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."
The National Bolsheviks revel in political pranks. Activists have squirted mayonnaise at the head of the Russian election commission and dumped orange juice on the coach of the country's soccer team, among other acts of what they call "food terrorism."
Another group of young people occupied offices in the Health Ministry last summer after forcing the building's evacuation when they arrived in fake uniforms and pretended to be the bomb squad. They then tossed a portrait of Putin out the window.
The state has responded harshly. As many as 50 party activists are in prison. And the defendants in the current trial face up to eight years in prison for their two-hour occupation, which ended when police stormed the building.
The party was founded in 1994 by Limonov and figures from what he calls the cultural avant-garde. The party's flag was adapted from Limonov's books and the group was initially regarded as a countercultural oddity with some neo-fascist and hard-line nationalist ideas.
Limonov had returned to Russia after years in exile in the United States and France following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He worked in Manhattan as a housekeeper for a wealthy family and later turned his misadventures in the city and his scathing take on American life into semi-autobiographical novels, such as "It's Me, Eddie," that were acclaimed in Paris.
Limonov now says the group has become a "classical left-wing party" that has shed its chauvinistic origins. His opponents in the government are unconvinced.
"If chauvinist, pro-fascist forces provoke an upsurge of Islamic extremism, it would pose a serious threat to the integrity of our multicultural state," Vladislav Surkov, deputy chief of staff in the Putin administration, said in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel. And some members make little attempt to hide their xenophobia. At a party meeting in Moscow this week, an activist visiting from Murmansk spoke bitterly about Chinese moving into his city and taking jobs from Russians.
Limonov was sentenced to four years in prison in 2001 for his part in what the state said was an attempt to foment a coup in Kazakhstan. He was released after 2 1/2 years, a period in which he wrote eight books, including his reflections on 52 leading world figures, from Mao to Marilyn Monroe.
"I became wiser and more tolerant," Limonov said of his time in prison. "Prison is a good school of life."
Such sentiments infuriate the parents and friends of some of the young people who could face long prison sentences for the antics he dreams up. "I'm very angry with him," said Natalia Lind, whose 23-year-old son, Vladimir, a former philosophy student in St. Petersburg, is on trial. "These kids are like steppingstones for him."
Limonov rejects the allegation, but the party, on the back of its activists' willingness to confront the state, has forced its way into the middle of Russia's fragmented opposition. The National Bolsheviks are now forming loose alliances with the youth wings of the Russian Communist Party and the reformist Yabloko party.
Limonov sees his young charges as the opposition's street vanguard during the parliamentary elections in 2007 and the presidential election in 2008. He said he admired the tactics of the protesters whose Orange Revolution toppled the old regime in Ukraine but is no fan of the country's new president, Viktor Yushchenko. At a party meeting this week, Limonov sported a T-shirt with the words "For Ukraine without Yushchenko."
"We need a confrontation with Putin, and that is easy to organize, but only with a union of opposition forces," Limonov said. The Kremlin, in response, has organized its own youth group called Nashi, or Ours, which organizers said will take to the streets to defend the existing order in the event of any kind anti-establishment revolt in Russia.
Limonov relishes the prospect of a showdown. And he professes little worry that he might face another, longer term in prison. Laughing, he said, "I've still got my green card."