Putin’s ultranationalist base takes aim at the West

Far-right National Liberation Movement builds following on brash patriotism, nurtured by Kremlin

A National Liberation Movement protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, March 7, 2015. Some of the signs read, “The bloody U.S. democracy kills,” “Murder Nemtsov — U.S. provocation,” “[U.S. Ambassador to Russia John F.] Tefft is a bloody ambassador.”
Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

MOSCOW — On the second-floor landing of a 19th century apartment building in the heart of Moscow’s historic district, steps away from the Kremlin, stands an unassuming wooden door. In front of it lies a Stars and Stripes doormat, and above it, a sign in red and black letters proclaims, “America’s Constitution is Russia’s shackles. The key to victory is in unity!!! For a referendum!”

In a hallway inside the apartment, an enormous map roughly corresponding to the territory of the former Soviet Union runs the length of one wall. Small red flags are pinned to major cities, from Vladivostok in Russia’s far east to Tiraspol in the disputed region of Transnistria, which declared independence from Moldova. Donetsk and Luhansk, the capitals of Ukraine’s separatist republics, and Simferopol in newly annexed Crimea are also marked.

On the opposite side of the hallway is an enormous poster. On one side is a flying eagle with its wings spread over the American flag, on the other a bear in midstep against a backdrop of the Russian flag. “Forgotten where the border is?” the caption reads. “We’ll help you touch down!”

Behind a large conference table sits Yevgeny Fyodorov, one of the longest-serving deputies in the Russian parliament and the leader of the National Liberation Movement (NOD in Russian), for which the apartment serves as a base. The large map shows other cities in which the NOD has chapters.

“How do states come to be occupied? They suffer defeat in a war. Our goal is to reclaim the sovereignty Russia lost in 1991 — the right to determine how we live and operate. We are fighting to free the nation from foreign occupation,” he said.

With the bespectacled features of a middle-aged academic, Fyodorov outlines his ideas with the confidence of a man working for a holy cause. As the head of a militantly anti-Western movement claiming over 200,000 members throughout Russia and beyond, his ideas carry weight in Russia. Since its founding in 2011, the NOD has organized some 7,000 rallies and pickets across the country. Over the past three years, it has opened chapters in every major Russian city, with each local division maintaining an active online presence to publicize events. 

The NOD’s emergence has highlighted the increasing power of conservative and nationalist groups in Russia and their close ties to President Vladimir Putin. With a growing base, the NOD is even pushing to change the country’s 1993 constitution and overturn a ban on state ideology. At rallies throughout the country and regular roundtable discussions with academics in Moscow, the NOD is calling for a referendum on the issue this year. It also wants to purge government and the state of those not loyal to Russia.

“Russia is forbidden to think about its own strategy and its forward movement. Such restrictions are for us like shackles, which stall Russia’s development. A state without an ideology cannot in essence be a state,” Fyodorov argued.

As he spoke, he was surrounded by symbols redolent of Russia’s past. The adjacent offices are decorated with flags of Novorossiya (New Russia), the state envisioned by radical supporters of the pro-Russian insurgency in neighboring Ukraine. Visible throughout the apartment is the black and orange St. George ribbon, a Soviet World War II victory symbol that the NOD has adopted as its emblem.

“National liberation is a global process, a fight that 99 percent of the world’s population depends on. Russia, with Putin at its head, is a vanguard in the war against the American colonial system,” Fyodorov continued. “Either we win or the U.S. wins and eliminates Russia. We understand this clearly.”

‘National liberation is a global process, a fight that 99 percent of the world’s population depends on. Russia, with Putin at its head, is a vanguard in the war against the American colonial system. Either we win or the US wins and eliminates Russia.’

Yevgeny Fyodorov

leader, National Liberation Movement

The NOD’s message is straightforward: Russia is fighting a war of resistance that began in 1991, when the USSR’s collapse left former Soviet republics as colonies of the United States. Russia’s political elite, media and banking sector harbor a fifth column, traitors working on Western instructions to dismantle the state from within. And the war in Ukraine is the active phase of a global struggle against U.S. imperialism — a war of civilizations that Russia is destined to win. NOD activists are present at every major rally held in Russia today. Their black and orange striped flag fluttered alongside Russia’s tricolor last month at rallies held across Russia to mark the first anniversary of Crimea’s annexation.

The NOD’s rhetoric chimes with the public mood in Russia. According to a recent survey, 72 percent of the population sees Western sanctions as a means to weaken and humiliate the country. Moreover, the percentage holding a negative view of the U.S. has risen from 20 to 82 percent within the past year. In the capital, bookshops are filled with new titles warning of an imminent war with the West, questioning Russia’s international role and positively re-examining Joseph Stalin’s actions.

Fyodorov’s relies on a team of younger activists who lead rallies and preside over the movement’s media campaign. One of them is Maria Katasonova, the NOD’s coordinator for youth politics and a columnist for Vzglyad, a pro-Kremlin newspaper.

Katasonova publishes a video blog in which she typifies the NOD’s anti-U.S. rhetoric and refers to members of the Russian opposition as dem-schizzes (short for “democratic schizophrenics”). In one popular clip, she outlines the scenario of a catastrophic confrontation with the U.S.

Her most radical online feat is a video in which she is shown holding a Kalashnikov and threating global nuclear destruction if Russia loses the standoff in Ukraine. Accompanied by an apocalyptic soundtrack, she sweeps her arm across the screen, producing a virtual atomic blast. The clip has gained coverage in the West at a time when the Kremlin is reminding the world of its ability to use the bomb if Russia’s core interests are threatened.

Katasonova joined the NOD when it started, at the height of mass protests against Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. “I was searching for a movement that not only supports Putin but actually wants to change the system,” she told Al Jazeera in an interview, for which she turned up wearing sunglasses, carrying an iPhone with Putin’s face on the back and wearing a jacket with a Novorossiya flag.

On her Facebook and Twitter pages, Katasonova uploads pictures of herself with replica guns and clothing displaying symbols of Ukraine’s separatist uprising. She admits she has not been to the conflict zone. Nor has she had the chance to meet Putin. “Unfortunately, I don’t know him personally. Perhaps it’s all ahead of me,” she said.

Putin, whom Katasonova credits with guiding Russia’s liberation, is essentially NOD’s spiritual leader. Its activists spread “information” and demand widespread change, seeing themselves as a small part in his war against foreign occupation. In that vein, the he has openly warned against the existence of destabilizing groups planning to sabotage elections in 2016 and 2018. On April 9, Russia’s Interior Ministry staged exercises aimed at suppressing the type of social unrest that led to Ukraine’s Maidan revolution in late 2013, with more planned in the coming months.

Fyodorov points to such opposition rallies as proof that a purge of government organs has begun. On April 9, it staged a picket outside the offices of the federal agency for media development, Rospechat, which the pro-government newspaper Izvestia recently revealed to have funded outlets that, it said, “followed a clearly expressed anti-state position,” such as oppositionist channel Dozhd and radio station Ekho Moskvy. The government’s Investigative Committee has since launched an investigation into Rospechat’s activities.

Fyodorov’s track record in politics shows consistency. He has had an active career since joining Russia’s State Duma in 1993, presenting more than 500 draft laws with a pass rate of over 50 percent, according to a report by Open Democracy. In 2013 he founded For Sovereignty, a parliamentary club that advocates for laws directed at bolstering Russia’s independence. It has sought criminal liability for separatist activities and criminal charges against Mikhail Gorbachev, whom Fyodorov considers a foreign agent responsible for the Soviet Union’s collapse.

While the NOD cooperates with the broad anti-Maidan movement, Fyodorov maintains that his group receives no financial backing from the government and that all its members are volunteers. Unlike the anti-Maidan, with its focus on the masses, he believes that the NOD’s campaign against national traitors within the elite is the key to preventing a repeat of the Ukraine scenario in Russia.

A 2014 report on xenophobia and radical nationalism by Moscow-based think tank SOVA identified violence against “national traitors” and “fifth columnists” as a new form of hate crime in Russia. It named the NOD first in the list of nationalist organizations responsible for its emergence, implicating its activists in several incidents of politically motivated aggression.

According to SOVA’s director, Alexander Verkhovsky, the NOD is only the most active of several pro-Kremlin groups operating under the anti-Maidan banner. Alongside other such groups, it is competing to become the government’s official nationalist party, he said.

“It all depends on the Kremlin. If it decides that it needs an organization like NOD which supports its politics with a more radical platform, then it’ll begin to actively support it,” he said, citing the impudence with which NOD activists have been acting as evidence of tacit support from above.

‘It all depends on the Kremlin. If it decides that it needs an organization like [the National Liberation Movement] which supports its politics with a more radical platform, then it’ll begin to actively support [the group].’

Alexander Verkhovsky

director, SOVA think tank

Pressed on the nationalism issue, Fyodorov insists the NOD is fighting for the freedom of all Russians, without exception. He denies making any distinction along ethnic or racial lines. “The very logic of national liberation is the collective fight of all the peoples of Russia against foreign occupation. What nationalism do you see there? If you want to categorize us, place us with the anti-nationalists,” he said.

While Verkhovsky believes Fyodorov exaggerates the level of NOD support, many fear his radical pronouncements and the often aggressive policies of NOD activists betray a more sinister campaign to accelerate the political retrenchment that Western analysts accuse Putin’s government of undertaking.

Delivering a speech at an NOD rally in central Moscow on April 3, Fyodorov told those gathered that the movement would work to aid underground movements in Odessa, Kiev and other Ukrainian cities. The Ukraine crisis, which began in late 2013, has only accelerated the NOD on its path to victory, he believes.

“If there had been no U.S. aggression against Russia in Ukraine, NOD’s campaign for a referendum may well have taken another two decades. The more the screws against Russia are tightened, the more the Russian resistance will strengthen, and the more support the national liberation movement will gain,” he said.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter