A Russian Orthodox mystic, a literary exile, and a psychedelic rocker walk into a bar. This sounds like the start of an absurd joke, but it was, in fact, the beginning of a niche but influential political movement – National Bolshevism (NazBolism). While the National speaks for itself, Bolshevism draws from the rich communist political theory, particularly as applied during the USSR (also known as Marxism-Leninism). You may see this as contradictory, but if Fyodor Dostoyevsky was alive today, he would likely be a NazBol! Communism, and by extent, Bolshevism, is an internationalist ideology at its core, antithetical to nationalism. While many past communist movements have used nationalism as a rallying factor, particularly in the struggles for national liberation (e.g. Vietnam, Cuba, and China), the focal lens of communism lies not in different nations, but in the struggle between classes. In some countries, however, both communist and national sentiments can share the same space quite easily. This can be observed especially in Russia and Belarus. So how can one make sense of the NazBol Party?
“The political struggle in Russia has come to a critical point. The phase of resistance has run its course, traditional opposition (solely emotional, Protestant) has run its course. The time of resistance is over, it’s time for a time of national insurrection.
This new era demands new methods, new forms, and new instrumental of political struggle. Therefore, we are obliged to found a radical political and ideological structure of a new , unprecedented type; one that can adequately answer the call of History. Let there be National-Bolshevism!
What is National Bolshevism? The confluence of the most radical ideas of social resistance and national resistance is National Bolshevism!”
– Declaration of the founding of the National Bolshevik Party (NBP)
The roots of National Bolshevism
This syncretic ideology arose already after the civil war (1918-1921) among some White émigrés, Russians (primarily of wealth and influence) who fled the country in the wake of the October Revolution. Certain political and intellectual émigré organisations promoted acceptance of the October Revolution and the new Soviet regime as a natural (and highly popular) evolution of Russia’s fate, encouraging the émigrés, numbering over 3 million, to return with the goal of transforming Russia, working within the new system to bring about a national revival. Chief among the organisation preaching reconciliation with the Reds were the Smenovekhovtsy (lit. translation: changing the signposts), who remained supportive of the new Soviet government throughout the 20s and 30s. Another key intellectual movement that provided critical support for the Soviet government were the Eurasians, who thought that Russian civilisation belongs neither to Europe nor Asia, necessitating a ‘particular path of development’ (i.e. Russian Manifest Destiny). Drawing from Slavophile intellectuals and writers like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Eurasians proposed a utopian project for Russia: to unite all of Russia’s ethnicities (Slavic, Turanic etc.) under the banner of a single, unitary state, where traditional values from Orthodox Christianity and Islam exist alongside each other. While rejecting democracy (and liberalism in particular), Eurasians wished for a mixed economy where private initiative is incentivised.
“An important aspect of the Eurasian worldview is an absolute denial of Western civilization. In the opinion of the Eurasians, the West with its ideology of liberalism is an absolute evil.” – Aleksandr Dugin
Eurasianism, in a sense, posed a third alternative, neither the quasi-liberal capitalism espoused by the Provisional government and the mainstream White émigrés, nor the Marxism of Lenin. Both, in their opinion were flawed, in trying to impose European ideologies onto Russia, who required its own particular form of governance and way of life. Indeed this new Eurasian society would be built not on individualism, class struggle, or ethnic nationalism, but on something different. This rejection of all the modernist ideologies is almost akin to Nietzsche’s critiques of the politics of his era, and can also be found in Dostoyevsky’s writings. Aleksandr Dugin, a neo-Eurasianist theorist, sees Dasein – existence itself – as the main subject of politics, rather than the individual, class, or the nation.
Ultimately, the Smenovekhovtsy and Eurasianists did not survive the Second World War, the USSR was quite good at integrating nationalist appeals and sentiments during the war, while maintaining Bolshevism as its prime political project. Many émigrés who returned successfully integrated themselves in the new society, others who tried to carry on the nationalist revival within the Soviet Union faced dire consequences. And yet, the Smenovekhovtsy may have been right in the end, though the restoration of a modern Russian nationalism alongside the Russian Orthodox Church took longer than they expected. Eventually, Russia had its own bourgeois restoration which saw many traditional political ideas return to the forefront of political life.
Russia’s search for meaning under capitalist modernity
Towards the tail end of the USSR, nationalist sentiment saw a slow yet steady resurgence. It is precisely this growth of further ideological contradictions that caused disunity in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and is in part to blame for the later fragmentation of the USSR. Particularly the boomer generation of the Soviet Union, growing up in the late 60s and 70s, was quite susceptible to these particular ideological currents. In part, it may have been because they experienced their early childhood at the proverbial zenith of socialism, but quickly saw the coming of deficits and unrest in the 80s, causing disillusionment with the system. Equally, changes in education, and the increasing distance between the people, the ideology, and the party, played a large role. My grandfather, coming of age just after the Second World War, was required to study Marxist theory and take courses in dialectical materialism. With his own hands, he helped in the construction of socialism and personally witnessed much of the transformation from feudal backwater into a spacefaring superpower. My mother’s generation, on the other hand, had no such ideological grounding, and would grow up with the allure of foreign products and popular culture, while only experiencing stagnation followed by decline during the tail of their formative years. To some, the benefits of socialism, the guaranteed education, employment, and housing, were almost taken for granted, yet it left them wanting for something more, with all their base needs taken care of, they struggled to find greater meaning, self-actualisation, and turned to the idol of capital to help satisfy that growing need.
The upheaval of the 1980s, followed by the final collapse (or dissolution) of the USSR caused a great deal of trauma and a crisis of meaning and identity throughout the successor states. It was said that the socialist project had failed, the internationalist ideology proven wrong. What path should Russian take to continue the course of history? The Russian people were split among many different ideologies, from the naive neoliberal, to the liberal democrat (who is neither liberal, nor democratic), the old guard communist, and the nostalgic nationalist. All had their stint at trying to unify Russia once more. The regime of Yeltsin (1991-1999), inspired by the Chicago school of economics, deconstructed social provisions, introduced markets and widespread liberalisation, but quickly became unpopular. By 1993, Russia had erupted into a constitutional crisis, as the parliament tried to resist the imposition of further neoliberal reform. Yeltsin, who had tried to dissolve parliament, declared a state of emergency (with measures that the Constitutional Court deemed to be illegal), resulting in a dual power struggle between supporters of the President and the Parliament. This political struggle precipitated in an attempted counter-coup by pro-Parliamentary forces that was quickly crushed by the army. With tanks rolling across central Moscow, shelling the White House (the office of the legislature), any opposition was crushed – any radical communist and nationalist organisations were banned. To combat rising opposition against the Yeltsin regime, primarily from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (generally considered the left-leaning controlled opposition in Russia), Yeltsin resorted to asking the Americans to help fix his re-election (1996).
The new hope – Fiscally liberal, socially conservative
Throughout these years, nationalism slowly came out on top as the new signifier of unity for the people. Aided by the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the popularity of Vladimir Zhirinovsky (affectionately called Zhirik) who founded the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) in 1991 and won a plurality in the parliamentary elections of 1993. Zhirinovsky was an excellent orator, and proved a strong alternative to both the communist and neoliberal platforms. In this era, most Russians desired a non-communist solution that nonetheless could maintain a decent standard of living and stability for the people. Zhirik clearly identified the problems of the ordinary Russian and offered simple, yet intuitive remedies. For instance, he suggested the summary execution of leaders of organised crime, the deportation of all Chechens from Russia, as well as the building of labour camps to house the oligarch class. While he was in favour of raising the minimum wage, Zhirik equally proposed that a maximum wage was necessary, which would cap all incomes above 10 times the minimum salary. Indeed, he presented a measured middle of the road. On the topic of modes of government, while he was sympathetic of republicanism, he remarked that Tsarist autocracy is the foundation of Russia’s (continued) existence. In a later interview he specified that “dictatorship is constipation”, and “democracy is diarrhoea”, and Russia must choose between being stuck with a pain in the rear, or upset with an unending flow of excrement. Later in his political career, Zhirik, campaigned for the restoration of an (elected) monarch and a ban on political parties, and reflected on presidential elections as an unfortunate adaptation of the political experiences of France and the US.
“Kids don’t need to learn English in school. Instead, let them study the Kalashnikov assault rifle. Then soon, the whole world will be speaking Russian!” – Vladimir Zhirinovsky
The shifting political discourse brought many opportunities for old ideologies to be revived, and some people in Russia, while fundamentally agreeing with Zhirinovsky’s centrist politics, found his programme and methods to be too tame. Here, Eduard Limonov found the perfect opportunity to breathe new life into National Bolshevism.
“There’s neither a left nor a right wing. There is the system and the enemies of the system.”
– Eduard Limonov
The National Bolshevik Party – A new opposition
Returning to Russia from his literary exile in France in 1991, Eduard Limonov, writer and publicist, began his career in politics. In this tumultuous geopolitical era, his political activism and work for popular political journals made him many friends, among whom the Bosnian Serb President (and war criminal) Radovan Karadžič. As a member of the Duma (legislature), Limonov worked closely with the LDPR, even becoming shadow minister in the opposition cabinet. After the constitutional crisis, during which Limonov helped defend the White House against the army, Limonov split from Zhirinovsky, accusing him of political moderation and trying to appease the president. In the wake of the split, together with his pro-parliamentary comrades, Yegor Letov (psychedelic rocker) and Aleksandr Dugin (philosopher, political scientist, and Orthodox mysticist), Limonov founded the National Bolshevik Party (NBP). This is the beginning of a novel political alternative that would gain popularity among Russian boomers and youths alike, an ideology that critiques the soulless modernity, capitalist exploitation, and the humiliation of Russia on the international stage. The NBP proposes instead a society powerful enough to beat back the decadent West and protect the people of all the Russias (Great Russia, Lesser Russia a.k.a. Ukraine, and Belarus) under a united banner, by any means necessary.
“We shall establish in the country a climate of order, discipline, and obedience. Russia is everything; the rest is nothing!”
– Eduard Limonov
This concludes the first chapter of this series of three articles on National Bolshevism. What will Limonov and friends get up to? Can the NBP carve out a place for itself in Russian society? Find out in the next chapter, coming out in 2 weeks!
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