ST. PETERSBURG — In a half-lit basement on a side street in St. Petersburg, 18 men holding reproduction Makarov pistols were fumbling through an exercise, racking the slides, taking aim and firing. Click, click, click, click, click. Repeat.
Denis Gariev, the instructor, called out to pause the training.
He was not about to air his political views, an ethnic nationalism so raw that he is far to the right of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He was about to rail against a society that had gone soft.
“Nowadays everyone tells the boys starting in kindergarten, ‘Don’t act so aggressive, be smarter,’ ” he said in a mocking baby voice. “And we turn into these unaggressive vegetables.”
Gariev aims to restore the aggression.
“By and large, we are learning how to kill,” he told his charges, who had come to the “Reserve” military-patriotic club for a one-week paramilitary course called “Partisan.”
“We hope that it will never happen to us and we’ll never harm a living creature. But if we have to, then we should be ready.”
The “cadets” listening to Gariev were largely white-collar and self-employed workers from cities across Russia, men motivated less by an ideology than by the siege mentality that has surged here since the wars in Ukraine and Syria and a conviction that the modern Russian man should be combat-ready.
They signed up to train for 12 hours a day or more in a week-long, military-style course that promises to increase one’s chances of survival “in case of a war or total collapse of modern society.”
“The storm clouds are gathering,” said Alexei, 38, a former Greco-Roman wrestler from the Volga River city of Samara, who, like several others in the course, did not give his last name. He said that he was motivated by a sense of instability because of the threat of terrorism and the conflict in Ukraine. “If there is ever a mobilization, then I will be ready, not the kind of person to be given a rifle, yell ‘Hurrah!’ and make it two or three steps before I am shot down,” he said.
Much of the training course takes place outside the city center, in abandoned lots and buildings used for a game called airsoft, which is similar to paintball but played with guns that fire plastic BBs.
To handle a gun, you must be “maximally aggressive,” Gariev said.
The men learn to fire a Kalashnikov rifle and Makarov pistol, apply a tourniquet and storm a room in tactical formation. They learn to rappel down abandoned buildings and hold their rifles steady, ready to fire, while charging across a swampy field. During short breaks they pose for selfies in balaclavas, keepsakes from their week away from the daily grind.
Political discussion is purposefully left out of the courses, Gariev said. But he thinks his cadets will be natural allies in a coming clash of civilizations.
That’s why he refuses to train Muslims.
“Victory is about spirit. It’s been like that since, hell knows, since Akhenaten, all the way up to Putin and Obama. Nothing has changed,” he told the men in the basement.
The speech had its effect. The men straightened their backs. Eighteen pairs of hands went back to work, now with purpose. Click, click, click, click, click.
Gariev, a history graduate from St. Petersburg and a former soldier with the strategic missile troops, has been training Russians to fight for a long time. In 2009 he grew disenchanted with purely political activism and began urging Russian men to buy guns legally and start training to use them together. Soon, he was conducting courses for civilians.
When the war in Ukraine began in 2014, he started training Russian volunteers to fight alongside the Imperial Legion, the paramilitary arm of the Russian Imperial Movement, a right-wing political group united around reverence for the Russian Empire, the czar and Russian Orthodoxy. He also fought in eastern Ukraine.
More than 300 men passed through the courses for volunteers, he said, some of them graduates of his civilian training. Pictures of them line the walls of the club’s gym, groups of a dozen men in camouflage clustered around the blue-and-red flag of the separatists.
Gariev is a critic of Putin. He thinks that the Russian government is corrupt and does not do enough to protect the interests of ethnic Russians. In the past, that made the club a target for law enforcement raids.
But the war in Ukraine, for a time, brought the interests of the Kremlin and Russian nationalists closer. Gariev said that as he and his allies turned their attention away from domestic politics, raids by the police also subsided.
“We don’t receive any support, but at the same time, we aren’t hampered” by the authorities, Ruslan Starodubov, a member of the Imperial Legion, told a BBC film crew last year.
Gariev’s views on Ukraine are far more aggressive, and much more extreme, than those voiced by the Kremlin. He called Ukraine a “pseudo-nation invented by the Soviets” and blamed Russian television for fomenting a civil war around an ethnic distinction he says does not exist.
“We see Ukrainian-ness as rabies,” he said. “A person is sick. Either quarantine, liquidation, or he’ll infect everyone.”
He also blames the West.
“The goal of the West is to weaken us by making Russians kill one another,” Gariev said. “They are succeeding.”
Along with others in the Imperial Legion, he stopped traveling to Ukraine to fight in 2015, he said, because he believed the conflict has been co-opted by government and oligarchic interests from Russia, Ukraine and the West.
“At one time we saw a possibility of changing history,” he said. “At the moment, it no longer exists.”
The “Partisan” courses for civilians have resumed in earnest. Attendance has tripled since the war in Ukraine began, Gariev said.
Similar training courses, open to ordinary Russian men, are in vogue among nationalist groups, said Alexander Verkhovsky, the head of the Moscow-based SOVA Center, which monitors extremism.
“The military training is the only part of their activities that is still really active,” Verkhovsky said. “They are having a real political decline. But their energies are still focused on these training sessions.”
The clubhouse is covered with war trophies from Ukraine and military bric-a-brac. There are anti-American flourishes, like an Obama doormat at the entrance to the ping-pong room. There are also stickers from opposition marches, some bearing the image of Putin and the caption, “A thief should sit in prison.”
“What is really interesting here is why the authorities are so tolerant,” Verkhovsky said. “I don’t know why.”
The club is hardly a secret; during the November training, a reporter for a St. Petersburg television station had embedded with the group for a gonzo-style report. Overall, Gariev said, they’ve had more than 500 students since 2011. The experience can be transformative: One man lost more than 65 pounds to attend.
Roughly speaking, the “cadets” break into two groups: Some were outdoors types, who said they wanted to test their mettle. Others said they were concerned about safety and self-defense.
Most appeared to be handling a Kalashnikov for the first time, and none said they were planning to travel to fight in Ukraine (“They wouldn’t tell you if they were,” Gariev noted).
For the past three years, said Timofey Filkin, a baby-faced 30-year-old from the industrial city of Perm in the Ural Mountains, he had spent 30 to 40 minutes a day online gathering information and “monitoring” the conflict in Ukraine, with its scenario of societal breakdown that he thinks is possible in Russia as well.
“If I didn’t have a family, I would seriously have thought about going to Donbass in May and June of 2014, though I don’t know if I would have had the heart,” Filkin said. (Donbass is one of the centers of the separatist fight in eastern Ukraine. )
An academic at Perm’s Polytechnic University focusing on environmental protection, he said he had to “make considerable promises” to his wife and two children to travel to St. Petersburg for the training course. “Now that I’m a family man, my strategy is a little bit different: defending places closer to home.”
He said he did not know much about the Russian Imperial Movement and didn’t consider himself a nationalist. “I’m an Orthodox man, but I think that our views on government are likely quite different,” he said. “I can’t say I’m a monarchist or a Russian nationalist.”
Another “cadet,” Sergey Smirnov, an independent businessman and blogger from the Ural Mountains city of Chelyabinsk, expressed even less interest in politics.
“I’m interested in military topics, masculine hobbies, hard, tough, extreme things, things that require you to overcome physical discomfort,” he said. In February, he’s planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
“I don’t feel any kind of danger,” he said. “I just think a man should always be ready.”
Ditto for Andrei Timofeyev, 33, who described himself as a “bored manager” whose wife started complaining about his extreme sports after their daughter was born. The paramilitary course was something they could agree on.
“I don’t share those kinds of extreme views,” he said, when asked about nationalism and the Russian Imperial Movement. “I don’t see anything wrong in trying to help your own nation. But it is not good to go to extremes, to hold radical views. Either being ultranationalist or ultra-tolerant.”
No matter, Gariev said.
“I don’t tell the cadets that they need to become members of one or another political group,” Gariev said. “I just say that we’re all Russian people and in the coming war we are all going to have to come together — Communists, pagans and Orthodox together.”