'I really believe that Russia is the leader of the free world right now'
Russian President Vladimir Putin has emerged as a hero of several prominent alt-right figures, raising new questions about the Kremlin's influence on the far-right, white nationalist movement that has asserted itself as a new force in American politics.
Whether Russia has played a direct role in awakening the American alt-right, whose resurgence as a crusade against establishment politics coincided with the rise of President-elect Donald Trump, is debatable.
But the extent to which the alt-right has found a natural ally in Russia's current zeitgeist -- which perceives the US as a globalist, imperialist power working on behalf of liberal elites -- is hard to overstate.
Self-described white nationalist Matthew Heimbach, who said he identifies as a member of the alt-right, has praised Putin's Russia as "the axis for nationalists."
"I really believe that Russia is the leader of the free world right now," Heimbach told Business Insider in a recent interview. "Putin is supporting nationalists around the world and building an anti-globalist alliance, while promoting traditional values and self-determination."
Heimbach described the US' current foreign policy as aggressive and imperialistic, and he criticised NATO's military buildup in eastern Europe as an example of how the US is trying to promote a "global conflict" with Russia.
And while he views Russia as a "model for civilisation" and "a beacon for nationalists," Heimbach emphasised that the movement goes beyond Russia and traditional left-right politics.
"This isn't just a European or a right-wing movement," he said. "We're trying to position ourselves to be a part of this worldwide movement of globalism versus nationalism. It's a new age."
Like Heimbach, alt-right leader Richard Spencer -- the head of the white nationalist think tank the National Policy Institute -- has argued that the US should dispense with its globalist policies by pulling out of NATO, resetting its relationship with Russia, and courting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom he has described as "a civilised person" and "source of stability in this chaotic world."
Spencer's ties to Russia, which he has called the "sole white power in the world," go deeper. He was married until October to Russian writer and self-proclaimed "Kremlin troll leader" Nina Kouprianova, whose writing under the pen name Nina Byzantina regularly aligns with Kremlin talking points.
For example: Byzantina recently described reports that thousands of civilians in rebel-held east Aleppo, Syria, are under siege by the Russia-backed Syrian government as "fake news."
The webzine Spencer founded in 2010 -- called Alternative Right -- accepted contributor pieces from Aleksandr Dugin, the far-right, ultra-nationalist politician who encouraged Putin's incursion into Ukraine and whose work has been translated into English by Byzantina on her blog. (It does have a caveat: "The views of the original author do not necessarily reflect those of the translator.")
Dugin also recorded a speech titled "To My American Friends in Our Common Struggle" for a nationalist conference organised by Heimbach last year in California.
A right-wing conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, organised last year by Russia's nationalist Rodina, or Motherland, party offered a safe space for fringe thinkers -- including white supremacists and anti-Semites -- to gather and rail against the US-led status quo.
There, American "race realist" Jared Taylor called the US "the greatest enemy of tradition everywhere."
Klu Klux Klan attorney Sam Dickson also attended, and he joined Taylor in calling for the preservation of "[the white] race and civilisation."
Heimbach agreed that the US has "poisoned" traditional values, but he insisted that his brand of white nationalism is distinct from white supremacy.
"We work actively with other ethnic groups to support their right to self-determination," Heimbach said, listing black nationalism and the full autonomy of Native Americans as two causes that his party actively supports.
Still, white supremacy -- manifested frequently as anti-Semitism -- is inextricably linked to the worldview of many alt-right admirers of Putin's Russia.
David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, has travelled to Russia several times to promote his book "The Ultimate Supremacism: My Awakening on the Jewish Question." The book has been sold openly in the main lobby of the State Duma (Congress) for the equivalent of about $2, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Preston Wiginton, a white supremacist from Texas who sublets Duke's Moscow apartment when he travels to Russia, has written that his "best friends" in Russia -- "the only nation that understands RAHOWA [Racial Holy War]" -- are "leading skinheads."
Last year, he invited the ultranationalist Dugin to speak at his alma mater, Texas A&M University. This year he invited Spencer, who spoke there on Tuesday.
Kevin MacDonald -- who gave a speech at Spencer's NPI in late November about how "Jews remade America in their interests ... to make white America comfortable with massive non-white immigration and its own dispossession" -- has written that the "demonisation of Russia in Western media and political circles" is a Jewish campaign to undermine Putin.
"Russia under Vladimir Putin," he wrote, "has proved to be far more nationalistic than is good for the Jews or for Israel."
Heimbach, whose Traditionalist Workers Party was deemed an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, pushed back against claims that he is anti-Semitic. But he said he believes "the organised Jewish community" is heavily involved in "supporting movements that want to destroy nationalism."
"We call out those who are doing things that are hurting our people and are hurting the planet," he said, including "Jewish conglomerates" who are "ruthless cosmopolitans" and "don't have a home anywhere."
The perception of Putin as a "lion of Christianity" is another prominent feature of the alt-right's affection for the Russian leader.
Christopher Stroop, a scholar whose work centres around modern Russian history, has characterised many of today's alt-right figures as 'Traditionalist International" -- a movement centered around the supremacy and "shared blood" of white Christians inspired largely by Russia's religious, nationalist turn spearheaded by Putin at the start of his third term.
Putin has stirred up Russian nationalism by cultivating a closer relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, which in turn has helped "project Russia as the natural ally of all those who pine for a more secure, illiberal world free from the tradition-crushing rush of globalisation, multiculturalism and women's and gay rights," The New York Times' Andrew Higgins wrote in September.
In July, Putin outlawed religious proselytising in a crackdown on non-government-aligned churches. The Russian Orthodox Church was exempted from the ban.
"As the Russian Federation has drifted back to its Soviet roots more and more over the past 25 years, it has increasingly sought to harass, persecute, and destroy any religious organisation that it might consider competition to its own 'state church,'" said
Heimbach, who was baptised into the Russian Orthodox Church with his wife two years ago, views Putin as fighting for the same values -- "faith, family, and folk" -- that guide his own party.
"To rebuild a nation, you have to be able to build up the people," Heimbach said. "And that requires having a strong moral foundation. Putin is fighting for faith, family, and folk. The fact that he's rebuilt tens of thousands of churches, allowed religious services to be broadcast on national television -- all of that has been crucial to rebuilding Russia."
It has also been crucial to exporting Russia's "Slavophile version of moral superiority to the world," Stroop said
, through figures like Alexsandr Dugin and institutions like the World Congress of Families (WCF).
The WCF, a US coalition that promotes right-wing Christian values, played a leading role in advocating for Russia's 2013 anti-LGBT law that makes it illegal to expose minors to LGBT "propaganda."
Larry Jacobs, WCF's managing director who first travelled to Russia in 2010 to attend a conference hosted by the Russian Sancity of Motherhood organisation, has said that "the Russians might be the Christian saviors of the world."
Former Fox News producer Jack Hanick, who serves on the WCF planning committee and spoke at the third Sanctity of Motherhood conference in Moscow in November 2013, was baptised into the Russian Orthodox Church earlier this year along with his wife and son.
"Modern Russia has returned to its Christian roots," Hanick wrote in an article for the New York Observer last year.
"There is a revival in Russian Orthodoxy with over 25,000 new churches built in Russia after the fall of Communism," he said. "On any Sunday, the churches are packed. Over 70% of the population identifies themselves as Orthodox Christians. Combine this religious revival with renewed Nationalism and Russia is growing in self-confidence."
Stroop noted that Americans involved with the World Congress of Families "have been looking to Russia as having the potential to 'save' Western civilisation for a long time."
"Based on quotations from white nationalists and racists like Matthew Heimbach and [televangelist] Pat Buchanan," Stroop added, "I'd say they have certainly looked to Putin as the saviour of Christian civilisation."
For Heimbach, Putin's brand of orthodoxy, which opposes same-sex marriage, abortion, and globalism, "is the last institution standing for traditional values."
And he's happy to see Putin working hard to export those values, even if that may be perceived as meddlesome and globalist in its own right.
"Putin is supporting traditionalism and self-determination, so meddle away," Heimbach said, laughing. "He is giving nationalists an opportunity to fight for the best interests of their nations, which in my view is a positive thing for everyone."
Stroop said that while Putin's embrace of traditional values in his third term "may have been initially about turning to Russian populism, it's really hard to separate foreign from domestic policy in this context" -- something the Kremlin hasn't tried to do.
"Putinism is heavily influenced by the ideas of Dugin and that old Slavophlie/Pan-Slav Russian nationalist tradition at this point," Stroop said, pointing to the soft-power Russkiy Mir Foundation established by Putin in 2007. It was started, in cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church, to promote the idea of a "Russian World" of compatriots.
As of today, the foundation has a presence in 29 countries.
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