Moscow, Russia – The last tsar has become one of Russia’s top newsmakers – and the ideological scions of his paramilitary henchmen turn into Orthodox Christian fighters.
Nicholas II Romanov – whose reign was marked by lost wars, anti-Jewish pogroms and two revolutions – abdicated a century ago, and Bolsheviks killed him and his family in 1918. The Russian Orthodox Church canonized them as martyrs, and some believers call him “a holy sovereign”.
Some of them were enraged by Matilda, a period drama about Nicholas II’s love affair with Matilda Kshesinskaya, an underage ballerina of Polish extraction – even though the affair was well-documented, because generations of Romanov princes and tsars had a penchant for ballerinas.
The $25m film by award-winning director Alexei Uchitel became Russia‘s most debated flick long before its late October release.
The best-known opponent of Matilda is Natalya Poklonskaya, the pro-Russian ex-prosecutor of Crimea whose youthful yet stern image inspired manga art after Moscow annexed the peninsula in 2014.
Now a federal legislator, the 37-year-old blonde is on a crusade against the film saying it “offends believers’ feelings” and urging prosecutors to investigate the film’s “morality” and $25-million funding, which was partly covered by Russia’s Culture Ministry.
“The aim of the Matilda project is an open encroachment on Russia’s spiritual core and memory as if it continues a ritual that started 100 years ago and killed the entire tsar’s family”, Poklonskaya, who reportedly belongs to an Orthodox sect that considers Nicholas II an incarnation of Christ, wrote on Facebook in early September.
Poklonskaya’s anti-Matilda campaign spurred threats, arsons and attacks, manifesting the rise Russia’s alt-right – a loose network of ultra-nationalists and white supremacists who readily resort to intimidation, threats and violence against their opponents – real or imaginary.
“We’re dealing with a new generation of fundamentalists,” Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Center, a hate crimes monitor in Moscow, told Al Jazeera. “They are capable of violence, they are prone to violence.”
Marginalised and ignored until recently, they are now emboldened by President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly anti-Western and nationalist stance, the growing power of the Russian Orthodox Church and the election of Donald Trump.
In early September, an Orthodox activist tried to blow up a movie theatre in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city. After failing to drive a minibus loaded with petrol and natural gas containers through the doors, he threw a Molotov cocktail inside the building.
Arsonists threw a Molotov cocktail into filmmaker Uchitel’s office in St. Petersburg and burned down the car of his lawyer in Moscow. Arrested on September 20, they said they were part of the Christian State of Holy Rus (CSHR), an obscure Orthodox group that sent threats to more than a hundred film theatres earlier this year.
“If the Matilda film is released, movie theaters will burn, people may get hurt,” their letter said.
The Kremlin called the threats “extremist” and “unacceptable,” and the Russian Orthodox Church said it did not endorse the CSHR. But two large film distributors already refused to show Matilda, a major television network decided not to run a mini-series based on the film, and two Russian regions banned it.
In mid-September, some 450,000 people, or roughly one in 300 Russians, were evacuated from railway stations, shopping malls and schools after hundreds of anonymous phone threats. CSHR’s leader, Alexander Kalinin, told the Medusa online publication that the threats were related to Matilda.
He claimed that the group whose name deliberately mimicked that of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS) had some 300 active members and thousands more supporters, but distanced them from the prank callers.
“All movie theatres and regional departments of the Culture Ministry are in great danger,” the full-bearded 33-year-old was quoted as saying on September 14.
He also said that Russia “should be like Iran.”
Kalinin was detained and then arrested days after the interview following legislator Poklonskaya’s request. Russian media reported that in 2002 he was sentenced to eight and a half years in jail for killing an elderly neighbour and robbing her. Police also said CSHR only consisted of a handful of members.
A runaway Russian nationalist claimed that CSHR was deliberately created by FSB, Russia’s main successor to Soviet KGB as part of Kremlin’s efforts to control and manipulate ultra-nationalists and the public perception of them.
These activists have significant support from part of officials and law enforcement agencies, and the support is serious enough so that other officials and services are not eager to fight them
“Russian intelligence services created a fake, an organisation that exists online and consists of 2.5 people,” Vasily Kryukov, who served as a municipal council legislator in the central Russian city of Izhevsk and fled to Germany in 2011, told Al Jazeera.
Analysts point to inconsistencies in Kremlin’s policies toward ultra-nationalists and Orthodox fundamentalists and the efforts of intelligence agencies to control and even direct them – showing leniency instead.
“These activists have significant support from part of officials and law enforcement agencies, and the support is serious enough so that other officials and services are not eager to fight them,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, Russia’s leading expert on the Orthodox Church who now works at the University of Bremen, Germany, told Al Jazeera.
“They are part of a very complicated system associated with contemporary Orthodox Christianity, and it gives them a chance to pretend they have more support than there really is,” he said. “Real rightist radicals [Russian security forces] are fighting against disguised themselves as Orthodox Christians and tried to manifest themselves.”
One of CSHR’s identified members, Miron Kravchenko, was part of RONS, the Russian National Union, one of the oldest and largest far-right extremist organisations. He participated in 2006 attacks on gay clubs that ended with beatings and arson.
RONS opposed abortions, sexual education and non-Orthodox Christianity. It also proudly reported the killing of a Muslim migrant in 1993. Banned as extremist in 2011, it held “trainings” in knife-throwing, shooting and martial arts for other extremist activists and football fans.
Some of the trainees formed Spas (Savior), a neo-Nazi group that organised a series of explosions in Moscow in 2006 killing 14 people, including two children, and wounding 61. Most of the victims were labour migrants from ex-Soviet Central Asia.
In the past decade, other fringe Orthodox and ultra-nationalist groups assaulted opposition leaders, gay rights protesters, Hare Krishnas and supporters of feminist rockers from Pussy Riot. They destroyed “anti-Orthodox” art exhibits and disrupted “perverse” theatre productions.
The leader of God’s Will, one of such groups, once delivered a lecture on whether President Vladimir Putin should be “deified”.
Cossacks, once known as paramilitary champions of tsarism and Orthodoxy, conduct regular raids in southern Russian cities to identify non-Slavic labor migrants.
The Kremlin turned a blind eye to their violent escapades – as long as they involved its opponents.
“The Kremlin systematically encouraged any violence that could be directed against opposition,” wrote political analyst and Kremlin critic Yulia Latynina, who left Russia in early September after her car was set on fire and her parents’ country house nearly burned down.
War-torn Eastern Ukraine – known in Russia as Donbass, where pro-Russia separatists have carved out two breakaway “people’s republics” in 2014 – is another source of battle-tested extremists ready to use any means necessary to deliver their message. Kremlin-controlled media trumpeted their “heroism” that now inspires other wannabe radicals, including Russia’s alt-right.
“To a large extent, it has to do with Donbass,” hate crimes monitor Verkhovsky said. “This is a war, after all, and many people got back from it. They are not necessarily the ones to conduct the attacks, but the lionization of this whole guerilla thing could not but affect the situation.”
Former separatists formed SERB, an ultra-nationalist group that staged numerous attacks on Kremlin critics. One of the attacks – with a poisonous chemical – nearly cost Alexei Navalny, Kremlin’s most outspoken critic, an eye.
After each attack, police released SERB activists or stopped investigations.