The „patriotic“ movement Obraz (Cheek) is frequently talked about in the media, especially since October 10th, when, in the aftermath of the violence on the streets of Belgrade, the leader of this organization, Mladen Obradović, was arrested. However, not much is known about the activities of the Russian Obraz (Русский Образ), this organization’s “subsidiary,” which shares with its Serbian counterpart its name, insignia and most of its values, and whose recent history is interesting and revealing.

Unlike, for instance, “Naši” (Ours) from Arandjelovac, who modeled their movement on the Russian organization by the same name (Наши), the influence went in the opposite direction with Obraz. The Russian Obraz was founded in 2002 in Moscow by two Moscow University students, Ilya Goryachev (1982) and Nikita Tikhonov (1980), both politically active history students. Goryachev was an activist of the People’s Alliance (Народный Союз), a far-right political party with international ties, among others with Radovan Karadžić. Similarly, Tikhonov is claimed to have been working, just as the Russian Obraz was being founded, for the electoral campaign of Boris Gryzlov, then Russian minister of the interior, and Speaker of Russia’s State Duma since 2003.

In his final year at university, Ilya Goryachev decided to devote his graduate thesis to Ustashi crimes in the NDH. The research led him to Belgrade in 2002, where he, probably thanks to his political connections, came into contact with Serbian right-wingers, including Mladen Obradović, a newly elected leader of Obraz.

Although at the time there were countless right-wing organizations of all sorts in Russia, Goryachev, deeply impressed by the Serbian Obraz, saw an opportunity to create one more similar to it. After returning to Moscow, with the help of his friend from college Nikita Tikhonov, and with Mladen Obradović’s blessing, he founded the Russian branch of Obraz. Just like in Serbia, the Russian Obraz began as a magazine, whose first issue came out in March of 2003. The most striking was the back cover, with a photo taken from a Benetton ad, depicting people of different races with their arms around each other. The caption read: “This is also genocide.” This was (the Russian) Obraz’s idea of Christian love.

In the following years, the Russian Obraz grew to become one of the most influential rightwing organizations in Russia. The NGO’s who follow extremist movements in Russia, such as the Moscow-based SOVA Center, point out that Obraz has become a coordinator of different rightwing groups and projects. Their success is often attributed to the fact that Tikhonov and Goryachev, unlike most of the half-literate and uneducated Russian neo-Nazis and right-wingers, maintain good connections with the media and politicians. They have admirers not only among far-right political parties, such as the Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party, but also in Putin’s United Russia. According to some Russian opposition media, Maxim Mishchenko, deputy of the State Duma and leader of Young Russia (Россия Молодая), often attends events that Obraz puts on. Mishchenko became known to the Serbian public in 2009, when he came to Belgrade for the tenth anniversary of NATO’s bombing campaign and delivered a speech at the Republic Square rally, which was dominated by (the Serbian) Obraz banners. The rally celebrated Radovan Karadžić, while the EU flag was burned on the stage. The Duma deputy, of course, denies any ties to the Russian Obraz, although the organization’s spokesman, Yevgeny Valayev, has repeatedly confirmed that Mishchenko supports some of its projects.

The second reason for Obraz’s growing influence among the Russian right is the fact that, unlike other “Orthodox Christian” and “patriotic” organizations, its leaders are not avoiding contact with openly racist, neo-Nazi movements. Obraz is increasing its influence among skinheads and neo-Nazis, not just in Moscow, but also in rural areas, mostly through a popular (ultra-rightwing) rock band by the telling name of “Right Hook” (Huuk sprava), with which it maintains close ties. Behind the organization’s ties with neo-Nazis is Nikita Tikhonov, who started joining racist movements when he was just a teenager. One of them was United Brigades 88. The number 88, of course, is a neo-Nazi code for HH (H is the eight letter of the alphabet) – hence, “Heil Hitler”.

However, the most dramatic fact in the seven year history of the Russian Obraz is that last year, Tikhonov was arrested under suspicion that on January 23, 2009, in a street near the Kremlin, he, aided by his friend Yevgenia Khasis (1985), killed a well-known Moscow lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, by shooting him in the head. Then he shot and killed a journalist of Novaya Gazeta, Anastasia Baburova, who was with Markelov at the time.

Why did Tikhonov murder Markelov and Baburova, who, as it later turned out, was probably there by accident? Four years ago in Moscow, a twenty-year-old activist of a local antifascist organization, Aleksandr Ryukin, was brutally killed in a street attack. The police soon arrested the actual perpetrators of the murder who, thanks to the attorney Markelov, got long term prison sentences. However, Markelov believed that the only ones who had been punished were the executioners, and not those who ordered the killing, or at least inspired it. He continued gathering evidence, and finally pointed the finger at Tikhonov. The indictment was filed, but Tikhonov managed to escape. The motive for Markelov’s murder was revenge, but also the wish to avoid criminal responsibility for the murder of Aleksandr Ryukin by eliminating the persistent lawyer.

When the news of Markelov and Baburova’s murder broke, the Russian public was shocked. Knowing that their international reputation was on the line, Russian authorities launched an extensive search for the perpetrators. According to unofficial sources, Tikhonov was captured due to the negligence of his accomplice Yevgenia Khasis, who told someone where she was meeting her friend on this fateful January night. After his arrest, Tikhonov was widely denounced as public enemy number one, but the official media mostly failed to mention his background, institutional affiliations and political ties. Tikhonov admitted in court to illegal position of firearms, but denied any involvement in the murder. A few weeks ago his detention was extended until February 2011.

There is no evidence that Mladen Obradović, or any other member of the Serbian Obraz, was in any way involved in the criminal activities of their Russian counterparts. In fact, the ties between the Russian and Serbian Obraz were never that close. When I interviewed Mladen Obradović in the summer of 2003, I did not get the impression that he had any control over his Russian “franchise”, or any significant interest in their activities. I would say that their closeness was based on the fact that both organizations build their respective reputations and influence on ideological and methodological “unsqueamishness”, i.e. on their ties with hooligans and neo-Nazis, as well as their ability to take advantage of the fact that in society, both Russian and Serbian, there is no clear line between extremism and mainstream politics and media. Therefore, this account of the Russian Obraz can be useful if taken as an example of what extremist movements can turn into if the state fails to deal with them in time, if it does not break the political and media ties without which they cannot function, and if it allows the difference between the mainstream and the extreme to disappear. The consequences of this are violence and guns in the streets pointed at those who look, speak, and think differently.

Speaking of Obraz and Russia, one photograph published on Obraz’s website several months ago is worth noting. This picture shows that the young Ilya Goryachev, who took the flag of the Serbian Obraz to Moscow, was not the only Russian deeply impressed by that movement. Namely, in June 2010, after the Vidovdan celebration in Gazimestan, twenty or so members of Obraz took a picture, posing in a brotherly embrace with Alexander Konuzin, the Russian ambassador in Serbia. Konuzin had undoubtedly known who he was being photographed with, and he must have guessed that the picture will be used by Obraz for their propaganda. In Russia, of course, an ambassador palling with a group of extremists would surprise no one, so this partly explains Konuzin’s “transgression”. But if the smiling ambassador did not mind taking his picture with the fellows in black t-shirts, whose comrades had committed murders in the streets of Moscow, the state agencies in Serbia really should not have missed this support extended to the representatives of an extremist organization threatened with a court ban. Moreover, was it not the young men from Obraz, maybe even some in this photo, who, on October 10th, together with football hooligans and members of other extremist groups, attacked not only police officers but also the headquarters of parliamentary political parties and shot the picture of the President? This way they took part in something which represented, however weak and pitiful, but symbolic all the same, an attack on the state and the constitution. Maybe the Gazimestan photograph is not a cause for a diplomatic incident, but I believe that it is important that the state officials address ambassador Konuzin’s act. If for no other reason, then because we need to know where in this society is the line separating what is acceptable from what cannot be tolerated.

Jovan Byford, Pešč, 25.11.2010.

Pešč, 30.11.2010.