Anti-Nazi Group Secretly Helping Kremlin Rebuild Russian Empire

A supposedly independent international advocacy group is backed by Russia and, in turn, works to expand its influence around the world.

02.08.15 11:45 AM ET

Aside from American skinheads, Germans pining for the glory days of the Third Reich, and David Duke, who wouldn’t want a “World Without Nazism”?

That’s the aim of an eponymous organization, headquartered in Moscow, which seeks “political de-Nazification in Eastern Europe.” It also aspires to promote the “spread of anti-fascist ideology to the newly independent states” of the former Soviet Union and, more controversially, “weakening the political forces in the West that promote the concept of placing equal responsibility for the outbreak of World War II on Nazi Germany and the USSR.”

On the surface, World Without Nazism (WWN) has all the trappings of an international non-governmental oganization (NGO) committed to fighting the scourges of bigotry and anti-Semitism: Glitzy conferences in European capitals. Dry, thousand-page reports full of data. Concerned speeches by its leaders calling for vigilance. But beneath the innocuous exterior of what Tablet magazine calls “a kind of Moscow-based Anti-Defamation League” lurks a less altruistic agenda: a Kremlin propaganda operation designed to abuse the good intentions of those genuinely committed to fighting hatred and extremism—particularly American Jews and their allies. And last month, the group spread its message to a most unusual forum: Capitol Hill.

WWN was founded in 2010 as a constituent organization of the World Congress of Russian Jewry (WCRJ) by Boris Spiegel, who is President of both organizations. A Jewish oligarch who spent a decade serving in the Russian Federation Council (the country’s rubber-stamp, upper legislative chamber), Spiegel has close ties to the Kremlin and can be relied upon to push the foreign policy agenda of President Vladimir Putin. For instance, during Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008, Spiegel published statements on WCRJ letterhead calling for investigations into “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” by the Georgian military, wild accusations that carried a particular punch coming from a Jewish leader.

In the parlance of international affairs, WWN is a “GONGO,” or “government non-governmental organization,” a pseudo-independent outfit that a country (usually authoritarian or non-democratic in nature) establishes to mimic an NGO so as to deceive the media, public and other governments. GONGO activities appear to be the work of independent actors but are in reality orchestrated by a national government, sometimes even its intelligence services. GONGOs may carry out propaganda operations—or, as is suspected with WWN, Soviet-style “active measures,” deception operations designed to influence events by changing popular perceptions.

True to its active measures pedigree, World Without Nazism’s name hearkens back to Cold War days, when Soviet-front organizations took on anodyne titles like the World Peace Council, World Federation of Democratic Youth, and embroidered themselves in the general cause of “anti-fascism.” Blundering disingenuousness, however, did not go away with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Around the time of Putin’s rise to power, Russia set up the mouthful “World Anti-Criminal and Anti-Terrorist Forum,” a seemingly independent organization whose purpose was to justify Moscow’s outrageous breaches of international law and violations of human rights norms in its war against Chechen separatists. 

WWN focuses its energies mainly on the former Soviet Union, and has a particular obsession with Ukraine and the Baltic States, whose four-decade-long occupations under Soviet rule Russia still does not recognize. The agenda of WWN with regard to those countries is to defame their governments—all resolutely opposed to Russian influence—with the “fascist” label. Bizarrely for an organization ostensibly committed to fighting Nazism, WWN has taken a highly partisan stance on the crisis in Ukraine. In February 2014, just weeks before the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych stepped down, Spiegel led a WWN delegation to Kiev to meet with the embattled leader, offering his organization’s full support against “extremism and neo-Nazism.” Last week, on the 72nd anniversary of the end of the decisive World War II battle of Stalingrad, Spiegel declared that the Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” would share the same fate as the Axis armies. He remarked that those “who do not respect these hundreds of deaths of innocent children, women and the elderly, risk being surrounded in a new Uranus pincer,” a reference to the Red Army’s encircling of the Germans.

In September, meanwhile, the organization bestowed Freedom of Speech prizes posthumously upon six journalists—four of whom worked for Russian-state owned media companies—who died covering the “fight against the rebirth of Nazism” in Eastern Ukraine. “The absence of the international community’s reaction can repeat the Kristallnacht [Night of Broken Glass] for non-Ukrainians and other ethnic minorities,” the organization declared, invoking the Nazi destruction of Jewish-owned businesses on Nov. 9–10, 1938. According to TASS, the official Russian news agency, “the movement fears that soon Nazism may be an official policy of the Ukrainian authorities.” 

The tactic of identifying one’s political opponents as fascists is hardly new. But the virulence and seriousness with which the Kremlin (up to and including Putin himself) and its affiliated media outlets have sustained this message has struck many people as bizarre. Russia began to brandish it in the wake of the successful Maidan Revolution of 2013-2014, when Ukrainian demonstrators ousted an authoritarian, pro-Russian leader in favor of a reformist pro-Western government. The few people in the world who were not surprised by the Kremlin’s rhetoric were the citizens of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, where the Kremlin had been honing this line of attack for decades, and where it has been relentless in portraying mainstream Baltic political figures as “Nazis.”

All three Baltic governments classify WWN as a Russian-sponsored front organization; each of their domestic intelligence services include it in their annual reports listing threats aimed at subverting the constitutional order—alongside radical leftist and, ironically, actual neo-Nazi groups. In its latest annual report, the Estonian Internal Security Service (KAPO) described how WWN “works tirelessly to promote a public image as a neutral international institution for the defense of human rights. However, behind this image they spread the propaganda messages of the Russian authorities and take advantage of the good name and reputation of the OSCE, the UN, the Council of Europe and other well known international organizations.” Latvia’s Internal Security Service also classifies WWN as a subversive “Russia influence organization.” One Lithuanian official told me that the group is “run, sponsored and coordinated from A to Z” by the Russians.

To be sure, in Ukraine and the Baltics, there were fascists and others who collaborated with the Germans in World War II, and there have been, to this day, disturbing attempts to excuse or whitewash part of this history. The historian Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office, is one of the world’s foremost Nazi hunters and an expert on the phenomenon of “Holocaust distortion,” which he describes as the sophisticated effort—more insidious than outright Holocaust denial—to obfuscate the genocide of Jews by valorizing the role of Nazi collaborators as anti-Soviet heroes. He initially became involved with WWN “hoping to direct them into effective channels of combating the phenomenon of Holocaust distortion.” Ultimately, however, Zuroff became disillusioned with what he came to see as its “one-sided” approach.

“You never know where the concern about history ended and the Russian political interests began,” he told me. “In my opinion, Putin very much wanted this issue to be adopted and led by a Jewish NGO.”

Zuroff’s concerns were echoed to me by Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s Director of International Affairs. He also serves as the Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, one of several multilateral organizations whose good intentions and low participatory standards WWN has taken advantage of by infiltrating and holding fringe events at its conferences. “Their origins are clearly in Moscow,” Baker told me. He found an early conference in the Russian capital “out of balance, quite one-sided and really heavy-handed in its approach.”

While WWN claims the fight against “Nazism” to be its main goal, a quick perusal of its official rhetoric, activities and personalities finds that it is far more exercised with the parochial concerns of the Russian diaspora in the former Soviet Union—a scattered community which many in the region fear that Putin, having annexed Crimea on blood and soil grounds, might use for further destabilization and territorial conquest. WWN activists tend either to be ethnic minority Russians linked to the Kremlin, or honest-to-goodness Stalinists. In Estonia, board members include pro-Russian activists Dmitri Linter and Maxim Reva, who were involved in orchestrating—with the instigation of Russian state-controlled media—riots on the streets of Tallinn in 2007 over the Estonian government’s decision to remove a Soviet-era war memorial. The disturbances left one person dead and more than 100 injured. In Finland, meanwhile, WWN governing board member Johan Bäckman has written that Stalin was “very gentle and sweet” and has organized demonstrations in favor of imprisoning Pussy Riot.

WWN has not made a substantial entry yet into the United States, but it isn’t for lack of trying. The few Americans it has been able to attract fit a particular profile: well-intentioned but ill-informed about the subtleties of international politics, as well as C-listers itching to make the VIP table at an AIPAC dinner. At one of the organization’s first events in Moscow in 2010, it hosted a delegation of Jewish New York State Assemblymen. One can imagine these elected officials being approached by a Russian émigré in their district, being asked the question, “Do you support a world without Nazism,” and offered a round-trip ticket to Moscow. They probably didn’t bother to ask many questions.

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There was a term invented for such people, a long time ago of course: “useful idiot.” Such was the impression I had when speaking with Richard Brodsky, a former member of the New York State Assembly who has joined many a WWN junket. He was one of a handful of people who attended an event unveiling the group’s annual “White Papers of Hate” report on Capitol Hill on Jan. 21. The 1,026 page document, which uses shaky methodology and even more questionable English grammar, is an interminable, trolling nasty-gram to the West, ranking Russia—notoriously one of the most racist societies on earth—10th out of 19 European countries on the scale of “radical nationalism in Europe,” behind, of course, the three Baltic states, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and France.

For a flavor of the report’s absurdity, consider the whopper that introduces the section on Russia, keeping in mind that it was published last December and covers the year 2013, when Russia passed a draconian law prohibiting speech supportive of homosexuality and outlawed gays adopting children: “In general, there is no legislation in Russia that discriminates against minorities.” (The report, citing “experts,” claims that these measures are not discriminatory.)  

Brodsky told me that he was “introduced” to WWN “through my political contacts in Brighton Beach,” a heavily Russian-Jewish area of Brooklyn. Over the phone, he regaled me with WWN’s “damning evidence” about the rise of neo-Nazism in Western Europe (he didn’t mention the report’s characterization of a “snowball fight” between Russian and Latvian pupils as an “ethnic clash.” “The conflict ended with bodily injury of moderate severity,” the report states, before concluding, “all of this indicates that Latvian society became more xenophobic in 2013.”)  Afterwards, Brodsky emailed me two random photographs of neo-Nazis. In a blog item for the Huffington Post written a week before the event, Brodsky boasted that Congressmen Eliot Engel, Hakeem Jeffries, and Jerry Nadler would all speak at the function, yet none of the men, according to their offices, showed their faces. (A spokesman for Jeffries, however, told me that, “I think we may have” reserved the room in the Cannon House Office Building for the Jan. 21 event). The function, according to Josh Nanberg, a spokesperson with an American communications firm hired by WWN, was sparsely attended. Only about 20 people showed up.

“If we do not respond to the warning signs, nationalists would come to power in Eastern Europe primarily,” Valery Engel, WWN’s vice president said, according to prepared remarks. “However, Western Europe will not lag behind.” This was a bit rich coming from an officer of a fake NGO backed by the government of Russia, where a bona-fide nationalist has ruled uninterruptedly for the past 15 years. There were small traces of honesty, however, in Engel’s speech, like an appeal to respect the “LGBT” minority, something that would obviously not be met with much approval back at home. But even this might have been a pro forma statement meant to satisfy his Western audience, and seemed misplaced given the excuses that his very own report made for the Russian government’s anti-gay policies. Regardless, a Jewish community leader who has worked with WWN in the past tells me that Engel may not last very much longer at WWN, as his desire to make the group even slightly independent of Moscow is brushing up against the prerogatives of Spiegel and his allies in the Kremlin. (Spiegel did not reply to requests for comment by press time).   

"World Without Nazism is not engaged in the Kremlin's propaganda," Engel told me via email. "From the beginning, the effort has been evidence based, and no one has criticized the methodology or accuracy of the White Papers of Hate (WPH). These movements and incidents either exist, or they do not. And the WPH contain the same kind of scrutiny and evidence for Russia as they do for Greece or France. The use these facts are put to by Russia or Ukraine or Great Britain or anyone else is well beyond the work done in the WPH, and no one involved with WPH have made any geo-political representations. Are Nazi movements resurgent? Are they documented honestly in the WPH? Yes to both."

Following World War II, the people of the captive nations lived under two layers of secrecy: they were not allowed to talk honestly about  the genocide of the Jews that took place on their lands, nor could they speak openly about their lived experiences under communism. It was only once the Soviet system collapsed that anyone could even begin to contemplate speaking freely about anything that had occurred over the course of the past half century. The difficulties that some post-communist countries have had in wrestling with their Holocaust histories have necessitated careful work by researchers, scholars, and witnesses alike. But by perverting and politicizing the memory of the Shoah—digging into the Stalinist playbook and labeling anyone and everyone who disagrees with them a “fascist” or a “Nazi”—WWN has in fact contributed to the very problem it was purportedly founded to combat: it has trivialized the Holocaust.

“In reality this organization is nothing more than one of several tools in the Kremlin’s information operations arsenal, specializing in disinformation and character assassination,” says Eerik Kross, former National Security Coordinator of Estonia, and himself the target of a successful Russian smear campaign aimed at denying him an entry visa to the United States. “If one wants to contain modern fascism the place to start would be containing World Without Nazism.”