‘In the end, it doesn’t matter’ Maxim Martsinkevich, Russia’s media-savviest neo-Nazi, is dead and leaves behind a legacy of hate speech, violence, and viral popularity
On Wednesday, September 16, 2020, thirty-six-year-old Maxim Martsinkevich, better known by his nickname “Tesak” (Hatchet), died in his prison cell. Locked up for acts of extremism, Martsinkevich killed himself, according to official reports, though his lawyers say he complained recently about being tortured (supposedly with the aim of forcing him to confess to new crimes) and they demand an investigation into his death. Meduza special correspondent Maxim Solopov looks back at Martsinkevich’s life, the hate-crazed ideas he preached and promoted, and the savvy he demonstrated online, in the news media, and even in avant-garde cinema, helping to make him Russia’s best-known neo-Nazi.
From Tolkienism to Nazism
Maxim Martsinkevich died young, but he was even younger when he first gained notoriety, more than 15 years ago, as the Russian Internet’s most vocal proponent of Nazism. In an autobiography self-published in 2012, at the tender age of 28, Martsinkevich wrote that he came from a family of engineers and studied to become a civil engineer himself before he was expelled from college for his “political activity.” The Army apparently didn’t want him for the same reason and issued him a “white card” exemption. As a teenager, before embracing the radical views that would come to define his life, Martsinkevich was a teenage fanatic of the writer J. R. R. Tolkien. Then he started befriending Nazi skinheads.
Martsinkevich found a mentor in Semyon Tokmakov, the leader of the “Russkaya Tsel” (Russian Target) skinhead group. Imprisoned in the late 1990s for provoking a fight with a Black marine guarding the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Tokmakov was Russia’s most prominent racist at the time. He did not shy from the limelight. Tokmakov happily granted interviews to TV journalists while other radical neo-Nazis were busy promoting their ideology among soccer fans and Russia’s youth subculture and creating secret associations like “OB-88” and branches of the banned extremist group “Blood and Honor” to mount “direct actions” (like attacks against market vendors from the North Caucasus and Central Asia). He didn’t hide his admittedly terrifying face from the media and he even accepted money from reporters to stage different actions and events. Tokmakov later admitted to the news outlet The Insider that there was a demand for such performances and the money he earned from journalists through these stunts largely financed the creation of the ultra-right People’s National Party, which he co-founded with the filmmaker Alexander Ivanov-Sukharevsky.
After a feud with his comrades-in-arms, 20-year-old Maxim Martsinkevich, now known in the community as “Tesak” (Hatchet), decided to break out on his own and form a new group to propagate his radical views. In this effort, he turned to a novel platform that was rapidly gaining popularity in Russia: the Internet. In 2005, Martsinkevich launched an online forum called “Creative Studio Format-18,” where fellow neo-Nazis from around Russia could gather virtually. He also started video-blogging, sharing both real and staged snuff footage of racist attacks, brutal beatings, and murders of migrant workers and homeless people. From the very beginning, Martsinkevich continually pushed the envelope of hate speech to draw attention to himself. In one of his first videos, for example, he mocked a memorial ceremony for the victims of the Beslan terrorist attack, using obscene language to insult the children killed in the school siege.
The birth of “Restrukt”
A community of Russia’s most radical neo-Nazis gradually developed around the “Format-18” website. “You get the feeling that a number of young neo-Nazis actually stage acts specifically so ‘Format-18’ will publish their videos,” Alexander Verkhovsky, a SOVA Center expert in Russian nationalism and racism, told Kommersant in 2014. “Not to mention the fact that the videos Martsinkevich shares — both real and fake — are meant to guide others. And it looks like it’s working.” Martsinkevich himself didn’t deny this. In his book, he described his encounters with murder convicts whose actions his videos inspired. Many of these men were sentenced to life in prison.
Dmitry Rumyantsev, the founder of the later-banned Russian National-Socialist Society (NSO), took notice of Martsinkevich’s rising star in the ultra-right and offered him his support, in exchange for helping him build a mass political organization that openly propagated Nazism. The NSO did in fact become Russia’s biggest mass ultra-right organization early in the new century, but law enforcement crushed the group before the end of the decade through a series of criminal cases against members involved in dozens of racist killings.
Police arrested Martsinkevich just before the rest of his NSO associates, locking him up in July 2007 on charges of inciting hatred and threatening violence. The criminal case against him was based on a police report filed by Alexey Navalny, Maria Gaidar, and Oleg Kozyrev (who at the time were organizers of the “Democratic Alternative” movement) after Martsinkevich tried to disrupt a debate they staged in Moscow between the columnists Yulia Latynina and Maxim Kononenko. While Navalny was moderating the discussion, Martsinkevich led a dozen skinheads into the venue and started shouting over the speakers, before repeating Nazi salutes and chanting “Sieg heil!” In February 2008, he was convicted of hate speech and sentenced to three years in prison.
In 2009, still behind bars, Martsinkevich was convicted of another felony for posting a video on “Format-18” of a “Tajik drug dealer’s” mock execution. After his release in 2011, Martsinkevich decided to continue his career as a video-blogger, pivoting to public actions against men he identified as “pedophiles.” His supposedly apolitical project, called “Occupy Pedophile” (a nod to “Occupy Wall Street,” which at the time was headline news in the United States), quickly gained popularity among Russia’s new generation of ultra-rightists.
By this time, young neo-Nazis in Russia knew better than to create political communities that openly propagated National Socialism. Staging attacks against foreigners was also riskier now. In addition to using his own underage acolytes to lure alleged pedophiles (exercises he called “safaris”), Martsinkevich started making a living by charging admission for seminars where he taught fellow nationalists how to survive in prison. He also encouraged his audience to steal from supermarkets.
Following mass protests against election fraud in December 2011 and openly acknowledging that his only aim was to troll the liberal politicians leading the movement, Martsinkevich mounted an unsuccessful campaign for a seat on the anti-Kremlin opposition’s short-lived Coordination Council. Around this time, he and several other neo-Nazis accepted an invitation to join a bizarre film project by Ilya Khrzhanskovsky called “DAU,” which later screened inside an extensive around-the-clock immersive installation. An episode featuring Martsinkevich, titled “Dau: Degeneration,” was released in February 2020.
After his first stint in prison, Martsinkevich cataloged his radical views in a book titled “Restrukt!” The ideas resonated with other nationalists and later served as the basis for a new movement by the same name, whose members organized projects like “Occupy Pedophile” and similar campaigns targeting suspected drug dealers and illegal immigrants. Restrukt also enjoyed publicity generated by the television networks REN-TV and NTV, which covered its activities closely. In addition to his paid seminars, Martsinkevich started raising money with his own pyramid scheme, “TesakMoney,” marketed to fellow neo-Nazis. His slogan was: “Don’t believe! Don’t fear! Don’t work!”
Tesak’s world tour and the end of Restrukt
In November 2013, after police searched his father’s apartment, Martsinkevich left Russia. First, he went to Ukraine, where he made inroads with local ultra-right activists and staged new “safaris,” publicly humiliating several gay men, before going to Belarus and finally Cuba. Back in Russia, he was arrested in absentia and added to an international wanted list for acts of hate speech in a series of videos, including one titled “Tesak on the Movie ‘Stalingrad’ and the Situation in Biryulyovo” (where ethnic riots broke out in October 2013). In January 2014, the Cuban authorities arrested Martsinkevich for residing in the country without a visa and extradited him to Russia. Eight months later, a Moscow court sentenced him to five years in prison. An appellate court later reduced the sentence to two years and nine months.
At the same time, the police turned their attention to Restrukt, following the murder of Zair Alyshev, an Azeri national Martsinkevich’s people suspected of dealing “spice” (synthetic cannabinoids). Officials investigated Alyshev’s killing as a case of intentionally inflicted grave injury resulting in death — punishable by up to 15 years in prison. In July 2014, masked special forces raided Restrukt’s congress at the Izmailovo hotel concert hall and arrested several members involved in the murder. That October, a Moscow court added Martsinkevich’s book, “Restrukt!” to Russia’s list of banned extremist literature.
Following a long investigation, prosecutors charged Martsinkevich with new crimes involving acts of extremism related to his book and audiobook. He was also implicated in a “safari” against a suspected Tajik drug dealer whom Restrukt activists beat and humiliated, robbing the man of his mobile phone and forcing him to eat the “spice” he was supposedly carrying. On June 27, 2017, a Moscow court sentenced Martsinkevich to 10 years in a maximum-security penitentiary.
Before his death, after years in prison, Martsinkevich never abandoned his racist views, but he did acknowledge a growing interest in libertarianism. In November 2018, he shared the following insights in a letter from prison addressed to fellow nationalists:
In the same text, Martsinkevich said he’d finally read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's “The Gulag Archipelago” for the first time. “If I’d read ‘Gulag Archipelago’ before I sat down to write ‘Restrukt,’ I wouldn’t have even started it!” he confessed.
In 2018, in an interview with the news website Lenta.ru, Martsinkevich said he planned to leave Russia and renounce his citizenship, after his release from prison. “I don’t want to have anything in common with this state or its policies,” he said, claiming that his own ultra-rightwing views had evolved. “I’m talking about the ideology of National Socialism. I’ve now wrapped my head around ‘socialism’ and I reject it completely. ‘Nationalism’ is more complicated, but I find many of its aspects to be unacceptable. I’m Russian, but I’m afraid there’s little overlap if you take the Russian nation’s social attitudes. [There’s] heterosexuality and the Russian language. That’s it.”
Asked about his purpose in life, Martsinkevich said “the fear of death is what determines people’s life goals.” “Kids, wealth, art — anything. You’ve got to understand that it’s all just a desire to extend your own life beyond the threshold of your own death,” he told Lenta.ru. For his part, Martsinkevich said he never wanted children or considered himself an especially good or evil man. Martsinkevich dreamed of dying “beautifully,” he said. “Like a Viking in battle! Or riding a girl. Or frozen atop Everest. Though, in the end, it doesn’t matter.”