MOSCOW—The St. Petersburg Holiday Inn hotel would seem a curious place to expose the feeble ideological core of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But a cramped conference room crowded with the flotsam and jetsam of right-wing fringe groups in Europe and the United States showed this weekend just how low the Kremlin is inclined to go.
The unifying theme was defense of traditional values and the invited guests had several points of agreement with their Russian hosts: They judged people by their race and sexual orientation, blaming “modernism” for destroying traditional values, including Christianity; they hated homosexual marriages and called for same-sex families to be stripped of any right to have children. Politically and ideologically they trended toward, well, fascism.
Now, remember that the constant drumbeat of Putinesque propaganda about the Russian-backed war in Ukraine emphasizes the “fascist” and even the “Nazi” character of the government in Kiev. The boilerplate justification for Russian annexation of Crimea and support for the rebels in the eastern provinces is that something had to be done to protect them from those right-wing monsters of the Maidan uprising who are backed by the European Union.
Yet on Sunday, leaders of 11 European far-right parties and at least one infamous American nut-job gathered at the Holiday Inn for what was called the “International Russian Conservative Forum.”
How could President Putin allow such odious characters, some of whom did not even hide their swastika tattoos, to gather in a high-profile meeting in his hometown only weeks before Russia is to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Victory Day in the war against the German Nazis of World War II?
On Monday President Putin’s spokesman confirmed that Putin knew about the conservative forum happening in St. Petersburg.
Experts argue that the agenda of the conference, whether Putin was aware of it or not, fit the Kremlin’s current ideology, which really comes down to with Putin or against him.
Alexander Verkhovsky, head of the Sova group monitoring cases of xenophobia and racism, suggested that not many among the Kremlin’s senior bureaucrats were eager to shake hands with a “neo-Nazi” from the National Democratic Party of Germany, Duo Voidt; or Jared Taylor, a smooth-talking American advocate of what he calls “racial realism”; or Italian far-right leader Roberto Fiore, or anyone from fascistic Greek party Golden Dawn. “But in today's reality, these are the only people willing to help the Kremlin to undermine stability in Europe and USA,” Verkhovsky said.
The gathering in St. Petersburg was organized with help of a pro-Kremlin nationalist party, Rodina (Motherland), originally founded in 2003 by Russia’s current deputy prime minister in charge of the defense industry Dmitry Rogozin, and Sergei Glazyev, Putin’s aide and one of the first seven persons President Barack Obama put under executive sanctions the day after the Crimean anschluss.
Alluding to reports that Rogozin helped French leader Marine Le Pen receive a multimillion-dollar loan from a Russian bank, Verkhovsky said, “Most probably, in order to undermine the European Union, Russia is willing to finance more ultra-right parties like Golden Dawn.” Indeed, Le Pen was nowhere to be seen in St. Petersburg, and other successful leaders of the rising right in Europe were absent as well. This confab was for losers who can feel, in Russia, like they’ve found people who really understand and sympathize with them.
Rodina’s leader in St. Petersburg, Yuriy Lyubomirsky, claimed that the conference agenda was “to move Russia’s interests forward.” On the forum’s website organizers published Putin’s words criticizing the West for “rejecting national, cultural, religious and even sexual values.”
Last year, after the Crimea crisis Russian nationalists divided into those who supported the annexation and rebel movement in eastern Ukraine and critics of the Kremlin's politics.
At the Holiday Inn conference, Russia was represented by various pro-Kremlin parties and movements including the National Democratic party, the Russian Imperial Movement, and the so-called Novorossia leaders. One of them, a rebel commander from eastern Ukraine, Aleksei Milchakov, aka “Fritz,” is famous for posting photographs of him beheading puppets.
“Unlike opposition activists, ultra-right groups have no problems with the authorities,” says Olga Bychkova, the St. Petersburg correspondent for Echo of Moscow radio.
Early Sunday afternoon about 30 to 40 anti-fascist activists, with faces covered, marched in protest against the event and briefly blocked the city’s main avenue, Nevsky Prospect. The protesters drummed loudly and chanted slogans. Minutes later, police units began to grab activists.