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“F*** You Obama”: the American MMA fighter and Russia’s Communists

Russia’s Communist party is tired of its role as “the tame opposition” — and is now using anti-capitalist wrestler Jeff Monson to win the youth vote.

Karim Zidan
7 July 2016
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28 June, 2016: Jeff Monson visits Stanitsa Luganskaya as part of his visit to Luhansk region. (c) Olesya Potapova / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Dressed in a jet black Guns N’ Roses t-shirt and faded Adidas shorts revealing the hammer and sickle on his calf, Jeff “Snowman” Monson knelt among a cluster of pint-sized children draped in Jiu-Jitsu gis. Monson, a veteran of Ultimate Fighting Championship, displayed a range of his characteristic Jiu-Jitsu holds to the curious youngsters with care while Russian powerlifter Maryana Naumova and security officials hovered nearby. 

Monson was in the midst of a visit to the so-called People's Republic of Luhansk. He had already visited the Donbas branch of the infamous “Night Wolves” motorcycle club outside the city, where he publicly rejected western perceptions that this war-torn region of Ukraine was occupied by terrorists. He even posed with a Kalashnikov in front of a “F*** You Obama” sign. Monson arrived in Luhansk shortly thereafter, just in time for Youth Day. He visited an orphanage, walked through the dilapidated city, and spoke to eager locals. He immersed himself in the surrounding destruction, saddened by what he witnessed.

Few would have guessed Monson was there on behalf of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). 

Communist Party Sports Club 

In June 2016, the second largest political party in Russia announced that Monson had become a special representative of the Communist Party’s sports club focused on international cooperation. The statement added that the UFC veteran would be “engaged in the implementation and promotion of the ideas of the Communist Party.” The position is an official one, as Monson signed a contractual agreement before embarking on his first mission with the party. Naumova, the powerlifter who celebrated Lenin's 146th birthday by laying flowers at the Mausoleum on Moscow’s Red Square alongside Monson several months ago, accompanied the MMA fighter on the tour.

The decision to send the professional fighter to Luhansk is part of the Communist Party’s new “sports programme”, which is designed to improve the party’s image both on the international stage and at home. This is just the latest attempt at sports diplomacy in Russia, though the first by Russia Communist party.

The Communist Party, well aware of the effect of sports diplomacy, jumped at the opportunity to enlist a rare American communist and sportsman in their service

Russian statesmen and oligarchs regularly blur the lines between sports and politics in an attempt to drum up support, increase their scope of influence or even to become more endearing to their constituents. It may be a relatively simple tactic applied repeatedly over the course of history, but it remains an effective political tool with significant results.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin has invited the likes of Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme as honoured guests at local sports events from 2003 onwards. The political subtext behind this is to further Russia’s foreign policy. During a recent trip taken by Seagal in 2015, where Putin greeted the movie star at the Eastern Economic Forum, the president mentioned an “international coalition to fight terrorism” and called for action from the west to fight ISIS. This likely had an effect on Putin’s popularity on a domestic level.

The Communist Party, well aware of the effect of sports diplomacy, jumped at the opportunity to enlist a rare American communist and sportsman in their service. According to Monson, the party’s plan is to target regions with limited resources and implement sports programmes to improve their overall standard of living. This will be conducted in the form of a tour over the coming year.

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22 April 2016: Monson lays flowers at Lenin's Mausoleum, Moscow, alongside other communists. (c) Pavel Golovkin / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.“My work with the Communist Party will focus on creating opportunities in sport for Russian youth,” Monson told me in a phone interview. “The plan is to open martial arts schools across Russia, concentrating on regions like Siberia that have limited resources for youth to become involved in athletics. It is well documented in research studies that kids who participate in sport are happier, healthier, more confident and better adjusted than kids who don't engage in sport activities.” 

While this is a commendable attempt to divert a certain set of resources to areas in need, the party’s overarching goal is to spread the KPRF’s own brand of communist political ideology to a new generation of youth in deprived areas and impoverished status. This ideology includes an occasionally paranoid nationalism comprised of racism, glorification of the motherland and the Soviet-era regime and its leaders like Stalin. In 2016, it seems, environments such as Luhansk are more likely to attract new members than St Petersburg.

Strategic sports diplomacy 

If the KPRF is interested in attracting ductile youth to their political party, sponsoring sports activities is one of the most effective methods to achieve that goal, Monson told me.

“Russian youth will learn first-hand about communism by being directly involved with martial arts clubs and tournaments sponsored by the Communist Party. These clubs will be offered to kids at no cost. Participants will be made to feel as though they are part of something special and each child's effort and insight will be valued. If the goal is to educate Russian youth and families about communism and its values and benefits to society, then there is no better way to do this than to actively engage the target population using a Communist model of participation.”

Though the KPRF’s venture into sports diplomacy appears to be an innocent enough aspiration, it is part of a much larger plan

Though the KPRF’s venture into sports diplomacy appears to be an innocent enough aspiration, it is part of a much larger plan. The political party is mounting a comeback, mobilising members with a variety of strategic approaches, such focusing on anti-corruption laws, and reestablishing ties with non-governmental organisations that lean left on the spectrum. These include trade unions, religious, anti-globalist, and women's organisations, among others. The shift in tactics appeared to take place shortly after Putin blamed Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin for policies that, in his words, were like planting an “atomic bomb” under Soviet Russia. Since then, the KPRF has taken a more critical line than observers are used to seeing.

Indeed, Monson’s appointment and the KPRF’s sports programme comes at an interesting time — Russia’s legislative elections will be held on 18 September, 2016. While it is evident that Putin’s United Russia party will maintain the lion share of the assembly, a significant amount of seats are up for grabs. At the moment, there are 14 political parties that can put forth candidates without collecting signatures. The KPRF, which relies heavily on its longstanding reputation, effective candidate recruitment and growing popularity among a disgruntled youth looking for alternatives, is one of the most competitive in Russia’s existing political landscape.

Uniting “patriotic forces” against United Russia

The Communist Party currently holds 92 of the 450 seats in the assembly, based on the results from the 2011 election. They beat other parties like Just Russia and the Liberal Democrats, who had a combined 120 seats. The 19.2% share of the assembly seats for the KPRF was also a seven percent improvement over the previous five years, a sign of growing confidence in the party’s policies.

Despite steady growth, the dramatic shift in attitude took place earlier this year, when KPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov announced that his party intended to unite “patriotic forces” against the ruling United Russia Party.

Zyuganov, who narrowly lost out to Boris Yeltsin at the 1996 presidential elections, and again to Dmitry Medvedev in 2008, is the long-time leader of the KPRF and a surprising mouthpiece for the party’s critical viewpoint given his complacent approach over the past decade.

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June 206: Gennady Zyuganov in attendance at the St Petersburg Economic Forum. (c) Vladimir Astapkovich / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.The now 71-year-old Zyuganov has rarely opposed United Russia’s proposed laws and bills in Putin’s era, particularly on crucial matters. The party lost influence over the coming decades, particularly after Zyuganov lost to Yeltsin in 1996, and their presence in regional authorities decreased drastically over the years. The most influential political figures in Russia jumped ship to United Russia to maintain their positions. 

Zyuganov has also been accused of funding separatism in Ukraine after the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine. The revelation came to light after the Ukrainian Interior Ministry opened a criminal case against Zyuganov and the head of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party Vladimir Zhirinovsky accusing them of "financing actions aimed at changing the boundaries of the territory”. Zyuganov responded by calling the Kyiv authorities “criminals” who “usurped power” and were now “raping the country”. It is little wonder that Monson, a newly minted Russian national, was assigned separatist-held Luhansk as the KPRF’s first sports venture.

Monson’s libertarian communism

Monson, a self-proclaimed anarchist, is at a strange ideological crossroads. The fighter who stood against capitalism in the United States now represents a party that boasts Duma deputies connected to big business. The Communist Party of Russia, while technically the direct successor of the Soviet Communist Party (KPSS), partakes in a radically different approach. Monson, however, believes old-style communism is no longer applicable in modern-day politics.

“The old Soviet-style, Stalinist Communist Party doesn't exist anymore. Today, the party is forced to preach communism in a capitalist world”

“My ultimate goal is libertarian communism,” Monson explained to me. “I want to work within the Communist Party to achieve this aim. The old Soviet-style, Stalinist Communist Party doesn't exist anymore. Today, the party is forced to preach communism in a capitalist world. Because these two forces couldn't coexist unless one meshed with the other, certain compromises have been made. This is by and large the case with most of the world's Communist parties.”

By libertarian communism, Monson refers to the anarchist theory that advocates the abolition of capitalism, private property as well as the state. For Monson, the ideology stemmed from a disenchantment with US socio-economic and political policies. He was once charged with first degree malicious mischief for spray painting an anarchist symbol on the Washington State Capitol. But his frustration with the economy and political goings-on is not limited to the United States.

As Monson travelled the world as a fighter, he witnessed the levels of poverty in countries like Brazil and Russia, prompting him to reevaluate the significance of the global economy and the influence of libertarian communism. A firm believer that equality on a global scale is an achievable goal and that resources are not limited, Monson believes socialism is the only solution, particularly a brand of socialism that changes our current understandings of the state. While the KPRF is not a perfect representation of Monson’s personal ideology, the UFC veteran believes that Russia’s Communist Party is the most viable option to achieve it.

“I want to work with the Communist Party to move it further left. A lot of the social projects we are discussing, including opening up free schools to promote youth martial arts, can be done despite capitalist restraints. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party had to become more centrist to survive. But we're no longer in the crisis mode, so it's time for us to get back to what communism is all about. My goal is to push the party in this direction.”

At a time when economic crisis and political resentment are sowing the seeds for discontent among the population, the KPRF has an opportunity to reclaim their status as a legitimate opposition to Putin’s regime — by appealing to workers and pensioners, who make up 58% of Russia’s voting-age population, and the youth, another significant segment. Both groups are affected by the recession and are therefore prime candidates for a potential shift in ideology. This explains the KPRF’s interest in working with Monson, who is popular with Russia’s younger generation. A combination of votes from the youth and workers are the ones who that have begun to sway, serving to weaken support for the Putin system — and the weaker Putin’s government becomes, the more dissatisfied the country’s elite.

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and the following year will bring the latest presidential elections in Russia. Monson, who believes his future lies in Russian politics, has placed his support behind a party with a complex history and inconsistent policies. Despite discrepancies in their respective ideologies, he is certain that the KPRF will return to its fundamental beliefs as a leftist party. Monson may never see his anarchist beliefs become reality, but socialism’s return to Russia could be a fruitful compromise.

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