‘We imagine that the people in power are there because they have a right to it. But that’s not the case. Those in power must be able to punish their subordinates. And for the people to make their “servants” act in their interests, they should have the ability to punish them.’ So speaks Yuri Mukhin, a long-time proponent of radical political change in Russia and founder of the newspaper Duel, a cult read among the country’s conservatives and far left between 1995 and 2009, when it was banned on grounds of extremism.
Indeed, it is this kind of thinking that underpins much of Mukhin's writing, and is a quote from the manifesto of the People's Will Army (AVN), a group founded by Mukhin in 1997. AVN's stated aim was to change Russia’s constitution via a referendum, allowing the populace to put the president and members of the Federal Assembly on trial and send them to prison. AVN was banned in 2011, again with the help of Russia’s extremism laws.
The banning of Duel and AVN would probably have been the end of Mukhin’s political activity had it not been for the long arm of the FSB and Russia’s Investigative Committee. In late July, Mukhin, along with two associates, was arrested by Russian security personnel on a beach in Crimea, and transferred to Moscow on charges of 'organising an extremist group'.
Two other people, Valery Parfyonov and Aleksandr Sokolov, were charged alongside Mukhin with trying to implement AVN’s programme despite its prohibition. If convicted, all three may end up in prison, and could face up to eight years.
Members of the People's Will Army protesting in Moscow, 2010. Photo: Aleksei Kudenko/RIAAccording to the FSB, Russia’s security service, the accused had attempted to ‘destabilise the political situation’ by setting up the Initiative Group to Campaign for a Referendum for Responsible Government – an informal organisation that basically continued the activities of the AVN. The investigators consider Mukhin the group’s leader and organiser and Sokolov – its propaganda chief. The group’s website is evidently registered in the latter’s name.
Sokolov has in fact been able to balance this radical political activity with work for RBK, one of Russia’s most prestigious online business news platforms. Sokolov investigated the multi-billion rouble embezzlement of public funds in the building of Vostochny Space Centre in Russia’s Far East (a pet project of Vladimir Putin), as well as reporting on Russia’s military volunteers in the Donbas.
Sokolov has balanced his radical political activity with work for one of Russia’s most prestigious online business news platforms.
The third member of the group, Valery Parfyonov, is charged with recruiting new supporters online. All three were initially held in a remand prison after their arrest. Mukhin is now under house arrest.
With its hostility to all systems of government, AVN remains a pretty obscure movement. Its press organ, Duel, also failed to reach a wider public, although it was popular among a narrow circle of conservative journalists, political analysts and writers.
In recent years, AVN averaged one mention in the media per year, often after Kirill Karabash, another associate of Mukhin’s, organised an alternative ‘Russian March’. Karabash is at present awaiting trial on charges relating to statements made at a rally in 2013.
AVN’s activities were based on a theory developed by Mukhin in the 1990s, which he called ‘Delokratiya’ (the term recalls demokratiya (democracy) – the Russian word ‘delo’ means ‘action’ – ed). At the core of Mukhin’s thinking was the idea that ‘action’ should take priority over ‘bureaucracy’: he believes that labourers should be free to organise their work in the most efficient way, and not be subject to the whims of bosses and bureaucrats.
The People's Will Army was founded in 1997 by Yuri Mukhin. Photo: Grigory Sysoev/RIA Mukhin also believes that management and the authorities should not be responsible for assessing the quality of employees’ work and whether it is necessary. This should be down to the ordinary consumer - and the workers who produce the goods.
Mukhin, whose views also include the denial of Katyn, has proposed that any official activity, including that of the president, prime minister, parliamentary deputies and senators should be subject to the will of the people, who have the right to bring them to justice for their misconduct.
The seriousness of these crimes, and consequently, the punishment, should also be decided by ‘the people’ through a rigorous trial. An AVN pamphlet, ‘You elected them – you judge them’ stated, for example, that if an official’s crime was serious enough, he or she should be killed by ‘the people’.
Joining the fifth column
Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the independent SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, has monitored the use of anti-extremism laws for many years. Verkhovsky tells me that Mukhin’s patriotic movement ‘has been unable to recruit members for a long time. It has completely passed its sell-by date.’
At the core of Mukhin’s thinking was the idea that action should take priority over bureaucracy.
For Verkhovsky, the only reason he can see for the arrest of Mukhin and his associates is ‘a police clampdown on places where patriotic forces could crystallise following the war in the Donbas.’
According to Verkhovsky, over the past few years the Russian security services have been ramping up their operations against groups professing radical-patriotic and ultra-nationalist views. As well as arresting well known far-right figures such as Aleksandr Potkin, leader of the Movement against Illegal Immigration and Dmitry Demushkin, co-founder of Russians, an association of ultra-nationalist groups, they have been harassing obscure figures who are even more loyal to the Kremlin.
‘For example, they searched the flat of Yevgeny Valyayev, a member of the nationalist organisation Russian Image,’ says Aleksandr Verkhovsky. ‘What was that about? Valyayev gets presidential grants to write books, and is generally loyal to Putin, but still his flat got searched.’
The head of the Sova Center believes that the government is afraid that patriots returning from the Donbas—now with military experience—might align with fringe political groups and thus shake off Kremlin control. Verkhovsky believes that, as a result, the ultra-nationalist sphere is being purged: ‘the fact that the security services went for Mukhin’s Initiative Group is a sign that so far the strategy is working’.
But the prosecution of Mukhin and his associates shows that despite the piecemeal meeting of minds between the Kremlin and the far right following the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s nationalists may soon join its democrats in the Kremlin’s ‘Fifth Column’. Verkhovsky expects further arrests and trials of radical patriots and nationalists in Russia in the next few years. Only time will tell if the strategy will work.