I first learned about AntiFA about a week ago while sitting at Starlite with NTV journalist Andrei Loshak. He'd devoted a Profession: Reporter show to the movement last December and a young ethnic-looking guy approached him with a little constructive criticism. AntiFA is the name of Russia's anti-fascist hardcore skinheads and punks.
The highlight of Loshak's show was a video shot on an AntiFA's camera-phone in which they attack a group of neo-Nazi skins near Chisty Prudi. (Yes, even skinheads have 3G phones these days.) The resolution was terrible -- even worse than the operativniye syomki, or secret cameras, that his show frequently relies on to catch officials taking bribes red-handed -- and the fan wanted to put Loshak in touch with other AntiFA members that could hook him up with better footage and interviews.
The story sounded like a gimme. I wanted to write about for myself. But I should have realized that if Lohsak, with a month and NTV's resources, couldn't find anything better than this one camera-vid shot, I'd be facing an uphill battle.
Over a week later, after scouring the internet for contacts, prostrating myself on obscure ru.net chat rooms, and tapping every single acquaintance I have with any possible connection to AntiFA or punk music (including the ethnic guy mentioned above and most of his friends), I finally scored an interview. Well, sort of.
My "interview" with someone from AntiFA was actually contracted out to a journalist Ruslan Korolev whom I met at a ru.net site called the "United Forum of Anarchists." From there we carried out a long courtship via email before he finally agreed to telegraph my questions to an unnamed representative of AntiFA and send me a transcript of the interview. Who answered my questions, what role he has in the organization, and how much I could trust the info is anybody's guess. For all I know, my questions could have been asked to a 42-year-old TV psychic for 50 rubles a minute. All I knew was that, according to Korolev, nobody wanted to talk to me without the permission of their leader, and that I was lucky to get even this interview.
On the day that this issue went to press, I finally got to interview a real, live AntiFA activist, nicknamed "Ukrop" (Dill). He told me that he was just about the only one in Moscow willing to talk to the press and, judging by the difficulty I'd had, I believe him. There were a few restrictions -- no photos, for example -- but at least I'd have something to write about.
Had I had the good sense to call Edward Limonov before embarking on this fool's errant, I could have saved myself a lot of trouble. Limonov told me, "I have no interest in these guys. They're irrational." After all my efforts to secure an interview, I can safely say, he's right. Ukrop's name says it all, really. AntiFA is the dill of Russia's extremist politics: bland, irrelevant, and easily ignored.
In theory, anti-fascism sounds hard as nails: anarchists, punks and skinheads running around and looking for brawls with Moscow's Nazi-skinhead underground. When I first envisioned this story, I thought it'd be filled with Chopper-like braggarts, righteous, scar-covered thugs living in squats and in a constant state of war. After all, whatever you say about Russian fascists, they're definitely scary. Last year according to the SOVA Center, which gathers info on racial attacks, they were credited with 28 murders throughout Russia. It'd seem like anyone looking to take them on would have to be equal parts crazy and tough. In other words, anything but dill.
Furthermore, it's understandable why they're a bit camera shy. The basic tenet of AntiFA is to challenge the growing neo-Nazi movement in Russia with force; they want to make it hurt to be a Nazi. But they're vastly outnumbered by Moscow's real skinheads, who according to the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights numbered 5000 two years ago, the last time anyone bothered to count. Last November, ultra-rightists mobilized up to 5000 to goose-step down Tverskaya holding racist signs in broad daylight. According to Dima, a skinhead I talked to who is neither AntiFA nor racist (boneheads, as enlightened Russian skins call their racist/fascist brethren), AntiFA activists on a good day can only muster a group of about 50 and their total number in Moscow is no more than 200. I figured they must have brass balls.
So, it was a bit of a surprise when Ukrop asked me to meet him at Bilingua. Nothing against the cafe, which is a favorite among bearded intellectuals and other assorted pencilnecks, but it's not exactly the hard-assiest place in Moscow. Nor did his lunch of beer and grenadine add to the baby-faced punk's intimidation-creds. By the time he started telling me that the fascists were on the decline and AntiFA was rising, I realized I'd been had.
AntiFA is just another western fad, no different than riggers, cigar-smoking, and sushi. Russia's always had a minority of Westernizers in its capitals, looking to the West for trends that they blindly copy. The trend AntiFA's membership is mimicking is the same soft stuff as the Food Not Bombs and Critical Mass crowd in the States. I got to know those two movements well when going to school in Minneapolis, one of the last places in the States where punk was practiced by people beyond high school. They'd do their thing, occasionally causing a traffic jam or starting an organic garden on an abandoned lot, and nobody would pay them any mind. They bought books at the local anarchist book store, ate vegan, espoused totally impractical politics, and spent their weekends crowding into mattress-lined basements to watch punk shows. They're as unthreatening as someone with a shaved head can be. That, to the AntiFA crew, must seem like paradise.
With an unintended irony, Ukrop told me about his recent meeting with a bunch of German anarchists and red skins (anti-racist skinheads). "They thought we were lucky since we actually get to fight," he told me. "But in another five years, the situation here will be just like Germany."
That's the big joke. The Germans are actually wishing there were more racists, while all the Russians want is a boring social-democratic regime where it's safe to play punk! It's understandable; in Germany and the States, these movements are fringe because they're totally irrelevant. They're made up of a bunch of college kids who dig hardcore music and the menacing skinhead style, but don't want to offend anyone by embracing it. So they thought up SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) and ARA (Anti-Racist Action), where they could have their cake and eat it. It was a risk-free venture, because the whole of society is anti-fascist and anti-racist, at least nominally. What ultra-rightists we do have tend to confine themselves to bunkers in Idaho and the Upper Peninsula. Taking a stand against racism is a risk-free endeavor.
Yet, while the westerners are gazing longingly their comrades in Russia, where there's a clear and present enemy, the Russian AntiFA guys gaze just as lustfully at the West, where the movement's about aesthetics only. The thing that makes the delusion so ridiculous is that Russia is not going to be like Germany, not in 5 years, not ever. Skinheads here are not declining, like Ukrop claims. They're everywhere, and they operate with virtual impunity. The 28 murder figure sited above, or even SOVA Center's 2004 estimate of 46, is almost certainly a lowball. The militsia often labels hate crimes as the work of hooligans or entirely unrelated to race.
For example, Argumenty i Fakti wrote about a triple murder on November 28 in Perm that the paper attributed to skinheads, but that wasn't included in SOVA's stats. Or there was a Death Porn story we took from MK in late 2004 in which the murder of a Georgian was pinned on two Tajik workers, even though several skinhead youths were seen running from the scene. The fact is, Russian "justice" is so arbitrary that it's impossible to say how many racially motivated murders take place every year.
One thing that is clear, though, is that last year only 25 Russians were sentenced for ethnically motivated murder and beatings, according to the SOVA Center, and most of those were associated with two murders in Petersburg of African students. In other words, there are still plenty of skins running amok out there, and they're getting away with murder.
* * *
Perhaps I am being a little too harsh on the AntiFA guys; after all, they do go out and fight with skinheads, and several of them have taken some pretty hard knocks. The most sensational was last November, when a Petersburg anti-fascist pacifist activist Timur Kacharav was stabbed to death by skinheads. "I got an SMS that he'd been killed," Ukrop said, who'd been hanging out with him just two hours previous. "It was hard to believe."
While Timur is the movement's only fatality, several others have been seriously injured over the last year. One friend of Ukrop's was set upon by boneheads as he left his apartment about a year ago. Eight skins attacked him with screwdrivers and lead pipes, breaking his arm and several ribs. According to Ukrop, they bought his address from the militsia, who had arrested him not long before for brawling. Vanya, a big name in Moscow's AntiFA, was hobbled by an attack six months ago and still walks with a crutch.
"The pressure started about a year ago," Dima told me. "Actually, it wasn't long after AntiFA attempted to branch out. Before that, they had been mostly involved with propaganda -- stickers on the metro, anti-racist song lyrics and whatnot. Once they tried to take the fights to the streets, they got stamped on. Hard."
According to Ukrop, they face off against boneheads at least once a week. The fights generally take place on the weekends, when AntiFA crashes some bonehead concert. Otherwise, they descend on Chisti Prudy, which is a favorite skinhead hangout. The fights usually have 15-20 per side and, according to Dima, aren't terribly vicious. Ukrop said that the most dangerous weapons AntiFA wields are flares and beer bottles, "so that the cops don't have any excuse to detain us."
The most serious attacks are when a group of boneheads mobs a person or two. The victims are sometimes punks, AntiFA activists or rappers, but most often non-Russians. While the big brawls might end with a little blood and some bruises, the only hope of escaping this type of attack is running. If a victim falls, the very least he can expect is a few broken ribs.
A friend of Dima's who sympathizes with AntiFA but isn't a part of it got attacked by a group of bonehead teens and smashed over the head. He later checked into the neighborhood tram-punkt, or ER, where there were three other guys who'd been attacked by the same group. "The funny thing is, three of the four were Russian and the fourth was Caucasian," Dima said. "Skinheads are racist and fascist, but more than anything, they're just drunk thugs willing to attack anyone."
Dima contends that many of the ultra-right that come out for displays like the November march aren't so much skinheads as racist alcoholics. "They don't like blacks [meaning non-Russians]," he said. "But who does in Russia?" Part of the reason the picture of racist skinheads is so blurred in Russia is because there's s a relatively fluid boundary between them, soccer hooligans, and average working class stiffs. Russia's a country with a huge poor, disenfranchised population where racism isn't taboo. Most skins don't belong to a party or anything more organized than a soccer firm. There are parties like Slavyansky Soyuz (Slavic Union, abbreviated SS), but most skins come from the ranks of Spartak fans.
Maybe for this reason, Moscow police chief Vladimir Pronin denies their existence entirely. Last year RIA-Novosti quoted him saying, "We don't have any skinheads in the city. I have never acknowledged them and do not acknowledge them. There is rabble from Moscow and its suburbs who attack people of various nationalities."
Ukrop's own estimates are only slightly less absurd. He claims that the boneheads only really have some 400-500 active fighters, and those are scattered across several groups that are constantly infighting. Apparently, they're always accusing each other of being Jews and beating the shit out of each other. He qualifies this statement by saying that probably 80 percent of Moscow's skinheads are drunk 16 to 20-year-olds looking for adventures. "They'll eventually grow up, and you're left with the devoted fascist core," he said. What he fails to acknowledge is that when they grow up, they'll be replaced with new teens. As Andrei Urov of the Youth Human Rights Movement told me, "The problem isn't so much the thousands of skinheads, but a society of millions of sympathizers."
AntiFA is looking to repeat what happened in New York in the '80s, where SHARP was born. "What they don't understand," Dima said, "is that it's the exact opposite: in New York the Nazis were the underground."
* * *
For a group as secretive as AntiFA, it's a wonder how they ever get any members at all. As recently as a year ago, they advertised with stickers on the metro, until boneheads started attacking their shows. Still, according to both the anonymous interview and Ukrop, membership is growing. Ukrop said that around 300 people identified themselves as AntiFA in Moscow, of which maybe 150 were active fighters. Those are pretty impressive figures considering he said there were only maybe 100 members a year ago.
The only way to get recruited, or even learn about it given the deficit of information even on the web, is to already have contacts with that world. Like analogous Western groups, the best way in is through music. Even that can be hard enough: AntiFA concerts are by invite only. The only way to hear about shows by AntiFA groups like Clowns, Working Boys, and Change the World Without Taking Power, is to get an SMS the day of the show from someone in the know.
However, AntiFA members also serve as security to many of Moscow's underground punk and even rap shows, which are favorite targets of the boneheads. According to Ukrop, punk shows make a particularly easy target because, "Punks are soft and always drunk." Dima said that plenty of hardcore bands, like Union, are not AntiFA but have sympathetic lyrics and there's plenty of crossover.
These measures, and the fear of press, are apparently to prevent infiltration. But that's not the only reason they do it; the low profile, off-the-grid approach fits in to their anarchist principles. I've got the sneaking suspicion that they like it that way because it makes them feel even more underground. After all, punk shows still advertise despite the fact that they're an easy target.
AntiFA claim that there's a black list of their members which puts them in particular danger. But, as Urov told me, he too is on the SS's black list, but he's not afraid to tell people his name. "It's that, or get a nose job," he said.
AntiFA is also careful to distance themselves from another purportedly antifascist group: Nashi, the pro-Putin youth group. Most recently, they campaigned for the resignation of Perm's governor because he allowed a far-right politician to speak at some youth conference. Ukrop took this as a sign that the Kremlin thinks antifascism has good prospects and is looking to co-opt its ideology.
However, it seems more likely that the Kremlin's polit-tekhnologs are acting more out of fear of the fascists than the appeal of antifascism. After all, it's an open secret that Nashi security, at least at its Moscow events, is provided by Spartak football hooligans with ties to racist skinheads. If anything, they're interested in co-opting the fascists and turning them into a politically useful tool in case of a threat from an Orange -- or a National-Bolsheviks -- revolution.
* * *
Postscript: This year in Moscow, skinhead gangs have already killed a 13-year-old Uzbek kid on January 7, stabbing him 34 times. Their most recent victim, a 29-year-old Armenian on February 15, got stabbed to death 14 times from multiple knives.