Defending the indefensible

Favourite lawyer of the Russian far right, Dmitry Bakharyev is developing a network of 'sports' clubs for like-minded nationalists — teaching knife, rather than ball, skills. He hopes the clubs will form the basis of a movement, perhaps even a political party. Grigory Tumanov considers the prospect.  

‘Cut his arm and stab him in the head!’, says 36-year old lawyer, Dmitry Bakharyev. The comments are directed at a young masked man, one of a number circling around the forest clearing with knives in their hands. Bakharyev is himself dressed in camouflage gear, and takes his position among trees that are peppered with hanging targets. A member of the ultra-nationalist ‘Russkiye’ [Russians] movement, Bakharyev has been coming to this forest every Saturday morning for a year and a half now.  ‘In about 2008, I stopped drinking and took up knife fighting’, he tells me. ‘Now I’m passing on my skills to others.’ 

‘In about 2008 I stopped drinking and took up knife fighting. Now I’m passing on my skills to others.’ Dmitry Bakharyev

Young Russian nationalists who want to learn more about knives, storming buildings and negotiating rough terrain can also now find out all they need to know at Bakharayev’s own club, called ‘The Oprichnik’. ‘I chose the name because from the beginning of time the Oprichniks [Ivan the Terrible’s secret police] were the defenders of the Russian state. For me, the state is not the bureaucracy, but the Russian people themselves. More than ever before, a Russian man also needs to be a warrior’.  

Knife training for young nationalists in Ramenskoye forest. The Russian far right has grown in strength and influence since the fall of the Soviet Union. Last month alone, some 14 people were murdered in racially-motivated attacks. 

From investigator to nationalist defender

Born in Ramenskoye, a satellite town south-east of Moscow, Bakharyev enrolled in the Modern Institute for the Humanities and graduated with a law degree in 1998. His career, like that of most Russian lawyers, started in one of Russia’s law enforcement agencies; he spent a year as a deputy investigator in the office of  Moscow’s Taganka district prosecutor,, then got a job as an investigator in the capital’s Simonovskaya inter-district prosecutor’s department. He continued to acquire experience and learn the workings of the legal system from the inside, while never staying in one place for more than a year or two. By 2000, he was already a prosecutor responsible for overseeing law enforcement in the police services at Moscow’s central prosecutor’s office. In 2001 he became a member of the ‘Zashchita’[Defence] legal practice; and a year later he moved to another firm, where he still works.

MORE ON... RUSSIAN NATIONALISM

According to the Sova Centre, which conducts research into issues of race and xenophobia, in June 2013 alone a study of 22 regions showed six people murdered on racist grounds, and a further 76 wounded, two of whom were also threatened with murder. Twenty seven acts of vandalism inspired by racial hatred have also been recorded since the start of the year. 

At the same time the number of public displays of extreme nationalism has been falling month by month – there have only been a few large ‘legal’ demonstrations. In June alone 14 people, all in different regions, were convicted of ‘xenophobic propaganda’ – in the first six months of last year 50 people were convicted of the same offence over 33 regions (these included some who were not sent to prison either because of a time limitation or because they were referred for forcible psychiatric treatment instead). And according to Der Spiegel, in 2012 almost 60% of the population of the Russian Federation supported the slogan ‘Russia for the Russians’.

Sova’s researchers comment that violent racial hate crime in Russia is gradually decreasing compared with 2010, which saw the highest number of convictions of members of various ultra-right groups. In the first half of 2011 there were 116 convictions for racially motivated violence, fewer than in the previous year. 

The most prominent ultra-right organisations are ‘Spas’, led by Nikolai Korolyov and BORN (the Militant Organisation of Russian Nationalists), which was responsible for the murders of lawyer Stanislav Markelov and  journalist Anastasia Baburova,  as well as a number of activists from the anti-fascist movement. In 2011 ‘Spas’ member Aleksei Voevodin and his associate Artyom Prokhorenko were sentenced to life imprisonment for numerous murders, attacks and beatings of people from Asia, Africa and the Caucasus region. Two members of BORN, Nikita Tikhonov and Yevgeny Khasis, were convicted of the murders of  Markelov and Baburova, and some other members of this group are being held in detention by the Investigative Committee. The investigators also consider Ilya Goryachev, the ideologist of the ‘Russian Image’ movement, an ideological influence on BORN and complicit in a number of murders, and he was recently arrested in Serbia. This year the police have also arrested members of an ultra-right youth group who have killed several foreign nationals – their distinguishing feature was that they cut off the ears of their victims. The police investigation is continuing but no further details have been released.       

Bakharyev has always specialised in criminal law, but given his nationalist views, which he has never hidden, his clients have been somewhat specific. I first met him at the Moscow City Courts in 2009. Periodically greeting ultra-nationalist colleagues in their accepted fashion — by shaking not their hand but their forearm — Bakharyev would daily regale me with news of the Northern cell of the now banned ‘National Socialist Society’, one of whose members he was defending. 

Bakharyev has always specialised in criminal law, but given his nationalist views, which he has never hidden, his clients have been somewhat specific.

The thirteen young accused in the case were part of possibly the most bloodthirsty neo-fascist gang in the whole of Russia’s recent history, responsible for dozens of attacks on ‘foreigners’, and no less than 28 murders. Bakharyev’s particular client had also taken part in the killing of one of his own gang mates, Nikolai Melnik. Moving from one rented accommodation to another to avoid attention, the gang had begun to suspect that Melnik was informing on them to the FSB (Bakharyev says there was actually no evidence for this). So one day Melnik was their mate, and the next (June 18, 2008) he was lying on a sofa, watching a cartoon on TV when the gang, armed with a video camera, knocked him to the floor, subjected him to a terrible beating and then suffocated him. They also filmed what happened afterwards (the tape was an important piece of evidence): one of the Society’s members, wearing a clown mask and a checked shirt, methodically dismembered his former buddy, humming the tune of the popular patriotic song ‘That’s How our Motherland Begins’ as he did so. From time to time he would turn the body over in the bloody bathtub and show how best to stab someone in the heart. 

Bakharyev refers to these defendants with familiarly, as either ‘halfwits’ or ‘fools’. ‘When the law arrived at the flat’, he told me, ‘my guy met them on the doorstep and said, “Have you come looking for your grass? Come with me – we’ve buried him under a tree.’”

Wearing a clown mask and a checked shirt, one gang member methodically dismembered his former buddy, humming the tune of the popular patriotic song ‘That’s How our Motherland Begins’ as he did so. 

Bakharyev said he didn’t condone the methods of his clients — some of whom have received life sentences — but he understood why they did it. ‘What can the young people of today do?’ he asks me in the forest. ‘They see what’s going on here in Russia, and they resort to radical action. We need to get away from that: our enemies aren’t immigrants, anti-fascists or the regime. We have too many enemies to categorise them all. The whole of Russian identity is under threat.’ His students lie around, listening attentively as they catch their breath (they have just been running with air guns). 

Political career

Bakharyev has not confined himself to defending the far right. In 2005 he joined the growing ‘Slavonic Union’ and became a close associate of Dmitry Demushkin, who is at present facing an increasing number of charges of inciting racial discord. The Slavonic Union was eventually banned for extremism – that was one case Bakharyev lost.  After which it renamed itself ‘Russkiye’, and the lawyer decided to spend more time pursuing his own political career.


Lawyer Dmitry Bakharyev has withdrawn from public politics to concentrate on building a base of support through sport clubs.

Bakharyev found his opportunity in the aftermath of the December 2011 protests, when the regime made some ‘concessions’ to the opposition by simplifying the procedures for registering political parties. Together with like-minded associates, Bakharyev founded the ‘Imperial Party’, and now sits on its organising committee. According to the official site, by the end of 2013 this party plans to have developed ‘an imperialist ideology for Russia in her current situation’; by 2016 to be represented in Parliament; and in 2022-2024 to organise an Assembly of the Land, along the lines of those historical councils called by Ivan the Terrible and other Tsars.  Point 14 on the Assembly’s agenda will be to ‘Elect a Ruler’, according to the principle embodied in the saying: ‘God will show us a Tsar’. 

Little has come of Bakharyev’s grand plans: as expected, the simplified registration procedure was merely a ruse to create a number of spoiler parties. The Kremlin has made it clear that no organisation with real political agenda would be able to take part in an election.  

‘Defenders of Russia’

Bakharyev has, however, found a new way of getting into mainstream politics. It will take longer than the ‘Imperial’ plan, but has arguably a much better chance of success. Like many other ultra-nationalists, Bakharyev has realised that it at present it makes sense to abandon public politics and concentrate on creating a new personal platform. ’It’s not the moment for protest rallies’, he explains. ‘Sport and sports clubs could become an effective means of organisation for the right. I’m not talking about sport for sport’s sake, but its ability to unite people in a common cause.’ He believes his Oprichnik club could become a mass movement. Branches are already opening in many Russian regions and one is even planned in Transnistria. In about three years Bakharyev hopes to register his sports clubs as a movement, and then as a party, to be called, in another historical reference, ‘The Defences of Russia’. 

Sport and sports clubs could become an effective means of organisation for the right. I’m not talking about sport for sport’s sake, but its ability to unite people in a common cause.’ Dmitry Bakharyev

When I ask him who he is intending to defend Russia from, Bakharyev once again replies that among the destructive forces acting on Russia are not only ‘representatives of western civilisation, who are corrupting the people of Russia’, but also the liberal protest marchers, who he also considers conduits for western ideas. 

If he manages not to make any mistakes, Bakharyev has a reasonable chance of success. Of course, it is pretty easy for any ‘legal’ neo-fascist organisation to shoot itself in the foot: a couple of remarks that could be construed as breaking Clause 282 of the Criminal Code, the law on incitement to racial hatred, and some right wing activist arrested for a violent crime with a party membership card in his pocket – and a leader can find himself without a party. Bakharyev says he is well aware of the risks, so you won’t find his young sportsmen using neo-fascist jargon, or making jokes about people from the Caucasus or anti-fascists. The way he talks to them is more reminiscent of a kindly scoutmaster or teacher out on a hike with his charges. Except that on this hike they don’t learn about putting up a tent or lighting a campfire, but wielding a knife and dodging a bullet.  

About the author

Grigory Tumanov is a Moscow based journalist and blogger. He is a staff correspondent for Kommersant daily, one of Russia's most respected publications.