SMOLENSK - I was running around Smolensk in the middle of a blizzard, trying to make contact with the local National Bolsheviks -- the dreaded "NatsBols," the most demonized party in contemporary Russia. So far I'd only seen signs of them: posters urging "Death to Enemies of the People," election signs with a skull's profile on a hand grenade. I was afraid I'd never find them, and even more scared that I would. Because these are serious people.
The NatsBols are the Tasmanian Devils of the Russian political scene, and proud of it. Mainstream commentators have just started furrowing their brows over the "national-socialist" or "red-brown" trend in the Duma, but the NatsBols embraced that combination of radical leftism and extremist nationalism long ago, and announced it in their party's oxymoronic name.
Ilya, Sergei and Taisiya relaxing at the Tsentralnaya
The NatsBols don't play by the bigger parties' rules. They specialize in non-lethal violence. They throw a lot of eggs, tomatoes and other splattery missiles. And it works for them; for their size, the NatsBols get more airtime than any other party in Russia. They're a classic case of the dictum that it's better to have ten serious activists than a thousand apathetic supporters.
If you watch the news in Russia, you've seen the NatsBols at work. A few years ago, two NatsBols with good throwing arms egged Nikita Mikhailkov at the gala premiere of his epic flop, the Barber of Siberia. Lately the NatsBols have been making the evening news more and more often. They sidearmed some tomatoes at a NATO rep's press conference, sparking a wonderful tv moment as the puzzled bureaucrat stepped back and let his bodyguards step to the podium and try to catch the overripe missiles, which spattered all over their suits -- which probably cost more than the NatsBols' whole public relations budget. On election day this past Sunday a NatsBol girl waited outside the Moscow polling station where Kasyanov votes to throw an egg at him, yelling "The elections are a farce!" It worked; she made the news. And the egg hit its target, too. Meaning Kasyonov's election-day photo op had to be canceled. The NatsBols aren't just ideologues -- they can throw.
On one recent egg attack, a NatsBol girl, a chunky red-head, actually took a TV camera crew along with her to the produkty where she picked out the produce she was going to throw. The cameras followed her as she splattered the speaker, then into the police station where she was booked, then back to the party's Moscow HQ, the notorious "bunker," where she was given a congratulatory kiss by the NatsBols' founder and leader, Edward Limonov.
Since Limonov got out of prison last summer, the NatsBols have gotten more and more aggressive. They seized a car on the train to Kaliningrad to protest the new visa requirements for Russian travelers, and just before the election dozens of them chained themselves to the Justice Ministry building around a banner reading, "We'll teach you to love the Constitution!"
What distinguishes these people from the Euro-activists who throw pies at people is that the NatsBols are willing to pay the serious prices exacted for this sort of hijinks in Russia. As usual, Limonov set the example. Three years ago he was charged with trying to start an armed revolution among the ethnic Russians in North Kazakhstan. The mainstream media wrote him off; he was already in his fifties, and likely to die in prison. When he was freed last July, he had very little left to prove, to the media or to his own followers, in terms of paying a price for one's politics.
Other NatsBols have paid stiff prices for their moment of glory on the TV news. After all, Russia's not Belgium; the local dignitaries don't try to act mature and josh along as they wipe the yolk from their power ties. The two boys who egged Mikhailkov were grabbed by the director's bodyguards and dragged, heads down, to the podium, where Mikhailkov delivered several surprisingly good kicks to the heads of the two killjoys. And one of the egg-throwers turned out to be a Ukrainian with a police record, who ended up doing time in prison, where he contracted drug-resistant TB.