaya
Shadowboxing
Russian Reporter 25 (55)
July 3, 2008

It is hard to believe that the war against fascism is once again being fought on the streets of Russia’s cities. This war is waged by young people who for some reason don’t like the sound of the slogan, “Beat the blacks [i.e., people from the Caucasus region and Central Asia]!” No one coordinates them, and they are in no hurry to emerge from the shadows. The antifascists are not asked to appear on TV, the Kremlin doesn’t give them medals, and they don’t go on state-sponsored trips to the famous [Nashi] summer camp on Lake Seliger. Generally, the powers that be and talking heads prefer not to mention them. Why? Is it because their struggle runs against the grain of the public mood, which has become more and more aggressive towards foreigners and non-Russians? Or is it because it is frightening to acknowledge the antifascists as a real force? For that would mean admitting that the evil they are fighting is already within us.

The words “skinhead” and “fascist” took root in the Russian language long ago. But we know almost nothing about the people known as antifa. Are they an incarnation of goodness, which (as we were taught in Soviet times) has to have fists to defend itself? Are they just street hooligans who enjoy fighting? Or are they a well-organized, deeply clandestine combat unit? No one knew much of anything about them before [their enemies] began to murder them.

The first murder to become nationwide news was that of the Petersburg professor Nikolai Girenko. This famous antifascist was shot in his own apartment. A year later, also in Petersburg, twenty-year-old Timur Kacharava perished: seven teenagers armed with knives attacked him after a [Food Not Bombs] action. Less than a year later, Moscow student Alexander Riukhin was killed as he made his way to a punk-rock concert. And this spring, Alexei Krylov was stabbed to death in downtown Moscow.


RASH

In Petersburg, everyone with whom I talked about the antifascists sooner or later mentioned the name Rash [pronounced “rush”] That was all they said: “If he decides to talk to you, then he’ll tell you his own story.” I managed to learn only a few things about him. Rash’s real name is Oleg Smirnov. In May, Smirnov was sentenced for organizing a group fight: in the fall of 2006, around thirty antifascists took on fifty some people at a Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) rally. Among Petersburg antifascists, Smirnov is a cult-like figure. Sixteen-year-olds and thirtysomething women spoke of him with equal respect.

He really did tell me everything else.

Rash is twenty-two. He was expelled from the sociology department at Petersburg’s Institute of Culture—as he himself admits, for goofing off. He works as a laborer in a landscape design firm and plays with the hardcore band Crowd Control. And the Petersburg version of what is usually known as antifa began with him.

For Rash himself, everything began a bit earlier. When he was fourteen he was a punk, and skinheads often attacked him on the streets. Back then, he says, was the rottenest time to be a punk. He began looking around for a force that could take on the skins—that is, for antifascists—but all he found were communists from the Socialist Youth Federation and, later, some anarchists. Through the anarchists he came into contact with Punk Renaissance, an organization that had just emerged in Petersburg. It was designed to help punks defend themselves against skins. Its members did guard duty at concerts.

The organization went belly up a few years later, but the punks and the skins remained. It was then that Oleg decided to take the initiative. With friends, he created his first “affinity group.” This phrase can be translated into Russian as a “group of like-minded people,” but the Russian criminal code usually defines such groups as “gangs.” In short, Oleg created an antifascist combat unit, what journalists usually dub “antifa.” Nowadays, there are several such groups in Petersburg. All told, no less than a hundred people are associated with them, but not all of them are aware of each other’s existence. But the first such group—Oleg’s group—took to the streets in late 2003.

“We decided to patrol the area around the Prospekt Bolshevikov metro station. There was a dorm for foreign students there, and these students were often attacked. We’d do three-hour beats like idiots and we froze to death, but we didn’t spot a single Nazi. One day, we decided to ask the guys in the dorm where the Nazis usually hang out. We sent one of our guys in. The students got scared. They pointed out to the window to where the rest of us were standing: ‘There they are.’ They couldn’t tell the difference between normal skinheads—that is, us—and boneheads.”

What Rash means by “normal skinheads” is antifascist skinheads like himself. His own nickname comes from the name of one such group—Red and Anarchist Skinheads (RASH). There are also “sharps”—Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP). Boneheads (from an English word meaning “empty-headed”) are Nazi skinheads. These designations were coined, in the last century, by European skinheads in response to the emergence of ultra-right-wingers in what had been a leftwing milieu. Russia’s “real” skinheads often call boneheads (or boneys) “baldies,” and they often supplement this adjective with the noun “beasts.”

What goes on between fascists and antifascists? Are the murders of antifascists (Timur Kacharava, in Petersburg; Alexander Riukhin and Alexei Krylov, in Moscow) tantamount to an all-out war to the death? What does it mean to be an antifascist in Russia? Is it merely dangerous or is it potentially fatal? After talking with Petersburg’s antifa, I came to some conclusions. Being an antifascist is quite dangerous, perhaps fatally so, but the forces of the Nazis are not as great as they might seem when you read their Internet forums or listen to speeches by their leaders.

“I don’t consider every wino in a bomber jacket and suspenders a fascist,” says Rash. “Here in Petersburg we have a few hundred serious enemies. Of course, there are morons like the Mad Crowd, this Nazi gang that stabs kids in stairwells. But I think they do harm to their own cause: the murder of a child is not something you can justify in any way, and you’re not going to earn praise that way. In the main, the boneys are so-so fighters who are backed up by a so-so organization. It’s just that there are lots of them—more than us—and there are more of them all the time, and their training just gets better. All the same, they’re mostly cowards: they prefer to run as soon as they’re attacked. They fear us more than we fear them because we really know who we’re dealing with.”

When he says they’re not afraid, Rash exaggerates a bit. He was the only antifa I met who permitted me to print his real name in this article; he even agreed to pose for photographs (albeit with his face covered). All the others refused flat out. And Rash admitted that it is all the same to him. There are photographs of him on Nazi websites, and the address of his apartment recently appeared on the Internet as well. Rash always carries a knife, for which he has a permit. He has been attacked twice—or rather, these were the two incidents that sent him to the doctor: he longer sees a concussion as a reason to visit the hospital. For the last several years, when his mom calls him on the phone, she asks “Are you still alive?” rather than “How are you?”

“What does your mom think about you’re doing?”

“Well, what can she think? She says she’s against violence. But I’m also against it. Hitler himself said that if the communists had stopped the fascists on the streets before it was too late, then WWII wouldn’t have happened.”

Junior Comrades

We agreed to meet near the Gostiny Dvor metro station. They were already waiting for me—three guys about seventeen or eighteen years old. Two of them had baseball caps pulled down over their eyes, while the third was smiling, his head uncovered.

One of the two guys in baseball caps introduced himself: “Pyotr.”

“Pyotr,” the second guy informed me.

“I get it,” I said, turning towards the third, smiling, young man. “Are you also Pyotr?”

“You can call me Pyotr,” he replied. “But they usually call me Homer Simpson.”

One of the Pyotrs added that if I was interested in a surname, then I could identify him as Kropotkin. If you’ve forgotten, [Prince] Kropotkin was a famous anarchist philosopher.

We took a table at the nearest outdoor café, where the two Pyotrs and the lone Homer told me about how young people become antifascists. Taken together, the three of them represent practically the entire set of “places” that lead young people into the antifa movement: aside from the right kind of convictions per se, these are politics and music. After all, street-level antifascism is not just about ideology. It is also partly a youth subculture—or rather, a mixture of several subcultures: (“real”) skinheads, punks, and hardcore fans. In the circles that the two Pyotrs and the lone Homer run in, Doc Martens and skill at hitching up your pants correctly are valued no less than the ability to smash the arguments of DPNI supporters. That is why people who imagine well-mannered boys from good Jewish families when they hear the word “antifascist” aren’t quite on the mark.

Homer Simpson had been a skateboarder and a punk. And, he says, he has “always” been an antifascist. His father is a military historian. He told Homer about the war.

“When I found out, at the age of seventeen, that there are such people,” Homer explains, “I made up my mind that was it, that I’d had enough!”

“Had enough of what?”

“Well, I’d get beaten up and abused: I had long hair, piercings, and a skateboard. And it wasn’t yobs that were doing this, but real Nazis. They’d say, ‘You live in Russia: respect Russian culture.’ Respect Russian culture—what does that mean? To walk around in felt boots and play the balalaika? On the contrary, subcultures are signs of a developed society. In third world countries there are no punks and no skaters. Are there subculturalists in Zimbabwe?”

“They’re everywhere!” Pyotr (aka Kropotkin) burst out laughing.

His shaven head tucked under his cap, he gave me yet another explanation of the difference between “real skinheads” and boneheads.

“They just stole everything from us: the way we look, the way we dress. So now everyone thinks that a shaven head means you’re a fascist. Do you know who the real skinheads were? They were regular white guys who worked in factories in England with workers from Jamaica, and none of them worried about ethnicity. It was a workers movement, a class movement. They were just anarchists, absolute internationalists.”

“Even nowadays it happens that a bonehead begins to see that real skinheads are a whole different crowd and goes antifa,” Pyotr added.

“Come on! Do you know anyone like that who has changed sides?”

Pyotr Kropotkin chuckles bashfully, and Homer elbows him.

“He sits before you.”

It turns out that Pyotr “began” as a totally ordinary Russian skinhead—that is, he wasn’t an antifascist in any way. It all happened in the Nevsky district of Petersburg, where he grew up. (“It’s such a breeding ground for that shit,” Homer said of his friend’s home district.)

“It was just fashionable then,” Pyotr shrugs. “I wanted to make something of myself, to feel that I was strong. I thought that Nazis were cool. But we didn’t do anything all that bad. We beat up punks, but it wasn’t serious—we didn’t use knives. And then I realized that this ideology was total crap.”

“What made you understand all of a sudden?”

“Well, it was gradual. And then I saw a news report about Timur Kacharava and I came to my senses. I thought: What is going on? I never wanted to kill anyone. I’m generally a peaceful guy, an anarchist.”

When he was a child, this peaceful guy wanted to be a cosmonaut, and so now he is studying radio electronics at college. Homer is training to be a chef.

“I just felt like it, that’s all,” he cheerfully explains to me. “I don’t think it’ll be my main profession. I’ll probably be redefining and searching for myself my whole life. I reject all forms of politics. I just want to grow up, have a family, raise kids, and not be a drag on anyone.”

It is not entirely clear what Pyotr Kropotkin and Homer Simpson have in common and why they call themselves antifa.

“You know, the anarchists have this motto: Everyone is different but equal,” says Pyotr. “What difference does it make that we have different political views? When we get together we don’t talk about politics.” (Homer adds: “I have no political views at all.”)

“Then what is the goal of antifa? What is your and Homer’s common goal? To defeat fascism?”

“Fascism cannot be defeated,” peacefully replies the other Pyotr, who has so far been silent. “The goal is to stop racist violence on the streets, and we’re successful at this. Whereas before the Nazis felt safe in this city and walked around in full battle gear, this isn’t the case anymore.”

Before—that is, four or five years ago—the boneheads “were hassling everybody.” You could see young men with shaved heads and hitched-up trousers on Nevsky Prospect. Skateboarders and rappers often hung out by the Moskovskaya metro station, and Nazi raids regularly took place there.

“And the subculturalists simply got fed up. That’s why they made the move to reciprocal violence,” Pyotr continues. “And so now the Nazis are afraid to advertise their views.”

“Are they afraid of you or of the police?”

“Partly they’re afraid of the police. Lately, the cops haven’t been so tender with them. But they’re also afraid of us.”

Pyotr Non-Kropotkin doesn’t listen to punk music and is deaf to the charms of anarchism. How did he end up with the antifascists?

“They told us about them at school,” he replies.

“At school?!”

“Well, yeah. We had this tolerance training, and there I realized I had to oppose fascism somehow. First I read all the sites in the Internet. Then I wrote on a forum that I wanted to join antifa. I asked to be introduced to someone. And so I was introduced.”

Opponent

The tolerance training Pyotr the Second talked about is conducted in several Petersburg schools (i.e., the ones that allow it) by Maxim Ivantsov, a history and law instructor who doubles as a leader of the local branch of the Oborona [Defense] youth movement.

When he heard my description of Pyotr, he quickly realized whom I was talking about.

“He’s a lot of trouble. His parents naturally have no clue what he’s up to. I shouldn’t stay quiet, but I also don’t have the right to tell his parents.”

The training method that Maxim has devised—the thing that causes his duties as a teacher and his civic position to conflict—goes like this. First, the students do different exercises connected to meeting people, and then they get to the heart of the matter—in the form of a game, Maxim says. For example, he asks: Which is it better to be, gay or fascist? This is one of the questions that seniors are supposed to ask during the exercises. A line is marked on the floor: “gays” stand on one side, “fascists” on the other. At first, Maxim says, the whole class crowds on the “fascist” side of the line. Then discussion begins. The last time Maxim did the exercise, thirteen or fourteen kids had become “gays” by the end of the session.

“It’s usually worse,” Maxim adds. “They divide up approximately fifty-fifty. Moreover, it might just be the case that recently the attitude to gays has become more tolerant. And in any case half the students stay on the ‘fascist’ side.”

Maxim is still shy of thirty. He wears jeans and doesn’t look much like a schoolteacher. Perhaps that is why he is able to find common ground with adolescents.

“I try to affect them through experiences, including my own. I’m from Estonia myself, and so I tell them about how people in Estonia related to the fact that I was Russian. Or I talk about the fact that I panic when I see gypsies, but that I nevertheless realized that the problem is with me, not with the gypsies: it is me who is afraid of them; this isn’t their fault. Such training sessions are dangerous: if you don’t know what you’re doing, then you’ll probably end up with the opposite result. That is why no top-down ‘tolerance’ programs work, all the more so when neither the state nor schools are tolerant. A teacher who doesn’t respect her own students cannot teach them to be tolerant towards others.”

“What do you think of street violence, including the violence perpetrated by antifascists?”

“It’s bad,” Maxim replies, “But those of us who advocate nonviolent forms of resistance realize that we are beginning to lose out to supporters of violent methods. Because people join antifa not only because they want to do good and be useful, but also for the drive and buzz that you can get only on the streets. This is particularly apparent nowadays, when all the ‘youth movements,’ including fascists and antifascists, have suddenly gotten younger. After all, when a person grows older he acquires some values. Whereas it used to be that the average age of all subculturalists was twenty, today all seniors know the score.”

“What is the reason?”

“The Internet. In the past, one’s life in society at large began, as a rule, at university—there you made new acquaintances, made a new circle of friends. But now everything is on the Net: all the videos of Nazi attacks, all the fights the antifascists are involved in. And every school kid has access to the Internet. Only a few years ago there were few seniors who knew about this stuff, but nowadays everyone knows. They mostly know about the fascists. They know less about antifascists. They mostly think they’re freaks who beat up the boneheads, the guys who want the best for Russia.

“Why is it wrong to fight the fascists with their own methods?”

“Because you cannot defeat violence with violence. You can’t make the world more tolerant with your fists. Most important, the people who are involved in this don’t notice how they become more and more aggressive themselves. First you’re an antifascist. Then you’re a football hooligan. Then you’re just fighting, not for a just cause, but simply because you like to fight.”

“What about Pyotr? Is he fighting for a just cause?”

“Pyotr . . . I’m afraid that more and more lately he just likes fighting for its own sake.”

Senior Comrades

Among the antifascists, including those who don’t participate in attacks on Nazis, not everyone shares Maxim Ivantsov’s views.

Katya is an English-language instructor at a university. She is between thirty and forty. She has a delicate figure and a dreamy gaze. She doesn’t fight with boneys, but she does take part in other antifascist street actions, including unsanctioned pickets and demos. And this means that she has to be ready to fight all the same—if not with the nationalists, then with the police.

In November of last year, Petersburg antifascists decided to stop the Russian March. Around fifty people blocked Nevsky as a column of several hundred nationalists marched down it. (There were only around fifty “combatants” among them; the rest were crazy grandmothers and other such “banner bearers.”) Although the mayor’s office had not permitted the march, the police were invisible—that is, until the antifascists showed up. When they blocked Nevsky, the police attempted to take up a position between them and the marchers. Then Katya heard the command “Give them a corridor!” issue from a police walkie-talkie. The police stepped to the side, and one of the marchers—inexplicably yelling, “Beat the Yids!”—pounced on Katya. She kicked him in the stomach and he retreated, but OMON soldiers jumped her from behind. “Grab this one,” one of them said before they dragged her to a bus.

Then there was the trial. “[I was charged] either with jaywalking or defaming the governor,” Katya laughs. The fight didn’t figure in the case: “They didn’t want to draw attention to the people we came out against.” But the presiding judge was so attentive and curious that, during the hearing, Katya gave her a detailed account of what had happened. The result was unexpected. “What, you fought with fascists?!” the judged asked her respectfully. “My parents are Siege survivors: I understand you so well!” Katya was acquitted of all charges.

She and I are chatting in the park next to Polytechnic University. Courage Square [Ploshchad Muzhestva] is nearby. Katya tells me that it got this name because during the Siege, corpses were brought here from all over the city for later burial at Piskarevskoye Cemetery. “There are fascists everywhere, but it’s especially unpleasant to see them in this city, of course.”

We head to the metro through another park, next to the Forestry Academy. Katya tells me the story of her neighbor lady. This cultured elderly woman was walking down this same path one evening when she saw that two young men who looked like skinheads were stalking an African student. The woman didn’t lose her cool: she attacked them with her bag and shouted, “Get the hell out of here, fascists!” The young men obeyed her. “So it’s hard to say how many antifascists prepared for direct action there are in the city,” Katya laughs. “There around a hundred people who regularly participate in actions.”

She wholly approves of the actions of Rash and his comrades. I tell her about Maxim Ivantsov, his reservations [about the actions of antifa], and his tolerance training.

“You know, I don’t like the word tolerance,” Katya sharply replies. “There are things you don’t need to be tolerant about. I myself hate fascism with a wild, animal-like hatred. I’m an intolerant person.”

There is also a more pragmatic view of things.

“To put it cynically, while the boneys are distracted with us, they kill fewer Tajiks and Uzbeks,” says Zhenya aka Elephant, yet another of Rash’s older comrades and, like him, a former member of Punk Renaissance, when I ask him about the efficacy of antifascist street violence.

“Is that enough?”

“It’s not enough, but it’s important. So you cannot say that the violence our people commit is wholly unjustified.”

Zhenya tells me about a recent article in a Russian magazine. The article describes how, on May Day this year, leftist radicals shouting antifascist slogans wreaked havoc in Hamburg, torching cars and attacking police. The article’s author concluded that the antifascists were no different in their methods than fascists. He went so far as to call them “followers of their hated Hitler.”

Zhenya, of course, was outraged by the article. As he discussed Nazi violence, he referred to another text, on an antifascist site. Its author had drawn a parallel between the current explosion of Nazi violence in Russia and the terror in Ulster in the seventies and eighties, when the Shankill Butchers (a Protestant paramilitary gang) stabbed, tortured, and killed random Catholics with the silent approval of peaceful Protestants. “The Moscow bonehead movement is evolving along these same lines. The only difference is that the boneys who do the killing are younger. If there are people who have these proclivities, and society justifies such behavior, they quite quickly become addicted to violence,” writes the text’s author.

I asked Zhenya to send me links to both articles. I read them and was amazed. The two texts, which he had cited as examples of two completely opposed viewpoints, were essentially about the same thing. Whether Irish Protestants, Russian boneheads or German antifascists commit it, violence that doesn’t encounter local resistance inevitably becomes uncontrollable, quickly crossing the line between necessary self-defense and attacking for the sake of attacking.

Grandmother

In May, the Leninsky District Court in Petersburg sentenced participants in a group fight that involved several dozen people on both sides. In September 2006, DPNI supporters held a rally on Pioneer Square in connection with the events in the Karelian town of Kondopoga. Before they had a chance to settle in, they were attacked by approximately thirty antifascists wielding bottles and flares. This was the largest mass action by Petersburg antifa in the entire history of the movement. Around two dozen people were detained, and six of them ended up in court on charges of hooliganism. Rash was charged with organizing the fight and inducing minors to commit criminal acts. The prosecutor requested that he be sentenced to six years in prison.

Rash wasn’t even arrested at the scene of the fight—or rather, he was, but he was immediately released from the precinct after he gave a policeman 3,000 rubles. He was arraigned later on the basis of testimony given by other detainees. He says that he didn’t organize the fight, that no one at all organized it. “The day before, there was an antifascist concert at a club. Someone said that the Nazis were having a rally [the following day]: ‘Let’s go and kick the shit out of them.’ We agreed on a time to meet and went there.”

Rash’s impressions of the trial were mixed. On the one hand, DPNI pleasantly surprised him.

“They turned out to be real morons—what absurd things they said during the trial! The judge asks them how they came to be at the scene of the incident. They had so much time to come up with something. They all had lawyers; moreover, they even gave their testimony with their lawyers present. But they had these spiels like, ‘I just happened to be walking by when a bottle hit me in the head.’ I honestly thought they were smarter and more dangerous. But they simply repeat from the podium what people say during conversations at home with friends and family—about ‘blacks taking over’ and all the rest. But they’re not organized at all.”

On the other hand, his “moronic” opponents went to great efforts to put Rash behind bars. He himself had little faith that he could avoid this outcome.

The verdict was read out on May 8, on the eve of Victory Day, and this perhaps is the reason it was less severe than the prosecutor and the victims had expected. Rash was handed a one-year suspended sentence, and the other defendants were given even lighter sentences. Rash’s trial lawyer was Zara Kaloeva. It was her first criminal case in forty-seven years as a practicing attorney. Rash is her grandson.

Grandmother explained to the investigator (who at first wanted to arrest Rash) that the fight was not hooliganism, but a political act. She repeated the same line during the trial, adding that it was the state that should combat fascism, not lone individuals on the streets. So that the prosecutor would have nothing to pin on him, she forbade Rash from giving any testimony whatsoever. She was interested to hear a report prepared by a research center that was read out at the trial. The researchers explained who Russian antifascists are. If she understood correctly, they represent an example of a “diffuse group.”

It is only slightly easier for her to figure out her own grandson’s life. On the other hand, Kaloeva gave a much more detailed account of how he was expelled from university than he had given me himself. The Institute of Culture wasn’t his first institute of higher learning; he studied first at the Polytechnic, in the Chinese department. He completed two years of study. In his third year he was supposed to go to China for practical study—at his own expense. Rash’s mother is a schoolteacher; his father died several years ago. His grandmother was willing to pay for his trip, but he refused her offer. He didn’t go—either because his grandmother didn’t pay for his trip or because he had things to do in Petersburg that were more important than Chinese. He had to look for another school, and so he ended up in the sociology department. He made it to his fifth year: all that was left were winter exams and his diploma thesis. In the fall, however, he attacked the DPNI rally, and the investigator promised him that he’d do time. He stopped going to class, and he was expelled—from the fifth year. It doesn’t appear, however, that Rash has big regrets. “I have an acquaintance who got an honors degree in sociology: he works as a parking attendant,” he said to me.

I asked Zara Kaloeva where kids like Rash come from, but it appeared that she herself was perplexed.

“Neither I nor my daughter ever talked to him about such things. True, he once said to me that it was his father who taught him to ‘love the Motherland,’ as he put it. Well, and he reads books. The classics. And then the anarchists. This is what he once said to me about anarchy: ‘Everyone thinks that anarchy means disorder, but in fact it’s the best form of order!’ And he once said, ‘I don’t understand how you can look at what’s happening and not do anything about it.’”

Concert

At the Skier Children’s Club (at the Skier factory in the city of Kirov), an antifascist concert is underway. The bill features several local hardcore and punk bands, and the special guest is Crowd Control, in which Rash plays. The local antifascists organize such events once a month. They say they used to do them more often. A few years ago Kirov was regarded as the capital of Russian antifascism: there were almost more antifa than boneys. Nowadays, many antifascists are serving suspended sentences, which forces them to be careful. So now there are once again more boneys.

On the Skier’s miniature children’s stage hangs a wreath that spells out the phrase, “Farewell, Elementary School”; on the opposite wall hangs an “Antifascist Action” poster and a bill for the concert, entitled “Rise Up, Shit!” In the breaks between sets, all one hundred (or more) concertgoers spill out onto the street, occupying multicolored children’s benches. Law-abiding passersby quicken their pace when they catch sight of this riot of mohawks, tattoos, and hoods.

“We would like to dedicate our next song to the memory of our grandfathers, who fought against fascism,” says the soloist of the group warming up for Crowd Control.

He sings, “They fought against fascism. They marched forward and didn’t know that there would be new deaths in a new fascist war.” I glance at the faces around me: if you ignore the mohawks, these are ordinary faces. And besides, they’re sober—there are no more than three people who are drunk. There is another couple of people who look like yobs, but all the rest have peaceful eyes and kind faces. They stand and listen to the song about their grandfathers.

Crowd Control comes onstage. Rash is on guitar; the singer is the guy with the honors degree in sociology. Rash’s brother, who is a year older, also plays in the band. The concert in Kirov is a stop on a tour to promote their new album; before coming to Kirov, they played shows in Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod. The five members of the band have traveled this whole route in one car: they can’t even afford the cheapest train tickets. The album is on sale here for fifty rubles [one and a half euros]. “All the money we raise will go to our comrades in the Petersburg branch of the Anarchist Black Cross,” Rash tells the crowd from the stage. “You can look at it that you’re donating fifty rubles to this organization and getting our album as a gift.”

They begin to play. I cannot make sense of the words: it’s hardcore after all. Distorted in concentration, the singer’s face suggests anything whatsoever except an honor’s degree in sociology. “Fucking awesome!” screams the crowd.

Each song comes with a preface.

“The next piece is called ‘Hell on Earth.’ It’s about ecology, which we think is really important, including for our Leningrad Region. Just recently, as you probably heard, there was a leak of harmful substances at the atomic plant near Petersburg. Although the authorities and the Greenpeacers assure us that in fact nothing happened, we know the truth,” says Rash.

In fact, there was no explosion at the Leningrad Atomic Electrical Plant. There was a false alarm, but Rash either doesn’t believe this or has a hunch that sixteen—the average age of the concertgoers—isn’t a time for worrying about the details.

After Greenpeace and the authorities, the mass media take a thrashing (“Hysteria”), and then the church (Rash is certain that religion is means of manipulating mass consciousness) and lovers of meat and fur. “I call on all of you to become vegetarians. They’ve filled your heads with this crap that you can’t do bodybuilding if you don’t eat meat, but in fact the protein in dairy products is more nutritious. It’s also fucked up to wear fur and leather,” Rash explains. Then he gets down to business.

“What we’re trying to say is that antifascists can’t limit themselves to banging the crap out of boneys. Fascism is not only on the streets—it’s in our kitchens, in parliament. We have to change public consciousness. When people stop saying at home that ‘the blacks have moved in,’ the boneys will just automatically disappear from the streets.”

The concert ends. The promoters ask that no one leave yet: we have to leave as a group. To do otherwise would be dangerous. Local Nazis tore down practically all the posters advertising the show: they know about the event and might attack us. But our friendly one-hundred-strong mob makes it to our stop in peace and piles onto two buses. It seems that only the conductor is afraid. The buses are headed to the “square”—the place where local punks and antifa hang out. That is where they’re having the “after-party”: beer, conversation, and (if we’re lucky) a fight with boneys.

Rash has changed out of his concert t-shirt into a pullover emblazoned with the slogan “Nazi Hunter,” and he is holding a crowbar instead of a guitar. But thanks to his smile he doesn’t look threatening even in this get-up. I ask him whether he is afraid that antifascist violence will become as uncontrollable as its fascist counterpart, whether anything but their slogans distinguishes his comrades-in-arms from the boneys.

“Yes, there is this danger,” he says. “But we try to explain that the task is not to kill fascists but let them know that they’re not safe, that what they do is bad and they’ll be punished. Especially when we’re not talking about murderers, but kids who out of sheer stupidity put on bomber jackets and go out ‘hunting for blacks.’ What I fear most of all is that our guys will began killing such kids. But so that they don’t fight like madmen, I always tell our guys: Always think before attacking; figure out whom you’re up against. Our task is not to smack one more bonehead in the mug, but to put a stop to their violence.”

Rash is an interesting guy to spend time with. He’s the genuine article, absolutely unpretentious despite his age and circumstances. What is more surprising is that there is nothing aggressive about him—not his words, not his eyes, not the way he talks with you. He is charming, almost a regular guy. Goddamn it, why didn’t he keep studying for his sociology degree!

“What,” I ask, “are you going to be doing in ten years?”

“In ten years?” he shrugs. “I imagine that by then they’ll have either put me in prison or killed me.”

Saint Petersburg—Kirov

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Shadowboxing (Petersburg Antifa)

  1. Alex Hoban

    Thank you for this valuable insight. All too often in Russian history have monoliths gone head to head when, behind their opposing ideologies, at their hearts their combative drives spark from the same awkward misplaced core. Judging by this article, this either/or ethos still remains at the forefront of the russian pysche. I wonder if Russia shall ever learn a type of negotiation and balance that will allow it to avoid the never ending tempest of conflict and internal difficulty that has underscored its breathtakingly colourful history. Does it ever even want to and who can be the one to say it should?

  2. hecksinductionhour

    I’m not sure what any of this has to do with the Russian psyche. While it’s possible to argue against the methods of the young people profiled in this article, their “extremism” (as the current Russian powers that be are wont to call it) is a response to a quite serious problem, one that has serious (and often lethal) consequences for the folks on the receiving end: foreigners, “guest workers,” ethnic minorities, antifa, members of the “wrong” subcultures (emos, goths, skaters, punks). This problem is aggravated by public indifference and/or tacit support for the racists, and official neglect, malfeasance, and outright encouragement of nationalist and racist attitudes.

    But these kinds of problems have existed and do exist in other countries. Where struggles against racism have been more or less successful, it hasn’t been a matter of “negotiation and balance,” but of grassroots mobilization and struggle (although tactics are another matter), and pressure on officialdom to “do the right thing.” Russians are as capable of mounting that struggle as any other people. If they don’t, then that failure has a sociohistorical explanation. It cannot be put down to “national character” (a fiction that in any case is always being reshaped).

    The name of our group and newspaper is Chto Delat — What Is To Be Done? What do you suggest should be done?

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