Independently-minded specialists carrying out research into the seamier side of Russian right-wing nationalist extremism are few and far between. The death of Galina Kozhevnikova at a young age is thus a veritable tragedy, laments Andreas Umland.
Galina Kozhevnikova was Deputy Director of the Moscow NGO SOVA and head of its research institute monitoring extreme right-wing tendencies in Russia today. She had been seriously ill for a long time and died on 5 March 2011. She was 36.
She was an exceptional person: warm, kind and fearless and an outstanding specialist in the field of research into Russian ultra-nationalism and xenophobia. The relevance and significance of her many publications and interviews was borne out by the verbal and physical threats she received from Russian neo-Nazis. Her death extinguishes an important beacon on the Russian political, social and intellectual scene.
SOVA has been active for many years in the field, but, despite the acknowledged importance of the subject, the number of people researching Russian right-wing extremism is small and the number of studies few. A situation which might, at first glance, seem a matter of envy for students of subjects with an abundance of specialists, but there are so many unexplored areas in the field of Russian ultra-nationalism and its groupings, factions and publications that any attempt at analysis frequently becomes bogged down in the vast mass of unverified data. Regular reports from SOVA, the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights and other NGOs go some way to alleviating the situation, but do not completely solve the problem.
There are many forms of ultra-nationalism in Russia and they are on the increase. The research carried out by Galina and the founder of SOVA, Alexander Verkhovsky, covered mainly hate crimes or inflammatory statements, religious extremism and all kinds of violence. They also looked into the methods used by Russian law enforcement agencies in their so-called approach to dealing with these phenomena. They did concern themselves as much with other manifestations in areas such as pop music, literature, journalism, art, higher education and publishing. Perhaps a second SOVA annual report could cover these and other uninvestigated platforms, which often furnish the ideas used by Russian skinheads and other extremists as subsequent justification for their crimes.
In our own work at the Political Studies Faculty of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Russian media sources provide us with weekly updates about ultra-nationalist incidents in Russian society, culture and politics. These sources include independent magazine publishers (such as Novaya Gazeta and The New Times), which may not be very influential but are at least still functioning, and internet publications, which are not close to government thinking (polit.ru, gazeta.ru and grani.ru). But, apart from the SOVA specialists, analysts of these phenomena can be counted on the fingers of one hand: Marlene Laruelle (Washington), Vladimir Pribylovsky, Victor Shnirelman and Vladimir Malakhov (Moscow) all engage in detailed scholarly research and regularly publish their findings.
SOVA publications and reports by Vladimir Pribylovsky’s Panorama Agency are often the only detailed secondary literature available for a would-be student of these phenomena
This lack of good specialists is a matter of general concern, given a) the fact that Russian nationalism has consolidated its position within domestic politics and b) the increasingly central role Russia is playing in international security. We simply do not have sufficient information on increasing extremist activity in a country, which continues to be a serious nuclear superpower. The death of Galina will only exacerbate the situation. The European Union will surely soon be forced to get up to speed with the situation, as the price of remaining uninformed could be very high.
In the 1990s, for instance, Russian and international analysts paid little attention to the aggressive ideology of the first post-Soviet right wing extremist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. His unnoticed, but unstoppable rise to power in 1990-93 was among the factors which provoked Boris Yeltsin to one of his most destructive political decisions: military intervention in Chechnya in December 1994. The so-called Liberal Democratic Party of Russia [LDPR] was at the time the only party in the State Duma, which unreservedly supported this action from the start. Zhirinovsky’s ideologically-motivated autobiography Last Dash to the South [My Struggle, English edition], published in a print run of thousands the year previously, had to a certain extent paved the way for Yeltsin’s Caucasus campaign.
Zhirinovsky may not personally have been party to the decision to send the federal troops into Chechnya, but Grigorii Yavlinsky and many others have pointed out that without LDPR’s triumphant victory in the first post-Soviet Duma elections of December 1993 (22.9%), the decision to storm Grozny might never have been taken. His unexpected success in the elections significantly weakened the democratic camp. Yegor Gaidarand other democrats left the government and at the same time the prevalence of neo-imperial ideas, nationalist thinking and militarist rhetoric was stepped up in the Russian parliament, the discussions of the Moscow elite, and the national media. This in its turn created the situation in which the “party of war” rose to dominate internal government thinking as to how the federal centre should react to the escalating conflict in Chechnya.
It was not only the direct results of Yeltsin’s Caucasus campaign that were catastrophic. According to Professor Leonid Luks, the effects of the two Chechen Wars on Russian post-Soviet society, culture and the already struggling economy were an important factor in the collapse of the second Russian democracy (the first was in February 1917-January 1918). Russian and Western specialists failed to see that the rightwing extremist Zhirinovsky, to this day regarded by many as a political clown, made at the very least an indirect contribution to reversing the development of the democratic process in Russia.
We simply do not have sufficient information on increasing extremist activity in a country which continues to be a serious nuclear superpower. The death of Galina will only exacerbate the situation
The lives and activities of many political and intellectual leaders of the Russian extreme right and their supporters are often just as aggressive, but they are mostly even less studied than the political rise and influence of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. True, the ethnocentric tendencies of the Russian Communist Party or the so-called “Neo-Eurasianism” of Alexander Dugin are currently quite popular among students of the Russian political scene and are much studied and discussed. But there are many ultra-nationalist parliamentarians (past and present), parties and publications whose activities, position and role in Russian society remain poorly researched. SOVA publications and reports by Vladimir Pribylovsky’s Panorama Agency are often the only detailed secondary literature available for a would-be student of these phenomena.
In this context, the loss of Galina Kozhevnikova is a tragedy, which affects not only her family and friends. She will be irreplaceable in future academic and public debates on the increase of ultra-nationalism in Russia. We can only hope that in Russia or other countries there will be undergraduate and postgraduate students who recognise the social and academic significance of continuing the research initiated by Galina Kozhevnikova.
An extended version of this article first appeared in Russian on www.polit.ru