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Russia's Punk Underground on Trial

Aleksei Sutuga, known as Socrates in punk circles. Photo: Vkontakte.

With his tattooed arms and buzzed head, “Socrates” (born Aleksei Sutuga) hardly resembles a greek philosopher. But like his namesake, Socrates’ politics have run him afoul of authorities. For the past few years, Socrates has risen as a vocal leader in the anti-fascist punk (antifa) community in Russia, a response to growing ranks of ultra-nationalist and neo-nazi groups.

Now, following a seemingly staged trial, he’s serving a 3-year prison term. While considered by some to be fringe movements, fascist and antifa punk groups have exerted influence in Russia in certain ways, perhaps reaching even the highest levels of the Russian media and government.

Locked up after a suspicious trial

Socrates’ conviction centered on his role in a late-night scuffle last January. Authorities claim that Socrates and three accomplices attacked a group of young men at Cafe Sbarro, wielding a homemade hammer. Socrates, however, reported only talking to the group of defendants, who recognized him as a leader in antifa circles. Afterwards, the group became ensnared in a brawl in the adjoining room, where Socrates intervened and separated the fighters.

A report by Mediazona, a prison rights watchdog site, found numerous suspicious details in the case. Most notably, the three men claiming to have been attacked by Socrates have participated in neo-nazi rallies and have testified in numerous prior trials against anti-fascists. Court documents bore mismatched dates, some prior to the alleged assault, leading legal experts to believe that the trial may have been fabricated especially for Socrates. More recently, his appeal was denied on the basis of late submission, though Socrates’ defense attorneys allege that the government again changed the date on the document to avoid a retrial.  

Socrates’ heightened profile may have attracted unfavorable government attention. His role as a leader within the antifa community, a fiercely anti-Kremlin group, has grown markedly in the last year. Authorities released him on separate charges earlier this year, under the same amnesty act that freed members of Pussy Riot. With the resulting widespread media attention, Socrates earned an interview with Russia's only independent television station, TV Rain, where he campaigned for prisoner rights.

Russia's anti-fascist underground Internet presence

The RuNet has rallied behind Socrates before, establishing an Internet donation fund to support him during a prior prison sentence. In response, he authored a series of letters from prison to the antifa community that the movement's websites recirculated widely. The antifa community has a wide and varied Internet presence, with members using all media forms to broadcast a wide set of political ideologies united by a common opposition to racism, homophobia, and totalitarianism. Many of these groups are derivatives of similar Western groups like SHARP and RASH. Like Western antifa groups, Russia's activists produce and share punk rock, zines, art, and film related to antifa movements.

There is reason to suspect that ultra-nationalists and neo-nazis might actually be working inside the Russian media. Socrates’ conviction was based in large part on photographic evidence found at the scene of the crime, published by the online news agency Ridus. Curiously, the picture was not posted until after the start of the trial in April, several months after the incident, suggesting there may have been collusion between Russian authorities and Ridus.

The deputy editor of Ridus, Andrei Gulutin, has been identified by nazi watchdog sites and Mediazona as having ties to neo-nazi and ultra-nationalist groups. In the past, Gulutin was a drummer for two prominent ultra-nationalist punk groups, Gangs of Moscow and Right Hook. He also maintained close ties with Russian Way, an ultra-nationalist group whose leader later founded the neo-nazi group BORN.

“Socrates, you're free!” “I'm coming! I'm coming!” Political cartoon published at the Russian anarchist website abc38.noblogs.org.

Russia's ‘antifa’ past

Persecuting anti-fascist musicians and activists is nothing new in Russia. The first Western heavy metal groups to become popular in the Soviet Union faced censorship after government accusations of neo-nazism. (Some comically linked the KISS logo’s double S to the Nazi stormtroopers’ insignia.) Botched translations of police documents even prompted a few officers to identify pony-tailed men as “skinheads.” But more recently, Pussy Riot’s arrest and imprisonment drew worldwide attention to serious antifa groups and their efforts against the Putin regime. Police have arrested other antifa activists, most notably Crimean protester Aleksandr Kolchenko and student Aleksei Olesinov. Antifa punk concerts are constantly threatened with being shut down by the Russian police department’s “Department of Fighting Extremism.”

Russia’s official stance against neo-nazis and ultra-nationalists is ostensibly clearcut. Putin has said those who chant “Russia for Russians” are just “fools and provocateurs.” But Moscow's involvement in defending the Yanukovych regime, annexing Crimea, and supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine has escalated nationalist sentiments in Russia, and ultra-nationalist and neo-nazi groups have grown more active.

Ultra-nationalist and antifa punk culture has had a surprising role in shaping the current Russian political and media landscape. Two relative unknowns in 1980s Moscow,  Edward Limonov and Vladislav Surkov, both had their roots in early Russian counterculture and punk rock and would go on to exert sizable influence in Russia. Limonov, among many, many other things, was a prominent avant-garde novelist and, in the 2000s, led the National Bolshevik Party, an ultra-nationalist party composed partly of skinheads. (The political party was ultimately banned.) Limonov still maintains influence in Russia, contributing to prominent magazines and holding political meetings.

Surkov went much deeper into the Kremlin, becoming the president's first deputy chief and later the deputy prime minister. Though many consider him one of the chief architects of Russia’s modern political system, Surkov never left behind his punk rock roots. While working for the Kremlin, he allegedly ghostwrote lyrics for the prominent Russian band Agata Kristi.

An unclear future for the Russian antifa movement

While their influence is hardly insubstantial, ultra-nationalist and antifa groups are still popular with only a small minority of Russians. Many criticize both ultra-nationalist and antifascist groups for their use of violence. The two movements’ symbols and outward appearance, moreover is nearly indistinguishable to the layman.

Foreign punk groups complain that touring Russia without security guards is nearly impossible, as brawls between neo-nazis and antifa groups commonly become deadly. Antifa musical groups have also failed to establish a broad listening base. Even Pussy Riot, perhaps the most widely-known Russian musical group in the world (and certainly the most popular antifa group), have released only seven songs to limited audiences.

If the past belonged to men like Limonov and Surkov, it's not clear what the future holds for people like Socrates. His trial, in the eyes of many, is a blow to both the Russian antifa movement and Socrates’ personal reputation. How the group moves forward will depend on his ability to rally supporters. In this, from behind bars, Socrates presumably will need to rely on Internet-based communication.

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