Russian critics have long worried about the propensity of the country’s communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor (RKZ), to cast an overly wide net in censoring “extremist” content on the internet.
But when RKZ brought its weight to bear against The Daily Stormer, a US-based neo-Nazi group whose hate-laced website briefly came to be registered on Russian servers, it was a satisfying moment for even the most strident RKZ gadflies.
“This is one of the few times when we can feel like RKZ’s intervention is totally warranted,” says Alexey Kovalev, a blogger and media critic. “Normally they are looking for ways to declare any kind of opposition website as extremist.”
The Daily Stormer has been getting chased around the internet in what looks like an international game of whack-a-mole in the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend, where one woman, Heather Heyer, was killed by an attendee of protests by the so-called alt-right, an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and populism. The Daily Stormer published articles disparaging Ms. Heyer, leading the Stormer’s site registration to be canceled by its registrar for violation of terms of service.
The site tried to register a domain name with several other companies and was rejected each time, before finally finding a brief haven under a Russian RU domain name. The publication subsequently claimed on its front page that Donald Trump personally arranged the RU domain for it in a phone call with Vladimir Putin.
That, however, is unlikely.
“You can get a domain in about five minutes” from several private companies that peddle them over the global internet, says Andrei Kolesnikov, director of the non-state coordination center for RU domain names. “It’s just as easy to open one in Ukraine, Moldova, Morocco, or just about any other zone. Russia is no safe harbor. But RKZ is watching, and if they get complaints they can shut it down, no matter who owns it.”
And shut it down they did in less than a day – quite quickly, by Russian standards – after Russian social media activists swamped RKZ with complaints. The watchdog quickly instructed the domain names coordination center to deregister the Daily Stormer. It did so, and posted an explanation on its website.
The Daily Stormer’s dubious claim of Mr. Putin’s involvement calls attention to the one-sided love affair that American “alt-right” activists and white nationalists appear to have with Putin amid the tensions laid bare by Mr. Trump’s chaotic presidency.
Also, it seems likely to feed suspicions that somehow the Kremlin has been using the odd pro-Trump alignment of far-right agitators, anti-Semites, and white nationalists to spread Russian propaganda, deepen discord, and further weaken US democracy.
Some US conservatives, including Trump, have expressed admiration of Putin as a “strong leader.” Other symmetries could be that Putin seems to be a devout Christian who has allowed the Russian Orthodox Church unprecedented leeway to promote its socially-conservative domestic agenda. Putin, and the Russian media in general, tend to sympathize with anti-globalist forces, particularly if they are seen to be driving wedges in the West’s anti-Russia unity.
And Putin has, since his arrival in power, promoted what might be described as a “make Russia great again” agenda, elevating national identity and interests over internationalist currents.
“There was a time when all sorts of people got invited to Moscow,” says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. That would include Texas separatists, Euroskeptics, US gun lovers, religious-right types, and other conservatives. Putin famously (or perhaps infamously) dined with Trump adviser Michael Flynn – who was briefly White House national security adviser – at an RT event in Moscow in 2015.
“I don’t think it was connected with sharing ideological views. It was more a matter of ‘those who criticize your opponents are your friends,’” says Mr. Petrov.
Fallow ground for nationalism
In fact, says Petrov, there’s very little tolerance in Russia for the kind of philosophy that the “alt-right” espouses. “In Russia itself, hard-line nationalists face very tough pressures. They are the most heavily persecuted type of political activists.”
Nor is there any evidence that Putin, who runs a sprawling multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country, holds any ethno-nationalist or white supremacist views. Nor has he ever been associated with anti-Semitism. Under his leadership Russia has taken a hard turn toward intolerant social conservatism, but there seems little doubt it enjoys widespread popularity.
“Putin is a pragmatist and a consummate populist. He’s interested in keeping power in Russia, and can be quite flexible about that,” says Petrov. “I doubt he has an interest in building any international alliances based on ideology, or anything like that.”
Mr. Kovalev also says he’s very dubious about allegations of an axis between the Kremlin and the American “alt-right.”
“There seems to be very little cross-over in ideas, maybe a few vague similarities,” he says. “Mostly it seems to be based on the fact that one of the leaders of the ‘alt-right’ in the US, Richard Spencer, was married to a Russian woman. But she doesn’t come off as anyone that has contacts with the Russian government. It all looks pretty empty....
“In general, I’m skeptical of this idea that Putin is waging a campaign to sow chaos in the US via the ‘alt-right.’ It’s lazy conjecture to blame outside forces for things that are going wrong in your own country. It sounds more like what Russian officials always try to do.”