The allure of Nazi imagery in Russia

Dora Apel
4 May 2006

Evidence that the rise of right-wing nationalism since the collapse of the Soviet Union has reached troubling proportions can be found in an advertising label for a new brand of vodka, Russia's most popular alcoholic drink. The steely-faced visage of a man in a worker's cap with a sledgehammer slung over his shoulder fixes the viewer with a gripping stare beneath the words, "To victory, comrades!" embossed in the glass above. Below his image, Grazhdanskaya Oborona (Civil Defence) in Cyrillic letters slants optimistically upwards and appears again in English across the bottom of the label (figure 1). Even the name of the new vodka brand has political implications.

Figure 1: Russian vodka brand, Civil Defence 2005

A vodka label that calls for victory in the service of "civil defence" is startling enough, but downright chilling is the fact that the image is uncannily familiar from the history of images; indeed it is derived from a Nazi poster urging workers to vote for Hitler during the 1932 elections. The original poster image includes more of the torso so that the powerful arm holding the hammer is also visible above the words Wir wollen Arbeit und Brot! Wählt Hitler! ("We want work and bread! Choose Hitler!") (figure 2). It is unthinkable that the artist who drew the image for the vodka label did not see the Nazi poster or others like it. Why choose this as a source of inspiration?

Vinexim, the company that markets the vodka for the Moscow Distillery Cristall, previously capitalised on the popularity of Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, with Vodka Putinka, a highly successful brand described in their advertising copy as "a luxurious drink for having joy, opening out, overcoming fatigue and relaxing". With Putin's second term coming to an end in 2008, a new brand was needed. After spending six months studying the tastes and attitudes of Russia's male vodka-drinkers through a series of focus-group sessions in thirteen major cities, the marketing experts at Vinexim concluded that something masculine and patriotic was needed to convey "the voice of the people", in the words of Olga Tietz, a deputy brand manager at Vinexim.

Figure 2: "We want work and bread! Choose Hitler!" Nazi election poster, 1932

Civil Defence was invented and has been highly successful, not because it tastes better than other vodkas, but because the bottle is impressive to unemployed and disaffected youth, the growing population of racist skinhead gangs, and the supporters and sympathisers of the increasingly strident radical nationalist parties in Russia. While they may or may not recognise the precise source of the image, they are well aware of the fascist and racist ideology it represents, which they identify with right-wing Russian nationalism, and which appeals to some among the youth who perceive post-Stalinism as an era of cynical and corrupt politicians.

The young people in Oborona, the anti-fascist youth organization in Moscow, do not, however, recognise the symbolism on the label, apparently having failed to study the Nazis as diligently as those they oppose. The Toronto Globe and Mail reports Irina Vorobyeva, a co-coordinator of the group, as saying: "Girls just like the image of that man. Boys don't care" (17 August 2005). What is it that even the anti-fascist girls like? Like the disaffected young men and rightwing nationalists who have boosted sales of the vodka, no doubt they also find this worker-male strong and manly, the steadfastness of his gaze reassuring. For the unemployed and disempowered, perhaps the kind of man this image represents and the ideas for which he stands hold a promise of compensation for the frustrated helplessness they experience in their daily lives.

Dora Apel is an author and an art historian who teaches at Wayne State University. Among her books are Memory Effects: The Holocaust and the Art of Secondary Witnessing (Rutgers University Press, 2002) and Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob (Rutgers University Press, 2004). She is currently working on a book about contemporary images of war.

Also in openDemocracy on racism within Russia:

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Russia: racism on the rise" (April 2006)

A new man for a new nation

In this it would be similar to the rhetoric and imagery of Nazi ideology constructed in response to the pacifist and anti-war discourse that followed the massive defeat of Germany in the first world war, a war Germany initiated. The unemployment, economic austerity and pervasive hardship in the years after that war encouraged the growth of the extreme rightwing parties and the continued deployment of groups of militarised men, the Freikorps, composed largely of veterans who refused to demobilise.

The patriotic vision of the lost war's purpose was one of heroism, national pride, and visions of a new man for a new nation. The soul of the nation was held to be embodied in the soldier-male whose virility, courage and willingness to subordinate his personal desires to a higher cause represented the ideal of manliness. The hardness of the face signals, now as then, the absence of emotion, weakness or vulnerability to personal concerns.

On the Civil Defence label, the worker's face peers over his shoulder above a heavy weapon while the worker's cap renders him an ordinary everyman, meant to appeal to the masses of Russia's workers and unemployed. Like a recruiting poster, he is meant to represent the solution to the problems of the nation. He and those like him will be the ones who lead "to victory, comrades!"

Never has the marketing and consumption of vodka been so directly connected to the dream of nationalist superiority and the taking of state power. The Civil Defence worker-male, now as then, is "Aryan" – the lines of his face even more chiselled and hard-edged than that of his Nazi counterpart, the shadows deeper, the eyes more reptilian, more uncompromising (figure 3). But the resemblance to the poster is unmistakable.

Figure 3: Civil Defence vodka label detail

Olga Tietz at Vinexim denies the connection between the label and the Nazi poster, suggesting that the striking resemblance is pure coincidence and that the name Grazhdanskaya Oborona refers also to the name of a punk band from the early 1980s. The punk band, however, is still around and today is considered by many to be a neo-Nazi rock group. It was created by Yegor Letov in December 1984, and was even then regarded as a nationalist anti-Soviet band. It was banned and went underground, although it produced fifteen albums by the end of the 1980s in an ongoing project ironically called "Communism."

Concerts by Grazhdanskaya Oborona, which attract skinheads and other racists to mass gatherings, have been banned in various cities and countries of the former Soviet Union (including Latvia and Estonia) because of violence by its fans. According to a report by the Soya Information-Analytical Centre on 2 June 2005, 19-year-old Danil Solodushkin, a skinhead, was found guilty of killing a 23-year-old male rock fan at one of their concerts and was sentenced to eight years in prison in Yekaterinburg.

The Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ) protested concerts by the group in Minsk and Vitebsk in 2005. According to Yakov Basin, the UCSJ's chief representative in Belarus, skinheads and neo-Nazis raise their arms in the fascist salute at concerts and a typical example of the group's lyrics are: "With cross and sword stand and fight – hang the kikes and save Russia." Thus identification of the vodka brand with the punk band only seems to reinforce its neo-Nazi intentions.

Fans of the group, however, either make no mention of its neo-Nazi ideology and regard the band as heroes and revolutionaries, or dismiss the politics in favor of the music. Alexandra Matoshko's Kyiv Post article "A Rebel Yell" describes the group as not going political until October 1993, when Letov founded, with the extreme nationalist writers Eduard Limonov and Aleksandr Dugin, the movement "Russian Breakthrough" (3 November 2004). Their first concert in Moscow resulted in a massive street brawl and a second scandal erupted in May 1994 when Letov, performing live on television in Moscow, urged his fans to hit the streets in a programmatically vague armed rebellion against the state.

Matoshko alleges that Letov gave up politics in 1997. But a Moscow Times article by Alexander Bratersky describes Letov as "a political hardliner associated with Eduard Limonov and the ultra-nationalist National-Bolshevik Party" (15 November 2001). A Limonov supporter describes Letov as a man "whose genius as a lyricist is matched only by his ability to attract wanton violence at his concerts on a level that would cause most western punks to piss in their Dickeys" (Mark Ames, "Who's Afraid of Edward Limonov?" Freezerbox Magazine, 15 March 2002).

The National-Bolshevik Party, a party that is in no way Bolshevik, echoes the name of the National Socialist Party founded by Adolf Hitler, which was in no way socialist. In 1991 experimental Russian writer Eduard Limonov moved to the far right politically, becoming one of the most controversial public figures in post-Soviet Russia. He sided with Serbia against Bosnia and Croatia, serving as a mercenary fighter alongside the Serbs and publishing his war correspondence. He joined the shadow cabinet of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultra-nationalist, anti-western movement in 1992 as its interior minister, joined with anti-Yeltsin rebels in 1993, and formed the National-Bolshevik Party in 1994 with Dugin and Letov. Alexandr Dugin is known for the way his writings echo the thought of Hitler. Dugin calls for the unity of Europe and Asia against American power.

The National-Bolshevik Party is not alone in its nationalist and anti-semitic rhetoric. Communist Party officials warn against Jews and "Zionisation". In 1998, for example, General Albert Makashov publicly called for the mass murder of Russian Jews and claimed at every opportunity that he was fighting the "Yids." Although stricken from the voting rolls before the 1999 elections, he won his old seat back in the 2003 elections.

The Communist Party holds 11% of the seats in the Duma (Russian parliament). Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who heads the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and was former deputy speaker of the Duma, has made frequent anti-semitic and racist comments. In October 2003, he responded to the claim of Malaysia's then prime minister Mahathir Muhammad that Jews ruled the world by proxy with the comment: "He told the truth." His party holds 8% of the seats in the Duma. The Motherland, a bloc of moderate nationalists and left-wing populists formed in 2003, merged with the openly anti-semitic People's Will party. Motherland holds 9% of the seats in the Duma. Thus, 28% of seats in the Duma (123 deputies in all) are held by those voicing or endorsing anti-semitic ideas.

It should be no surprise, then, that the politics of Civil Defence – the band and the vodka – would find a large and receptive audience. When the band performed in four Belarusian cities in May 2003, some of the group's songs contained National-Bolshevist content as well as anti-Christian and anti-Jewish motifs, such as a call to re-open Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

Jews, Muslims, and Russians

There are only 525,000 Jews in the post-Soviet states today, about half of whom reside in Moscow and St Petersburg. But there is no lack of anti-semitic attacks. In one incident on 28 August 2005, ten skinheads armed with bottles, sticks and knives, attacked two Jewish yeshiva students in Kyiv, critically wounding one. On 14 January 2005, the fundamentalist newspaper Rus' Pravoslavnaia published an appeal entitled "Jewish happiness, Russian tears", which called for an investigation into Jewish religious and national organisations in Russia on the grounds that they incite ethnic conflict, as well as an end to all subsidies and assistance to these groups.

The appeal further revived the blood-libel myth (use of the blood of Christian children to make matzoh) and was signed by 500 people, including newspaper editors, intellectuals and nineteen Duma deputies from the bloc of anti-semitic nationalist parties. On the same day, two rabbis walking with two children were physically attacked in Moscow while the perpetrators shouted anti-semitic insults. Physical assaults on Jews have become increasingly frequent.

Nonetheless, Russian nationalist fervour has in its sights a much larger target than the tiny remnant of Jews left in the former Soviet states. The huge and growing population of Muslims is perceived as a portentous threat in the context of international "Islamic terrorism" and in a country that has been historically Slavic and Orthodox Christian. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and after decades of Soviet atheism, Islam has grown increasingly visible in response to declining living standards, threatening many Slavic Russians who fear that Russia could someday become a majority Muslim state.

There are now an estimated 14 million to 23 million Muslims in Russia, as much as 16% of the population, predominantly in the north Caucasus region, which has played an important role in the intermittent war for independence in Chechnya. This helps explain the increasing government repression of devout Muslims. The Kremlin has sought to control the rise of Islam by persecuting those who worship outside of state-sanctioned "official" mosques, leading to a crackdown recently in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkariya's capital, in which six mosques were closed and many Muslims harassed. In October 2005, at least 136 people were killed in a revolt against police in response to perceived official abuses.

Although Islam spread to the Russian empire in the 10th century and Muslim peoples were further incorporated by conquests in the 16th and 18th centuries, its growing influence in the context of soaring nationalism on both sides since 1991 helps set the stage for explosive tensions. This situation is exacerbated by the decline of Russia's Slavic population while the population in Muslim regions is growing; ironically enough this is due, in part, to the adverse effects of high alcohol consumption on the Slavic population.

Islamophobia and xenophobia are on the rise particularly with nationalist groups such as the National-Bolshevik Party, which also calls for the elimination of gays and lesbians. An unlikely mixture of Nazi and Stalinist rhetoric with anarchist notions thrown in, the National-Bolshevik Party seeks to recreate a Russian empire along czarist lines; it is hostile to ethnic minorities and foreigners, critical of Vladimir Putin, and calls for direct action, usually pranks and stunts, to protest political and social issues. Its most notorious action was on 2 August 2004, when it occupied the ministry of health in Moscow to protest against the cancellation of Soviet-era benefits for pensioners and others; this government decision made many Russians angry and provided the group with an opportunity for a public display of their party flags, which look uncannily like Nazi flags except that a hammer and sickle has been substituted for the swastika as a black image in a white circle on a field of red (figure 4).

Figure 4: National-Bolshevik Party occupation of Ministry of Health, Moscow, 2 August 2004

The National-Bolshevik Party sided with the Putin administration, however, against the Chechens, and ominously called for a Hitlerite "final solution" as a way to resolve the war for secession in Chechnya. Although the conflict has now become a Russian nationalist war against an Islamic state, it only took on a religious character after the first few years of warfare, with Chechnya finally declaring itself an Islamic state in 1999. It may have been easier to rally the support of the Chechen population under the banner of religion, just as the Russian government has mobilised fear of Islam among Slavic Russians in support of the war. But the real stakes in this conflict are control of Chechnya's oilfields and the disintegration of Russia.

Despite the rhetoric of the National-Bolshevik Party, it is not politically possible to combine Nazism and communism, even in its deformed and degenerated Stalinist form. Indeed, the Nazis regarded the communists as their sworn enemies and primary political threat, and identified the Jews with the Bolshevik "menace" from the east. Contrary to the Marxist agenda which promotes the international overthrow of capitalism by the workers' movement allied with the impoverished and oppressed to form a more egalitarian world, the Nazis promoted a greater-German capitalist empire based on an "Aryan" ideal that sought to free society of Jews, Gypsies, non-whites and other "undesirables" while dominating all other ethnic and religious groups.

Limonov denounces the Russian revolution of 1917 as a "Jewish coup d'état" but admires the "green revolution" of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the Ba'athist coup of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran – all reactionary movements based on either military dictatorship or clerical rule. In his stint as a sniper for the Serbian army, Limonov admired the "ethnic cleansing" of non-Serbs in Serbian areas. His goal is to extend the borders of Russia into the former Soviet republics, producing a greater-Russia that would dominate non-ethnic Russians with a military dictator in place of a czar, a condition of oppressive rule Lenin famously referred to as "a prison-house of peoples." Ultimately Limonov and the National-Bolshevik Party would like to supercede the United States as the dominant world imperialist power.

Figure 5: "Workers! The Brain and the Fist! Vote for the Front Soldier Hitler!" Nazi election poster, 1932

The same image of the hammer-wielding worker can be found on another Nazi election poster of 1932, in which the worker-male is doubled with a blond hatless man marching beside him (figure 5). The slogan reads: Arbeiter! Der Stern Der Faust! Wählt den frontsoldaten Hitler! ("Workers! The Brain and the Fist! Vote for the Front Soldier Hitler!")

It seems just as likely that this poster was the source for the vodka label. Either way, it is the image of "the fist" that was chosen for its appeal to brute force and the implication of coiled violence. Though the head of "the brain" is bigger, the power of "the fist" is foregrounded and positioned at the blond man's chin, equally capable of delivering a knockout punch to any intellectual challenge. Joined together, the poster implies, fascism embodies both intelligence and force.

The resurgence of nationalist, anti-semitic ideology that harks back to the reactionary era of the empire-building czars and the organised slaughters of pogroms against Jews is troubling indeed. Today it threatens to extend to all ethnic, sexual and Islamic minorities, demonstrating that the fall of the federated Soviet republics has engendered the rise of a vicious form of greater-Russian chauvinism and rightwing reaction.

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