Few figures can match the Alternative Right’s infatuation with Donald Trump, but if there is one that could compete, it’s Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has emerged as something of a hero with key figures of the movement publicly referencing Putin, his government, and Russia more generally as an ideal that the United States should emulate.
The US presidential elections drew the attention of the Alternative Right to Russia and Putin. The attempts by Russian, Kremlin associated organisations, to influence the election through pro-Trump and far-right leaning social media accounts and fake news sites raised questions of the Kremlin’s influence on the Alternative Right in the US. While the truth might be more complex, it was interpreted by the movement itself as if it had gained a powerful ally abroad.
But this infatuation goes beyond their perceived common support for Donald Trump’s presidency and opposition to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. During the last decade, Russia has embraced several, conservative ideals central to the Alternative Right, by restoring the position of the Orthodox Church, introducing anti-LGBT+ legislation and promoting anti-interventionist foreign policy, all developments that are widely supported within the Alternative Right.
“Russia is our friend”
Similarly to Japan, Russia and its regime are glorified by a large section of the Alternative Right because it is perceived to embody certain ideals that the movement values.
Pro-Russian sentiments are regularly espoused by prominent Alternative Right individuals and at rallies connected to the movement. Richard Spencer, one of the key activists in the white nationalist section of the Alternative Right, the alt-right, has said that Russia is the “sole white power in the world”, and at the now infamous Charlottesville rally in August 2017 Alternative Right protesters could be heard shouting “Russia is our friend!” .
The liking for Russia by the American far right goes back further than the inception of what we today call the Alternative Right. David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan previously owned a flat in Moscow, where he lived for five years. He has also released one book in Russian which, according to himself, was “a bestseller and sold in the Duma book store”.
What seems to be the most important aspect of the Alternative Right’s attraction towards Russia is what they perceive Russia and Putin to be against, and particular recurring topics indicate what these are. In a 2016 interview with Business Insider, Matthew Heimbach, former leader of nazi group the Traditional Workers Party, argued: “I really believe that Russia is the leader of the free world right now […] Putin is supporting nationalists around the world and building an anti-globalist alliance, while promoting traditional values and self-determination”.
Traditionalism and puritanism in Russia, as espoused through its government’s anti-LGBT+ and anti-pornography legislation (influenced in part by the Russian Orthodox church), are regularly echoed by the Alternative Right in the US. These ideas are reflected in the movement’s glorification of “traditional” lifestyles or “trad life”, as well as its anti-feminism, which underscores the importance of traditionally defined gender roles and the nuclear family, and its rejection of the “degenerate” lifestyle of people who do not follow traditional ideals (often exemplified, in their view, by LGBT+ people).
Abstinence from pornography is also commonly upheld as a virtue in these sections of the Alternative Right, with personalities such as Marcus Follin (aka The Golden One) decrying the “degeneracy of drug use, drunkenness, and pornography” in a speech at the American Renaissance conference on April 30th, outside Nashville, Tennessee. Some in the Alternative Right argue that a man’s sexual energy should be reserved for their female partner and a contingent in the more extreme antisemitic alt-right argue that pornography is a tool of the Jewish conspiracy to control the masses.
While the Alternative Right is a disparate movement, the 2016 Presidential election allowed it consolidate it around a pro-Trump, anti-Clinton and anti-establishment cause. Putin’s increasing anti-Western rhetoric, the revelations that the Kremlin was involved in the leak of Clinton’s private emails and Russia’s alleged election interference to the benefit of Trump’s campaign chimed well with these core ideas. Characteristically, the contrarian Alternative Right were bolstered by this succession of events which played into their cause, and while the mainstream media warned of the failure of the election system and Russia’s putative role in this (further fuelling the former’s anti-establishment sentiment), Alternative Right activists made it a matter of principle to (generally) take the opposing position.
Away from the mainstream, in the Alternative Right’s online spaces, such as the 4Chan forum’s /pol/ board and the ‘free speech’ social network Gab.ai, pro-Russian sentiments are common. On /pol/, Russia and the potential election interference were discussed extensively but the responses were not those of alarm or anger. Instead, replies to posts on the topic, broadly speaking, garnered two types of responses that radically differed from the alarm espoused by mainstream political commentators. Users either denied possible interference, or more interestingly, supported it. One anonymous user wrote: “Dear Putin please hack our election thank you”, whilst another posted on Gab saying:
I am 64 and have grown up with #Russia always seen as the enemy. I can’t believe I trust #Putin more then #Obama right now but I do.
Anti-Western ideas and anti-globalism, a central tenet within the movement, are intertwined in the case of the Alternative Right and Russia. The far right flavour of anti-globalism is in part a conspiratorial idea of transnational cabals which intend to undermine, control and destroy Western societies. This conspiracy often has clear antisemitic undertones and ‘globalist’ is regularly used as a euphemism for Jews and those under their supposed control. Worryingly, despite this often intended meaning, it’s frequently used as a slur in the mainstream against liberals and establishment politicians and media.
The Alternative Right is generally anti-interventionist and argues that each nation should care for their own, it is also strongly against migration, arguably an inseparable feature of globalism. Prominent alt-right vlogger Tara McCarthy exemplifies this attitude when she said her aim is “to educate people on the dangers of globalism and replacement migration from the third world”.
Russia is a more isolationist state than the US and Putin’s reluctance to intervene in Syria garnered the Alternative Right’s support. Whilst their simultaneous support for Russia’s alleged election interference exposes an inconsistency, this must be seen in context. For the Alternative Right, Clinton came to represent the “globalist agenda”, hence the idea that the Kremlin attempted to undermine her chances to win allowed them to be established as anti-globalists. In other words, a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
There is little evidence of direct state support for either alt-right groups, or far-right groups more broadly, in the US. Yet, the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election revealed a state sponsored influence campaign, parts of which were run through the Kremlin connected Internet Research Agency (IRA) which used fake social media accounts appearing as Americans and fake news sites. These overwhelmingly perpetuated a narrative that was pro-Trump and supportive of the Alternative Right and often shared many of its divisive ideas.
Some of these accounts were remarkably successful. During the investigation Twitter released a list of accounts that they had determined were ran by IRA. Among these accounts there were many whose posts were shared widely. @TEN_GOP, for example, was revealed to be part of the Russian disinformation campaign. It regularly shared content of Alternative Right profiles such as Alex Jones of the conspiracy site InfoWars and its posts were regularly tweeted thousands of times per day.
However, not all material tied to the Russian disinformation campaign supported the Alternative Right’s narrative. Some of it was liberal and left-wing content, ss in the case of a widely supported fake account posing as a campaign for African Americans.
The Russian scene
Perhaps the best way to understand these, seemingly contradictory actions, is to turn our focus to Alexander Dugin. The Russian academic and writer is often described as an important inspiration for the Alternative Right and it has been claimed that he’s also got Putin’s ear, though this should not be overstated. Dugin echoes many ideas of the Alternative Right, including the importance of identity and a stance against progressive and egalitarian ideals.
Dugin is a proponent of what he calls the fourth political ideology, ‘Eurasianism’, which is an imperial vision of Russia that argues for the expansion of its borders across the Eurasian continent. It builds on a familiar far-right idea that Russia’s character needs to be preserved.
His recognition within the alt-right cannot be understated. Dugin regularly contributes to Richard Spencer’s altright.com and several of his books are published by Daniel Friberg’s Arktos, the largest far-right book publisher in the world and part of the transatlantic Altright Corporation. He has also frequently appeared on Alex Jones’ InfoWars and been pictured alongside David Duke. During the launch of Heimbach’s Traditional Workers Party in 2015, Dugin contributed with a congratulatory speech via Skype.
Dugin previously lectured at Moscow university as a sociologist from 2008-2014, but it is a book he authored in the late 1990s, The Foundations of Geopolitics, which could help to shed some light on the Kremlin’s intentions. The book, which has been assigned reading at Russian military universities, in one passage reads:
It is especially important to introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements – extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilizing internal political processes in the U.S
Despite being written in 1997, it is immediately familiar in relation to the seemingly contradictory disinformation campaign described earlier. Dugin and the Kremlin recognised the divisive potential of the Alternative Right and the evidence suggests they did indeed leverage it for their own aims.
A Russian Alt-Right?
This view of the Kremlin’s support for the narratives of the Alternative Right is not, however, reconcilable with the current state of Russia’s internal far right. Because, while Putin has become something of a hero to the alt-right, Spencer and Heimbach’s claims that Russia and its President are accommodating to extreme right ideas is not entirely true.
During the first decade of the 2000s there was a resurgence of extreme right groups in Russia, with an increase in organisations as well as violent attacks. However, the Russian far-right watchdog SOVA, reports that there has been a marked decline in violence and activity by these groups in recent years, coupled with an increase in arrests of activists. The ‘Russian March’, a yearly far-right march in November which previously attracted some of the most violent groups in the country has more or less been been decimated with several of the organisers now incarcerated.
What’s more, while the more explicitly racist and violent extreme right had a few years of resurgence, it is mostly anti-Putin and therefore part of the opposition. As such, like other sections of the opposition in Russia, the far right are now quite harshly suppressed (a clear example of which is the aforementioned Russian March in Moscow).
To find an intentional counterpart to the Alternative Right in Russia is also difficult. Groups with characteristics similar to the European and American movement on the popular Russian social media site VK, as well as on Russian-language groups on Facebook and the Russian messaging app Telegram, are few and relatively small in size. Indeed, the largest has just a few thousand members and primarily reposts content from US websites.
There is an active contingent of Christian fundamentalists in Russia, some of which are violent. These activists share ideas with sections of the Alternative Right, such as traditionalism, but emphasise too the preservation of the Orthodox Church and the role of religion which separates it from large parts of the Alternative Right, many of whom advocate pre-Christian, European belief systems.
In October 2017 the film Matilda, which depicts the life of the crown prince Nicholas II and his relationship to the ballet dancer Matilda Kshesinskaya, caused outrage among Russian Christian fundamentalists and led to a violent offline campaign, involving threats to theatres and Molotov cocktails thrown into the studio of the director. Interestingly, the event led also to large online protests, indicating that these groups are increasing their capacity to engage in online activism and spread their ideas using social media, a core element of the Alternative Right’s tactics.
Generally, the Alternative Right’s idea of Russia, and especially Putin, is an idealised and heavily simplified one. The support the alt-right perceive themselves to have from the Kremlin through the latter’s apparent favouring of Trump over Clinton is likely not motivated by anything other than tactical considerations (as is the case for their support of European far-right parties), with has little regard for the movement itself.
To say anything about the future of Russia and the Russian far-right and its relationship with their US counterparts is therefore difficult. There should not be any expectations of an emergence of a movement that is characteristically similar to the Alternative Right, as previous attempts have ended in failure. For example, Dugin’s Eurasian Youth Union, centered around his own teachings, which is now mostly inactive. The context is markedly different and, If anything, it is Christian fundamentalist activism that has the brightest future as they, unlike the Russian nazi and far right football hooligan groups, have not been actively suppressed. While likely too grounded in the Russian context to converge with the Alternative Right abroad, as noted they do seem to increasingly adopt features of the Western movement, specifically online platforms as an organising tool as well as for the dissemination of their ideas. Yet, whether they will move beyond just adopting the Alternative Right’s tools and instead marry their interests, we have to wait and see.
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