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Dying to kill The Russian neo-Nazis fighting Vladimir Putin’s war to ‘denazify’ Ukraine
When announcing the February invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin said that one of Russia’s aims was to “denazify” the country. In the months since, Kremlin propaganda has continuously pushed the notion that Russian troops are “destroying” and capturing “nationalists,” “Banderities,” and “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine — painting all Ukrainian soldiers as far-right radicals and eliding the fact that thousands of innocent civilians have died as a result of the invasion. What the Kremlin’s propagandists have conveniently ignored, however, is the fact that several avowed ultra-right nationalists are actually fighting on Moscow’s side. Meduza tells the story of how Russian neo-Nazis were drawn into Vladimir Putin’s war to “denazify” Ukraine.
In June 2022, snapshots of a young man standing in front of a German flag began circulating on Ukrainian Telegram channels. He had a shaved head and a number of memorable tattoos, including an intricate portrait of Adolf Hitler on his shoulder, the emblem of the Third Reich on his chest, and, on his forearm, the phrase “Jedem das seine” — the motto displayed over the main gate of the Nazi’s Buchenwald concentration camp.
The man in the photograph is Anton Raevsky, a well-known Russian ultra-nationalist who, in 2014–2015, fought alongside Russian and Kremlin-backed forces in the Donbas. In April 2022, he went off to war once again — this time, to take part in what Vladimir Putin had dubbed a “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine.
‘He’d sit in the back row and read Mein Kampf’
Anton Raevsky, 37, was born and raised in Russia’s Oryol region. A longtime acquaintance, who spoke to Meduza on condition of anonymity, said that Raevsky already had a “religious bent” when they met as teenagers in 2002. He enjoyed “reading the literature” of Protestant sects, pagans, and Satanists. Raevsky, he recalled, was athletic and very fond of karate. And unlike his classmates, he was well behaved in school. He got along well with his teacher, the acquaintance said, even though he would “calmly sit in the back row and read Mein Kampf” (Adolf Hitler’s manifesto).
In the 2000s, Raevsky tested out three ultra-nationalist groups, but he soon cut ties with all but one — the Black Hundred (Chornaya Sotnya, in Russian). As his acquaintance recalled, the group’s tenets combined all of Raevsky’s core views: anti-Semitism, support for monarchy as a form of government, and Russian Orthodoxy. According to the acquaintance, Raevsky eventually made a special trip to St. Petersburg to meet with the group’s founder, Alexander Shtilmark, who granted him permission to open a Black Hundred branch in Oryol. Upon returning home, Raevsky took it upon himself to cover the city with Black Hundred-themed graffiti.
Raevsky briefly moved to St. Petersburg in the late 2000s. He got a job as a security guard and made friends with a significant figure in Russian neo-Nazi circles at that time — Dmitry Bobrov, also known as “Schultz.” Raevsky joined Bobrov’s National Social Initiative (NSI), an extremist group he had founded following his release from prison in 2009. But their relationship was short lived and, in typical Raevsky fashion, ended in scandal, as he and Bobrov accused each other of trying to divide the group and cooperating with the security services.
Rumors of Anton Raevsky’s possible cooperation with the authorities had been swirling in Oryol for many years: security officials never seemed to touch him, unlike other ultra nationalists. According to Dmitry Krayukhin, a local human rights activist, Raevsky fueled these rumors himself.
“He called himself a freelancer for Center E and the FSB,” Krayukhin recalled. “Once I even asked Center E representatives — is this really true? To which they replied: ‘I mean, what kind of freelancer is he? For example, sometimes we turn to him for information’.”
Raevsky first went to Ukraine in 2014, after the Revolution of Dignity (also known as the Euromaidan) began in Kyiv. Wanting to support pro-Russian forces, he joined Odesskaya Druzhina, a radical militant group in Odesa. Shortly thereafter, he went to fight in the Donbas — his military ID was signed by none other than Igor Strelkov, a former Russian FSB officer turned notorious “separatist” leader.
Upon returning to Oryol in 2016, Raevsky threw himself into animal rights activism and even attended several pickets (as he explained to Meduza, nationalism “encompasses all spheres of human activity, including the protection of animals”). Then, in 2021, he suddenly decided to join Russia’s nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) and run in the municipal elections. Following controversy over his nomination, Raevsky withdrew his candidacy for “technical reasons.”
On April 20, 2022, the Oryol LDPR branch broke the news that party member Anton Raevsky had gone to fight in Ukraine as a volunteer. “For him there was no question when the ‘special military operation’ began on February 24,” the party said in a statement on Telegram. “He considered it his duty to go to the front line and fight the growing tumor of Nazism in Ukraine.”
A month earlier, Raevsky had posted photos on VKontakte of his new tattoo sleeve, which covered up a number of the Nazi tattoos on his right arm. Oryol24, a local Telegram channel linked to the local security services, wrote that Raevsky had “denazified himself.”
Raevsky told Meduza that he has “moved away from Hitlerism.” He now considers himself a Russian Orthodox nationalist and a staunch supporter of absolute monarchy. “But I also emphasize that on the Russian nation’s path to revival there must be a period of national dictatorship,” he said.
‘We will meet him in Valhalla’
The involvement of far-right Russian nationalists and neo-Nazis in Moscow’s war against Ukraine has long been an open secret — although there are relatively few of them on active duty. A few dozen at most, according to SOVA Center director Alexander Verkhovsky. And many of them, like Anton Raevsky, fought in eastern Ukraine back in 2014.
Citing a report by Germany’s intelligence service, the newspaper Der Spiegel wrote in May that there are at least two far-right groups fighting on Russia’s side — the Russian Imperial Legion and the paramilitary group Rusich.
The Russian Imperial Legion is the paramilitary wing of the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), a white-supremacist group founded by Stanislav Vorobyov in 2002. Both the United States and Canada have designated the RIM as a terrorist organization.
The RIM’s paramilitary unit began fighting in the Donbas in 2014. Fighters from the group don’t conceal their faces and are often photographed holding imperial flags. According to Der Spiegel, RIM leader Denis Gariyev was wounded while fighting in Ukraine earlier this year. In May, the Russian Imperial Legion reported that Gariyev’s deputy, Denis Nekrasov, had died after his car hit a landmine near Izyum.
Compared to the Russian Imperial Legion, the paramilitary group Rusich seems outwardly more radical. Fighters from the group openly wear the kolovrat (a sun-shaped symbol used in place of the swastika) and other symbols associated with far-right extremist groups. For example, the valknut appears on the paramilitary group’s black banners. Among its members, Rusich counts a number of people who belonged to Russian neo-Nazi groups in the late 2000s. Its founder Alexey Milchakov is no exception.
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Back in 2011, 20-year-old neo-Nazi Alexey Milchakov made the news for killing a puppy and posting gruesome photos of it on social media. Nicknamed “Fritz,” he had joined the St. Petersburg branch of Slavic Union, one of Dmitry Demushkin’s neo-Nazi organizations, in the early 2000s. When war broke out in the Donbas in 2014, Milchakov adopted the call sign “Serb” and, as he put it in an interview, joined the fight as part of a “small group of Russian nationalists.”
In the Donbas, Milchakov linked up with radical nationalist Yan Petrovsky (nicknamed “Veliky Slavyan” or “The Great Slav”), who he had met in St. Petersburg in 2011. Petrovsky — a Russian citizen who moved to Tønsberg, Norway in 2004 — had found himself in trouble with the law the year before: Norwegian police had raided the tattoo studio where he worked and found a cache of illegal weapons belonging to Vyacheslav Datsik, a Russian neo-Nazi who had broken out of a St. Petersburg psychiatric clinic and sought political asylum in Norway. (The Norwegian authorities rejected Datsik’s asylum claim and extradited him to Russia in 2011. Petrovsky was stripped of his permanent residency status in 2016 and also deported from Norway.)
Milchakov and Petrovsky co-led the Rusich company, which fought in the Donbas as part of another pro-Russian militia unit, the “Batman” Rapid Response Group — first in Luhansk and then in the battles for the Donetsk airport. In the aforementioned interview, Milchakov openly admitted that he went to the Donbas “to kill” and directly referred to himself as a Nazi.
After the heavy fighting in the Donbas wound down in 2015, Milchakov joined the Wagner Group — a private military company financed by Kremlin-linked oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin. In 2017, the St. Petersburg-based news site Fontanka reported that Milchakov was fighting in Syria. But after the start of the February invasion, he returned to Ukraine, where he was reportedly “lightly wounded” in April 2022.
In June 2022, Yan Petrovsky returned to St. Petersburg once again — this time to bury one of his comrades who had died in Ukraine. At the funeral, Petrovsky — surrounded by uniformed members of the Donbas Volunteers’ Union — gave a eulogy. “The gates of Valhalla have truly opened before him, and he will walk in with honor and dignity,” Petrovsky said. “We will meet him there one day, gather at the same table, and feast. Glory to Russia!”
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Several members of the far-right band Russkyi Styag are currently fighting in Ukraine as part of Rusich, according to Deutsche Welle. The band’s frontman Evgeny Dolganov has also actively supported the Kremlin’s “special military operation,” giving frontline concerts and interviewing other far-right nationalists.
At one time, Dolganov was an active member of the National Socialist Society (NSO), a radical group co-founded by Belarusian neo-Nazi Serhii “Botsman” Korotkyh (Russian neo-Nazi Maxim “Tesak” Martsinkevich was another notorious member). After the collapse of the NSO, Korotkykh went to Ukraine, where he fought as part of the Azov volunteer battalion and later became a police official. Today, he and other former NSO leaders, for example Andrey “Ded” Dedov and Artyom “Uragan” Krasnolutsky, are fighting against Russia as members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Dedov, as it happens, used to co-own a Moscow tattoo parlor with one Gleb Erve. After the start of the February invasion, Erve became a correspondent for Russia’s state-run news agency RIA Novosti, reporting on the purported fight to “denazify Ukraine.” Observers were quick to point out that some of Erve’s own tattoos are in fact far-right symbols — such as the emblem of Benito Mussolini’s Italian National Fascist Party that’s inked on the back of his head. According to the website Antifa.ru, Erve also ran a YouTube channel where he propagated far-right ideas.
Erve declined to speak to Meduza and instead pointed to statements he had posted on social media. On Telegram in May, he acknowledged that he “was ultra-right” but said that he had grown disillusioned and left the movement three years ago. He also claimed that his past experience with the far-right helped him to know “what literature to look for in Ukrainian schools” and how to “correctly” interview Ukrainian prisoners of war from the Azov Regiment.
In another post, Erve wrote that he had come to terms with the fact that because of his tattoos “Ukrainian propaganda, with the support of domestic liberal propaganda” was making him out to be “practically Goebbels.”
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Evgeny Rasskazov, who goes by “Topaz” on social media, was born and raised in the Donbas city of Makiivka. He joined Rusich in 2014, after he saw a call for new recruits Alexey Milchakov had posted online.
Rasskazov now runs a Telegram channel where he actively posts about the everyday life of a “denazifier” fighting against Ukraine. On April 20, he wrote a happy birthday post dedicated to Adolf Hitler (albeit without naming him). “Today is the birthday of our comrade-in-arms and friend, who became an example for many of us,” Rasskazov wrote. “And even though he has long been gone from us, his actions and words live in our hearts and inspire us to beat the Ukr-Bolshevist scum and multiply the glory of great Russia.”
The post included a photo he had taken against the background of a Russian military vehicle adorned with the pro-war letter Z, the Tyr rune, and the number 88 (a numerical shorthand for “Heil Hitler”).
Later, in response to criticism over the post, Rasskazov wrote that Rusich “will not change” its symbols or its views. And Russian law enforcement wouldn’t respond to the complaints against the group, he argued, “because veterans are inviolable.”
Meduza sent questions to both Alexey Milchakov and Evgeny Rasskazov. They refused to respond, saying “now is not the right time.”
‘A Russian nationalist can’t not be an imperialist’
The 2000s were a heyday for far-right subculture in both Russia and Ukraine. Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kyiv, and Kharkiv became real hubs for far-right radicals. Serhii Korotkykh, the infamous Belarusian neo-Nazi also known as “Botsman” and “Malyuta,” told Meduza that before 2014, far-right nationalists from Russia were “specifically oriented towards Ukraine.”
Russian nationalists regularly traveled to far-right music festivals and concerts in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other Ukrainian cities. And Russian far-right bands often toured in Ukraine (and vice versa). These performances drew a diverse crowd of skinheads, black metal fans, and soccer hooligans, an interviewee who regularly attended far-right concerts in the mid-2000s told Meduza. “I don’t remember conflicts based on chauvinism,” added the concert-goer, who wished to remain anonymous.
At the time, relations between Ukrainian and Russian nationalists were friendly. “You need to distinguish between political nationalism, organized nationalism, and the subculture — skinheads and so on. If you take the representatives of the subculture, they all now side with Ukraine or are in Ukraine itself,” Dmitry Demushkin, the Russian nationalist turned politician, told Meduza.
Demushkin said that for years, Ukrainian nationalists hid, fed, and supported people who Russia had placed on federal wanted lists: “[They] traditionally hid from the Russian justice system in Western Ukraine. Dozens of Russian nationalists and skinheads fled there, Ukrainian nationalists provided them all possible support.”
But then, according to Korotkykh, Russia “fell ill with great-power, imperial chauvinism.” Demushkin disagrees: in his opinion, it’s undeniable that Russian nationalism has been “partly imperial” since at least the early 1990s.
Dmitry (name changed) was involved in Russia’s right-wing radical movement in the 2000s (he now supports the “special military operation” and therefore asked Meduza not to reveal his identity). In his opinion, “a Russian nationalist can’t not be an imperialist.” “The only thing that represents power in this world is an empire. Any non-imperial nation becomes someone’s satellite. In 1991, the balance was upset. And in order to restore it, Russia has to gain its strength back,” he explained.
Dmitry’s beliefs chime with those of the Russian nationalists who are currently fighting against Ukraine. For example, he falsely claimed that “Ukrainians do not exist as an independent nation” and the “entry of [Russian] troops into Ukraine was provoked by the West.” These arguments also echo Vladimir Putin’s own rhetoric almost word for word.
However, not all Russian nationalists hold these beliefs. “Even if we take the last 30 years of Ukraine’s history, we’ll see that the formation of the Ukrainian nation, its own state, [and] independence has been an active process there,” said Nikita Zaytsev, the spokesman for the Russian national-anarchist group Popular Resistance Association. “Yes, this is a people very close to us culturally and historically. But they are a different people.”
Zaytsev’s stance is not as uncommon as one might think. Indeed, the 2014 revolution in Ukraine caused a historical split in the Russian nationalist movement. “Imperialist nationalists” — inspired by the bloodless annexation of the Crimea and pro-Russian rallies in the Donbas, Odesa, and Kherson — publicly supported Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine. As Zaytsev explained, others saw the Euromaidan as an example of a national revolution that Russian nationalists should also support — and hence joined the fight on the Ukrainian side.
Korotkykh deemed this logic perfectly understandable: instead of improving the lives of Russians, the Russian state had “begun to throw their lives into the furnace of its war for the empire.”
Both Demushkin and Zaytsev are of the opinion that there’s no point in trying to suss out what percentage of Russian nationalists support Ukraine and what percentage support Russia’s “special military operation.” All Russian nationalist organizations were crushed after 2014, and their leaders were “prosecuted, or pressured, or fled abroad.” All there is to go on now is statements from individual Russian nationalists, they said.
According to Sova Center director Alexander Verkhovsky, the post-war future of far-right nationalists fighting on the Russian side will depend on their political ambitions. Those who “keep a low profile,” he said, “will be able to live on.” But those who refuse to play by the state’s rules may well find themselves facing persecution.
Demushkin and Zaytsev found it perplexing that Russian nationalists are fighting to bring the “Russian world” (Russky mir) to Ukraine, when, from their perspective, it doesn’t even exist at home. “Guys, if you’re building the Russian world there, why don’t you start building it here in Russia? If Demushkin was imprisoned in Moscow over a picture [that said] ‘For Russian rule’ then how can you build this Russian rule in Kyiv?” Demushkin asked rhetorically. “You won’t build it there if you’re persecuted for this in Moscow.”
“How can you even square the ‘Russian world’ with the Kadyrovites screaming ‘Akhmat is power!’ and a red [Soviet] flag over Azovstal?” Zaytsev asked, in turn.
Anton Raevsky was also forced to try and reconcile this discrepancy between the radical, anti-Communist views characteristic of the far-right and Russia’s use of Soviet symbols during the war against Ukraine. “As for the red flags, Lenin monuments, and streets in honor of Bolshevik executioners, I believe that one day Russia will cleanse itself of the putrid smell of Bolshevism,” Raevsky assured Meduza. “And the red flag over the Reichstag building will remain a symbol of a Russian Victory, not of the [Communist] International.”
Cover photos: Evgeny Feldman; Sergey Bobok / AFP / Scanpix / LETA
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