More punkish behavior

  • 2001-05-10
  • Eric Jansson
Riga's sky was white with fog when the National Bolsheviks took St. Peter's tower, last November. The red banners they draped from the observation deck hung sloppily in the dead air. That sharp red, reduced to a sweet pink in the mist, was the only thing distinctly visible from the street below. I couldn't make out the provocateurs themselves, one of whom was said to be waving around a dummy grenade, threatening to blow the place up. The mist was too thick, the police lines too far back.

It's almost a pity, I remember thinking. It might have been quite a spectacle. So much work pulling off a first-class stunt packed with plenty of subtle symbolism, for which the hooligans surely were doomed to get prison time, wasted, hidden by the weather.

It was, after all, an achievement of almost as much post-modern artistic wit as political perversion. The contrasts were splendid: Russian nationalists seizing control of a Lutheran spire which had been rebuilt by Soviet atheists after a war with Germany, occupying the place from an invisible perch and with baseless bravado threatening to throw a fake grenade. Try to dream up a provocation fraught with as many ironies. It isn't easy. This was the work of some sick artist, and we might even guess who, since the international head of the National Bolsheviks is Eduard Limonov, an underground punk writer much celebrated by soft-Marxist academics in the West until he actually started to act out the ideas the academics only fetishize.

Yes, Limonov. His name makes eyes roll and heads shake with disdain in anti-Soviet Latvia, which in a way is also ironic, because it's precisely the reaction the author of "A Young Scoundrel" and other novels once gleefully provoked from the pro-Soviet establishment.

Soviets have never been able to understand punks. Institutionalized Bolshevism is no home for disillusioned individuals. It can sentence them to psychiatric wards for social rehabilitation, exile them to hard labor camps to be broken like horses, or on a lucky day give them a brief mandatory vacation at a second-rate spa. But it cannot understand them. Sympathy for the disillusioned is impossible in a system radically committed to preserving and extending an illusion.

This same problem with punks, those irrepressible malcontents, persists in imperfect post-Soviet systems including Latvia's, and Limonov still relishes exposing it. One struggles to imagine that court actions against the National Bolsheviks would have been as tough against less outrageous characters, with more politically-acceptable yearnings.

The three provocateurs who clambered atop St. Peter's received heavy prison sentences – 15 years for each of two adult convicts and five years for another who is a minor. Prison is arguably appropriate in this case, but for so long? Nobody was hurt by their actions, and nobody could have been hurt. Yet the Riga Regional Court branded the men "terrorists" and handed down stiffer sentences than those received by the bombers of the Soviet Victory memorial a few years ago, in which one person was killed. The occupation of St. Peter's, as the punks' defenders pointed out, was more akin to a Greenpeace prank than to terrorism.

By hitting back hard, the court has given the National Bolsheviks just what they wanted: a chance to complain (for 15 years, no less!) that Latvia's courts are political. The convicts will be portrayed, with at least a microscopic shred of fairness, as Russian "political prisoners" stuck in a breakaway republic. This will provide plenty of fodder for outrage in extreme Russian nationalist newspapers. More disappointingly, it may already have heightened feelings of disillusionment among some young Russians who live as purposeless outcasts on the fringes of Latvian society.

The sentences seem unlikely to provoke a new diplomatic row between Latvia and Russia, though Putin's prosecutors did unsuccessfully request extradition before the trial began. Putin, who detests rabble-rousers and invests much of his political capital in cosmetic normalization and national myth-making, is no friend of the National Bolsheviks. Perhaps consequently, the three National Bolsheviks in Latvia were not the only ones to go to jail in April. Limonov himself is fresh behind bars in Russia, charged with illegal acquisition and possession of firearms. The young scoundrel, now 58 years old, is undoubtedly embellishing his own curriculum vitae with the coveted title "political prisoner," too. See, this Kampf knows no borders.

Does Limonov, whose group has been behind egg-throwing incidents at the Latvian Embassy, at film director Nikita Mikhalkov and other targets, have a future? Very likely he does, and his National Bolsheviks do also, because they thrive not only on minor public achievements but on grandiose failures. Quite in the style of punks who don't want respect from the very mainstream they loathe, the Limonovites relish their pathetic image, which attracts other disillusioned souls who feel pathetic.

Not really a viable political group, Limonov's party is a post-modern thought gang which indulges itself by disrupting political expectations and breaking laws which Limonov thinks should be challenged. Limonov plans to compete in this July's gubernatorial election in Nizhny Novgorod, surely not to win, rather to create a minor splash and lose as loudly as possible. If he is freed in time to launch a campaign, his rallies will likely ring, as before, with chants for "Stalin! Beria! The Gulag!" – not because he is really a Stalinist, but because he purposefully stirs up chaos and radicalism.

Precisely because of the National Bolsheviks' pathetic staying power, Latvian institutions would do better not to pay excessive attention. Yet the government in Riga has failed to comprehend this from the very start, and by now the group has enough momentum that it might be difficult to silence. Already its monogram is spray painted all around town, on concrete walls, underpasses and park gates.

It was back in 1998 that the group held its first sizable rally in Latvia, meeting at the Vermanes Park band shell for a little ultra nationalist heavy metal and some rowdy speeches demanding Russian-language schooling for everyone who wants it. It was a rather mundane event, gruffly punctuated by one speaker's praise of Stalin, which jolted many listeners into a fit of uncomfortable giggles, as if they had just heard a dirty joke at a church service. That event, it was soon revealed, had been crawling with Latvian secret police, intent on picking out troublemakers, and even the prime minister at the time, Guntars Krasts, came out with a sharp public statement against the rally. Latvia, it was already clear, would be fertile ground for provocations. It's such a sensitive place.

But to keep the fringes of society from bleeding into precisely this sort of radicalism, it's wiser not to be too sensitive, not too defensive. Remember, for instance, the subtle warning delivered to Soviet authorities by Juris Podnieks' documentary "Is It Easy To Be Young?" about disillusioned youth. The young want to participate in something honest, and they crave real justice; they are broken, not bettered, when courts taint justice with politics.