Russia’s Militant White Supremacists
Let’s shed some light on what’s happening in Russia as Putin professes to ‘denazify’ others
Russia’s claim that it invaded Ukraine to “denazify” it has been thoroughly debunked, but what has received much less attention is Russia’s own neo-Nazi “problem.” I put “problem” in quotes because there’s no evidence Kremlin considers neo-Nazis inside Russia a problem. By contrast, Russia has a history of cultivating and collaborating with neo-Nazis, at home and abroad. Another great summary of Russia’s support of neo-Nazi activity is here. In this article, I’d like to tell you about a Russian ultra-nationalist white supremacy group called the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM). Unless otherwise noted, all the information below comes from Stanford University’s “Mapping Militant Organizations” project (RIM summary page; full report).
In 2020, RIM was designated by the US as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, the first white supremacist group to be assigned this label. Yet RIM operates relatively openly in Russia and, although it does not receive any formal support from the regime, its operations have not been targeted or hampered by the government in any way. Nor is it on Russia’s list of terrorist or extremist organizations.
RIM was founded in 2002 and is based in St. Petersburg. It is anti-Semitic and anti-Ukrainian. More generally, it espouses an ideology of white supremacy and ethnic Russian nationalism and views European and US governments as enemies. As its name suggests, it also advocates the return to Russia’s tsarist regime. In its early years, its activities were largely political: it worked with other far-right groups to form opposition parties and staged demonstrations. One of these attempts involved the creation of a nationalist party called the New Force, which, among other things proposed that only ethnic Russians should be allowed to immigrate to Russia and that undocumented immigrants should be put into labor camps before being deported.
RIM became militarily active in 2014, when it saw opportunity in the then-new conflict in eastern Ukraine. It also started a military training program called “Partizan” (“Guerilla”). The main objective of Partizan is to train Russians in combat skills, but it is also happy to train foreign rightwing extremists. RIM claims to have trained and sent over 300 Russians to eastern Ukraine to fight alongside pro-Russian separatists in 2014–2016. Members of the Imperial Legion (the name of the militant wing) have also fought in Syria and Libya. In 2017, the Washington Post conducted an interview with a Partizan instructor, who spouted a lot of the same anti-Ukrainian sentiment currently being promoted by Putin.
Since 2015, RIM has also collaborated and built ties with a variety of extreme-right organizations around the world in a variety of ways, including by sending its members to the US in 2017 to network with US neo-Nazis, attending a variety of far-right conferences, and, of course, providing military training through its Partizan program. In 2016–2017, two men who had trained in the Partizan program bombed a left-wing bookstore, a shelter for refugees, and a public campground that housed asylum seekers in Sweden. The prosecution cited training by RIM as a key step in their radicalization.
To be fair, RIM is neither huge nor mainstream. But it’s important to shed light on what Putin allows to happen in his own country as he professes to “denazify” others. Moreover, just as RIM was given a boost by the 2014 invasion of Crimea and Donbass, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 may well strengthen it further, as it seems to have done with extreme right groups elsewhere. And while it would be wrong to deny that Ukraine is free from right-wing extremists, if the West helps Ukraine decisively win this war, the US and EU will be able to work with the Ukrainian government to ensure that these groups remain marginalized. The same cannot be said about the extreme right in Russia, unfortunately.