Moscow, Russia – The Russians expected to be seated in a distant corner and ignored – but got a red-carpet reception instead. An unofficial delegation of 16 legislators, bankers and political pundits arrived in Washington, DC, in February to participate in an annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast hosted by the US Congress and attended by the incumbent president.
They ended up meeting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and having a private dinner with notable evangelical Christian Republicans, the pillar of President Donald Trump‘s political base, a Kremlin insider who was part of the delegation, said.
“I did not expect such a positive reception, that there would be people I had only read about and never had a chance to meet,” Andrey Kolyadin, who served as head of Kremlin’s regional politics department, told Al Jazeera.
Kolyadin, now one of Russia’s top campaign managers, was invited to the breakfast by Republican Dana Rohrabacher of California. Rohrabacher supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea and war with ex-Soviet, pro-Western Georgia. He even “okayed” the idea of Alaska “rejoining” Russia (the tsarist government sold the peninsula in 1867).
A generation ago, such a dinner would seem impossible.
The mummified body of communist leader Vladimir Lenin is still displayed in a granite mausoleum on Moscow’s Red Square. One hundred years ago this November, he led the 1917 Bolshevik revolution to create a worldwide communist utopia, eradicate capitalism and replace religion with atheist Marxism.
Red Russia inspired communist movements from China to Colombia and turned Eastern Europe into its political backyard, and a Manichean confrontation between Moscow and Washington led to Cold War and fears of mutually assured destruction.
A century after the revolution, the political pendulum has swung back.
We will have to fight for Crimea and Eastern Ukraine
Moscow sees itself as a resurgent superpower – but the Kremlin’s current ideology opposes almost everything the communists stood for. After Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third presidency in 2012, Moscow has become a global bellwether of neo-conservative, ultranationalist, right-wing and anti-globalist political forces, and the Russian Orthodox Church eagerly fills the void left by the collapse of the Communist dogma.
Trump hailed President Vladimir Putin during his election campaign, and his administration’s ties to the Kremlin threaten his presidency.
Emboldened by Trump’s election, the American “alt-right” – a loose network of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, nativists and Islamophobes that often oppose gay rights, multiculturalism and Washington’s globalist policies – hope to enter mainstream politics.
And Putin’s Russia is a source of their inspiration.
“Russia adheres to traditionalism, the so-called tolerance programs don’t work here, and as an opponent to the US and the Anglo-Saxon world it does interest some rightist political forces,” Moscow-based political analyst Alexei Mukhin told Al Jazeera.
These forces shower Russia with superlatives.
“I really believe that Russia is the leader of the free world right now,” Matthew Heimbach, head of the white supremacist Traditionalist Workers Party, said last December. “Putin is supporting nationalists around the world and building an anti-globalist alliance, while promoting traditional values and self-determination.”
“The most powerful white power in the world” – that’s what Richard Spencer, another white supremacist leader who popularised the term “alt-right” and urged his supporters to “hail” Trump, calls Russia.
His ethnic Russian wife, Nina Kouprianova is a Putin loyalist who writes and blogs under the name of Nina Byzantina.
Her pseudonym offers a partial explanation for the shift in Russia’s policies. Russians accepted Orthodox Christianity from Byzantine Greeks, and tsarist Russia saw itself as a “Third Rome,” a civilisational heir of the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, known as the “Second Rome”.
Kouprianova translated the works of controversial philosopher Alexander Dugin, who believes that Russia is the world’s sole power that prevents the coming of Antichrist and predicts the revival of the Russian Empire through a new “Eurasian Union” with former Soviet republics that will eventually take over all of Europe, into English.
After his 2014 calls to “kill, kill, kill” ethnic Ukrainians, Dugin lost his job as a sociology professor at Moscow State University and was blacklisted by the European Union and the US. He holds no official posts, but his ideas find supportes in the halls of power.
“We will have to fight for Crimea and Eastern Ukraine,” Dugin wrote in 2009 – and the Kremlin followed suit in 2014. Putin often quotes historian Lev Gumilev, whose works inspired Dugin, and the Moscow-led free trade bloc that includes several ex-Soviet republics is named the “Eurasian Economic Union.”
Divide and rule
The Kremlin has forged ties with far-right political parties in the West and backs their efforts to break away from alliances such as the European Union or NATO, or seek independence from their central governments.
The more the West is disunited, the more beneficial it is to Russia
Putin’s European supporters include such Eurosceptic and far-right groups as the National Democratic Party of Germany and the Alternative for Germany, Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, the Freedom Party of Austria, the Serbian Radical Party and France’s National Front. The latter’s leader, Marine Le Pen, said she “admired” Putin and admitted to receiving a $12m loan from a Kremlin-affiliated bank in 2014.
Pro-Kremlin pundits have a simple explanation.
“The more the West is disunited, the more beneficial it is to Russia,” Sergei Markov, a former Russian legislator with the State Duma, a lower house of parliament, and head of a pro-Kremlin think-tank in Moscow, told Al Jazeera.
The forging of ties with the Western far-right groups contradicts Russia’s domestic crackdown on similar groups. Dozens of skinheads and neo-Nazis have been sentenced to jail in Russia in recent years for hate and “terrorist attacks” and “extremism”.
“They support people like me abroad, and jail us here,” Dmitry Demishkin, a veteran skinhead and head of the ultra-nationalist Russkiye (Russians) group told this reporter in July 2015. In April, he was sentenced to two and a half years in jail for “extremism”.
Louis Marinelli is determined to break California from the United States.
The 31-year-old leads the Yes California group that hoped to hold a referendum on the Golden State’s secession in 2019. But these days, Marinelli lives in Yekaterinburg, a grim, industrial megalopolis near the Ural Mountains.
He fled to his Russian wife’s hometown because he says US authorities “may find or create some trumped-up charges against me, or either outright detain me, or perhaps just simply destroy my reputation.”
Marinelli plans to apply for Russian citizenship next year.
bear alone, will always try to chain it, to take out its teeth and claws”]
Upon his arrival in Russia last September, he addressed a conference of like-minded separatists from around the world who had gathered at a luxurious hotel just outside the Kremlin walls. Their political agendas were radically different from each other.
The Northern League is a far-right separatist group from northern Italy. The Polisario Front fights for Western Sahara’s independence from Morocco and Mauritania. Separatists from Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Georgia have already carved out their de-facto independent fiefdoms – unlike Edmund Silva Jr., the “sovereign” of Hawaii, whose video address was played at the conference.
The conference was organised by the Russian Anti-Globalist movement, a Moscow-based group that denies ties to the Kremlin. But its leader, a bespectacled seven-footer named Alexander Ionov, admitted to this reporter that the separatist summit was paid for by a $55,000 government grant – and donations from “Texas and other countries”.
A year earlier, Rodina (“Motherland”), a nationalist, anti-migrant party organised a similar forum in St Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city and Putin’s hometown, for Eurosceptic groups, ultranationalists and separatists from Greece, Italy, Great Britain and the US.
Rodina’s founder Dmitri Rogozin served as Russian envoy to NATO and is now a deputy prime minister in charge of defence and space industries. The EU and the US blacklisted Rogozin for his role in the annexation of Crimea.
Although Putin never openly supported separatism outside Russia, he quipped at the Western support to the 1991 Soviet collapse and what he calls further attempts to dismember Russia.
“They won’t leave the [Russian] bear alone, will always try to chain it, to take out its teeth and claws,” he said in 2014.
“We have heard many times from officials that it’s unfair that entire Siberia, with its immeasurable wealth, belongs to Russia. Why unfair? And grabbing, wrestling Texas from Mexico was fair?”
Russia’s support of wannabe separatists abroad runs parallel to a violent rejection of any secessionism in the nation of 143 million where ethnic Russians make up four-fifths of the population. The remaining fifth consists of more than a hundred ethnic groups the tiny principality of Moscow conquered during its transcontinental expansion.
Some of these ethnicities still harbour bitter memories of the conquest and its consequences. Chechens were fierce foes of tsarist armies – and their two wars for independence after the Soviet collapse were drowned in blood.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea is the latest example of Moscow’s crackdown on “separatism” – at least nine people have been sentenced to up to five years in jail for online posts that call the Black Sea peninsula part of Ukraine, human rights group Agora said in early June.