The first time I meet Leonid Simonovich-Nikshich, the white-bearded leader of Russia’s ultra-conservative Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers movement, he’s dressed in black paramilitary gear festooned with skulls and holding a chunky silver crucifix above his head.
The paunchy 60-something Russian Orthodox Christian activist is standing among thousands of far-right nationalists who have gathered in central Moscow. The purpose of the protest: to call for the expulsion of migrants from Central Asia and Russia’s mainly Muslim North Caucasus region. “Darkies out!” masked youth chant, as riot police look on and a police helicopter hovers overhead.
Simonovich-Nikshich and his black-clad followers aren’t doing any chanting, but it still strikes me as an odd event for a Christian movement to attend. How exactly does this rabid racial hatred, I ask Simonovich-Nikshich, tie in with the biblical concept of tolerance?
“Tolerance?” Simonovich-Nikshich asks. He peers at me over his glasses. “Where does it say anything in the Bible about tolerance?”
This is the first time I’ve spoken to a member of the Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers. But the movement is notorious. It traces its roots back to the chaotic years after the Soviet collapse, when a nation that had been cut off from the outside world for decades was suddenly confronted with a host of forbidden ideologies and beliefs, from Scientology to neo-Nazism. For many, it was too much, too soon, and they sought refuge in the potent mixture of religion, mysticism and ultra-nationalism offered by groups like the Banner Bearers. While the organization has around 50 hardcore members based in Moscow, they’ve attracted thousands to their religious processions in the Russian provinces.
Memorably described by The New York Times as a cross between the “Grateful Dead and the Ku Klux Klan,” the Banner Bearers are currently at the forefront of the radical religious right that has emerged as a serious force since the return of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin in 2012. The movement’s slogan is “Orthodoxy or Death!” and its members—like Putin—believe that Western liberalism is corrupting Russia’s “traditional values.”
The movement isn’t against self-promotion. Far from it. Over the past few years, the Banner Bearers have made news in Russia and abroad for a series of stunts that include “exorcising” Madonna.
“We are not against Madonna as an individual, but we are against demons,” Simonovich-Nikshich explained several year ago, as a fellow Banner Bearer set fire to a poster of the “blasphemous” American pop diva with a Zippo. “There she goes, straight to hell!” The movement also picketed Pussy Riot’s byzantine trial and regularly confronts gay rights advocates on the streets of Moscow.
Back at the rally, Simonovich-Nikshich walks away before I have a chance to talk to him further, so I strike up a conversation with his deputy, Igor Miroshnichenko, a bearded artist and former fashion designer with mournful, deep-set eyes. He’s responsible for the movement’s uniforms, banners and regalia. After a few minutes, he invites me to visit his studio in west Moscow. “We’ll have a talk and then see about a meeting with Leonid Simonovich-Nikshich,” he says.
A week later, Miroshnichenko meets me outside a metro station on the snowy outskirts of the capital. “How come you speak Russian so well?” he asks. I tell him I’ve been living in Moscow for many years, and I’m married to a Russian woman. His eyes narrow. “Where are you from?” he asks. He visibly relaxes when I tell him I’m British. “Ah, that’s OK then,” he smiles. “We don’t have anything against Russian women marrying Britons.”
This “approval” of my marriage kills the conversation for a few minutes, and we trudge in semi-silence past rows and rows of near identical Soviet-era tower blocks. “If you get lost on the way back, look out for the garbage dump,” Miroshnichenko says, gesturing in the direction of an overflowing waste disposal container.
The streets are harsh and cold, but Miroshnichenko’s studio is cozy and warm. He sets about making strong, sweet black tea and laying the table with all manner of cakes and cookies, while I look around the room. The studio is filled with paintings, many of them apocalyptic or white supremacist in nature. One of them features Russia’s black-and-yellow imperial-era flag and the slogan “Democracy in Hell—in the Heavens, the Empire.”
For many liberal Russians, the group’s appearance—they frequently wear black hooded capes in public—and unsettling slogans have made the Banner Bearers a symbol of the xenophobic, aggressive atmosphere at the core of Putin’s Russia.
“We have a bad reputation,” Miroshnichenko admits. “The liberal papers write that we kill and beat people up. That’s not true at all. We don’t attack anyone. Well, apart from gays when they try to hold their parades. But they really make us angry, and we can’t control ourselves.”
Miroshnichenko pauses and munches on a cookie, the crumbs falling onto his gray beard.
“More tea?” he asks.
“Russians are trying to hold on to their traditional values,” he continues, after refilling my cup. “But in Europe, they have caved in, and allow gay parades, same-sex marriage and so on. Gays are being used by certain forces that are attacking Russia. If they are given rights, they will spread the idea that the family is not needed, and our birthrate will fall. It’s a plot to lower Russia’s birthrate. And then, look, Muslims will come in to fill the empty spaces. An increase in the number of gays is a threat not only to Russia, but the whole world.”
I disagree with everything Miroshnichenko says, but we seem to get on well enough. “Do you consider everything that comes from the West to be a negative influence for Russia?” I ask him before I head back out into the cold night. “Of course,” he says. “Well, not everything of course. There are some exceptions such as rock music, for example—1960s and 1970s stuff, especially. That brought a lot of people to God in the Soviet era.”
It’s an odd moment, and I can’t help but feel that had he been born in the West, Miroshnichenko would have been a slacker-artist type. When I get home, I somehow feel the need to assign the Black Sabbath track “Paranoid” to his number on my smartphone.
A few weeks later, the dulcet tones of Ozzy Osborne fill my apartment. It’s Miroshnichenko, calling to invite me to a meeting with Simonovich-Nikshich. I guess I passed the test. I trudge my way through more snow to a café in central Moscow, where Simonovich-Nikshich, Miroshnichenko and another member of the Banner Bearers are sitting around a table piled high with coffee cups and blueberry muffins. All are dressed in the movement’s black uniforms, and Simonovich-Nikshich sports a chunky ring on each finger. Even for Moscow, where weirdness is so common it’s almost normal, they stand out. Secretaries and office workers cast curious glances in their direction.
The Banner Bearers’ leader turns out to be a chatty sort, and we quickly get down to a discussion of the essentials: Satanism, Pussy Riot, Putin and the imminent return of the czar.
“Satanism is a very influential religion,” Simonovich-Nikshich says.
“Those Pussy Riot girls, why they are nothing but a Satanic sect. One of them was heavily pregnant, right, when she had sex in public? That child will grow up to be a vampire. Sex is a very powerful magic.”
Although the Banner Bearers approve of many of Putin’s policies, including his law against “gay propaganda,” the movement yearns for the revival of the Russian monarchy. “We need the return of the czar to rescue Russia’s lost generation,” Simonovich-Nikshich tells me.
And just who could claim the vacant crown? He’s not sure. The modern-day Romanovs, descendants of Czar Nicholas II, who was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918, show no interest in returning to throne, and there are no obvious alternatives.
“How is the czar going to return, if the Romanovs aren’t interested?” Simonovich-Nikshich asks. This isn’t a rhetorical question. The Banner Bearers gaze at me intently as if I am going to resolve their problem for them, right then and there.
I shrug and Simonovich-Nikshich sighs. “It looks like it is going to take a miracle.”
What about Putin? I suggest. Would the muscular, ex-KGB man make a good czar? It’s a tongue-in-cheek proposal, but the monarchists have already thought of this.
“Ah, there was some talk about this a few years back,” says Simonovich-Nikshich. “And then people started to suggest that it might be better to marry off one of Putin’s daughters to Prince William. You know, from England? To start a new line of the monarchy in Russia, you see?”
Simonovich-Nikshich sighs again. “But then he went and got married to that…Kate woman? I forget her surname.”
The conversation drifts on surreally. One moment the Banner Bearers call for Lenin’s removal from his Red Square tomb (“That red dragon needs to go!”), the next they are urging the establishment of a “Christian state” from “Dublin to Vladivostok.”
And then they spill the big secret. The world’s problems? Russia’s tormented history? It’s all the fault of what Simonovich-Nikshich calls the “real power” behind today’s governments: a shadowy, Satanic conspiracy headed by—you guessed it—the Jews.
“Have you read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? ” Simonovich-Nikshich asks. “You should, then you’ll understand everything that’s going on.” He waves away my argument that the book, which was first published in Russia in the early 20th century and outlines a supposed “Jewish plot” for global domination, has long been revealed to be an anti-Semitic hoax. “Open your eyes,” he says, smiling.
It’s easy to laugh at these muffin-munching members of Russia’s religious right, but the muddled and frequently hateful rhetoric that they spout between cups of coffee is increasingly popular in their homeland, where Kremlin-run media portrays the West as decadent, degenerate and set on Russia’s ruin.
The growing influence of the religious right has led some critics to fear the “coming of the Russian Orthodox Taliban.” It seems far-fetched, but the Orthodox Church no longer hides its disdain for what it calls the “monstrous” separation of church and state. Academics have also jumped onboard, with a professor from the Foreign Ministry-backed Moscow State Institute of International Relations recently calling atheists “sick animals that need to be treated.”
“All of this reminds me of Iran around the time of the Islamic Revolution,” says Viktor Bondarenko, founder of the “Russia Is for Everyone!” human rights movement. “These Orthodox fanatics will tear Russia apart.”
Back in the café, the Banner Bearers are waiting for their bill. “You won’t be able to get most of the stuff I’ve told you published anywhere,” Simonovich-Nikshich says. “No editor in the West would be allowed to reveal who really rules the world.”
And with that, the Banner Bearers leave, filing out into the Moscow night to battle tolerance and sin, wherever they may find them. “Stay in touch,” Miroshnichenko says. “There are some interesting times ahead.”
I don’t doubt him for a second.