Kremlin Not Amused By Life of This Party

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 16, 2005

MOSCOW -- The 39 defendants sat in cages lined up against the wall of a Moscow courtroom one day this month. The prisoners, most of them students in their teens and early twenties, were members of the National Bolshevik Party, a radical opposition group with a penchant for tossing eggs at officials, gate-crashing government buildings and generally thumbing their noses at authority.

They are accused of creating a "mass disturbance" in December after they burst into a reception room at the public offices of President Vladimir Putin outside the Kremlin and waved a banner out the window that read, "Putin Quit Your Job!"

But the prosecution of the political activists is part of a wider government crackdown on the National Bolsheviks, a party with ultranationalist roots that claims to have fashioned itself into a force for democratic change and economic justice, including redistribution of wealth.

The National Bolsheviks, whose name harkens back to the revolutionaries led by Vladimir I. Lenin who founded the Soviet Union, were banned in June by a Moscow court. Party lawyers said that was the first time a political party had been outlawed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The court held that the National Bolsheviks were intent on "a forceful change of the foundations of the constitutional regime."

The Russian Supreme Court was scheduled to rule on the party's appeal of that decision on Tuesday. "We are the most courageous party, we are the most uncontrolled," said the group's leader, Eduard Limonov, 62, an iconoclastic Russian writer who twirls his gray, Dali-esque moustache as he speaks. "We want to create a climate of political freedom and so we are very irritating to the Kremlin. We make the government crazy."

Occasionally, they even infuriate the lawyers trying to keep them out of prison.

After their attorneys presented a motion calling for the release of the 39 defendants from their pretrial detention, the judge turned to the young prisoners and asked if any of them had anything to say.

Up stood Julian Ryabtsev, a bespectacled skinhead wearing a T-shirt with the inflammatory insignia of his party, a parody of the Nazi banner with the Soviet Union's hammer and sickle substituted for the swastika on a white circle surrounded by red.

"All of Russia is a jail," said Ryabtsev, 23, a former theology student at a Russian Orthodox Church seminary who holds U.S. citizenship. "It doesn't matter where we live."

The defense attorneys groaned and rolled their eyes. One of the prosecutors smiled slightly. And the motion was quickly rejected.

The party's ability to galvanize young people -- it claims to have 22,000 members with hundreds more joining each month -- has unsettled the Kremlin, which seems increasingly fearful of youth-driven rebellions of the kind that toppled governments in Georgia and Ukraine.

"It's the only party that struggles for ordinary people, the only party that is not afraid," said Sergei Karamnov, 28, a landscape gardener who joined the party last week. To some political analysts, the Kremlin's attempt to crush the National Bolsheviks has been counterproductive. "Politically, it's very stupid," said Alexander Tarasov, a senior analyst at the New Sociology and Practical Politics Center in Moscow. "If they allowed them to register, I don't think they could get one candidate elected. But now they are a symbol of resistance and young people are turning to them."

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