Russian attempts to woo American white supremacists have backfired

A quarter-century after American neo-fascists began looking to Russia for support, the relationship is on its heels.

Getty Images / Diana Ofosu
Getty Images / Diana Ofosu

The National Rifle Association (NRA) doesn’t want to talk about its relationship with Russia. For months, the gun lobby has avoided questions from lawmakers on its ties to Russian officials specifically sanctioned by Washington — all the more after the NRA’s primary contact in Russia, Alexander Torshin, was named in the latest round of U.S. sanctions.

But the NRA is only one facet of a nexus of strange links between the American far-right and those close to the Kremlin. From Christian fundamentalists swooning for Russian President Vladimir Putin, to American secessionists repeatedly traveling to Moscow, to far-right media mouthpieces finding a home on Russian propaganda outlets, these ties have only grown — and grown more notorious — over the past few years.

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Indeed, no foreign entity has provided as much support for these far-right causes recently as those in Moscow, where those with conspicuous ties to the Kremlin worked to cultivate and coalesce these American movements that, in the age of Trump, have gained new credence.

However, the recent scrutiny on the relationship between Russian officials and the NRA demonstrates how this attempt to make inroads with far-right groups in the U.S. can backfire. And that backlash is even starker when it comes to the cooperation Kremlin-linked figures have pursued with American white supremacists. After an embarrassing series of setbacks in 2018, America’s young white supremacists — the new generation of white nationalists who burst forth during the Trump campaign — are on their heels, battered by bad press, and, in certain cases, facing significant jail time.

The ties between American white nationalists and Russians extend beyond the past few years. And those ties haven’t produced anywhere near the success many expected. In fact, over the past few months, they have effectively imploded.

Great White North

Despite reports that Putin’s intimates routinely referred to former President Barack Obama as the n-word or “monkey,” American white supremacists had connected with Russians long before his presidency. The first significant ties between white supremacists and neo-fascists in Russia and the U.S. can be traced to the immediate aftermath of World War II, when a number of American far-right figures — including noted fascist Harold Keith Thompson — built up contacts with Soviet agents.

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KGB operatives also recruited Americans in the 1970s to deface synagogues in Washington and New York, while further paying them to “desecrate Jewish cemeteries,” as one KGB general wrote in his memoirs.

Given that the Soviet Union was the great boogeyman for much of the American far-right, these initial connections were only explored to a limited extent. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Russian fascists surged amidst the Soviet rubble, American white supremacists took a fresh look at Moscow.

The first, most prominent neo-fascist to travel to a newly independent Russia appears to be Lyndon LaRouche. A font of anti-Semitic conspiracy, LaRouche found fertile ground in Russia.

ACCORDING TO HIS MAGAZINE, LYNDON LAROUCHE’S IDEAS REACHED MOSCOW IN A TIME OF “TROUBLES.”
ACCORDING TO HIS MAGAZINE, LYNDON LAROUCHE’S IDEAS REACHED MOSCOW IN A TIME OF “TROUBLES.”

In October 1992, LaRouche’s Schiller Institute joined with the Russian State Humanitarian University to organize a conference on “Alternative Approaches to Economic Reform.” As LaRouche’s magazine would later relate, his ideas had “reach[ed] Moscow in time of troubles,” with his teachings, according to one conference participant, “open[ing] for us a new world.” The American fascist even managed at one point to speak in front of the entire Russian parliament.

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LaRouche also partnered with Sergei Glazyev, a one-time Minister of External Economic Relations of the Russian Federation who later joined the opposition against President Boris Yeltsin. Glazyev’s patronage, as researcher Anton Shekhovtsov would write, allowed LaRouche to become “an opinion maker and commentator on political and economic issues in Russia — a status that LaRouche could not enjoy in his home country where he has remained a fringe political figure.”

Russia presents “an unmatched opportunity to help protect the longevity of the white race,” said David Duke.

LaRouche was soon superseded in Russia by another American white supremacist, however — one who gained newfound prominence decades later during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. It’s unclear how David Duke, former Ku Klux Klan leader and anti-Semitic white supremacist extraordinaire, first ended up in Russia. Regardless of how he landed there, Duke says that his five years in Russia were some of the most productive in his life.

Duke sold his books in the Russian parliament and attended numerous white supremacist conferences in the country, often as the lone American representative. Toward the turn of the century, Duke began saying that Russia presented “an unmatched opportunity to help protect the longevity of the white race.” He clarified that Moscow — a city he said had “the largest number of [w]hite people of any city in the entire world” — was the “key to white survival.

Along the way, Duke brought other American neo-fascists to Moscow, including Preston Wiginton, a Texas white supremacist who courted Russian skinheads in his own right.

Duke never managed to build the official ties LaRouche amassed. However, one photo hints at the types of audiences Duke attained while in Russia. In a black suit and maroon tie, Duke stands next to a man with a scraggly beard, a dark blazer, and drooping eyes — a man who would, in years to come, be referred to as “Putin’s Brain,” and who would become one of the primary nodes between Russian circles and American white nationalists.

David Duke (left) and Alexander Dugin (right) pose in an undated photo.
David Duke (left) and Alexander Dugin (right) pose in an undated photo.

The rise of Eurasianism

Before detailing the features and fascism coursing Alexander Dugin’s history and writings, a necessary caveat: It’s easy to overstate the importance of Dugin, the man in the undated photo with Duke. Despite the catchy descriptors, Dugin’s direct ties to Putin appear, at best, scant. We know of only one official meeting between the two, in 2000, shortly after Putin rose to the presidency.

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Still, that one meeting paid dividends. “Dugin refuses to discuss the meeting,” wrote Charles Clover, a journalist who has covered Dugin in depth. “[B]ut it would change his career. Soon there were sponsors, contacts, and open doors.”

While Putin may have kept Dugin at an arm’s length, security officials had no problem catering to him, and allowing him to teach a new generation of Russian military officers. As his profile rose, Dugin began lecturing at Russia’s General Staff Academy and his material was eventually assigned to every member of the academy.

Much of that comity from Russian officials stemmed from Dugin’s theories, which center primarily on “Eurasianism,” itself a geopolitical theory that was little more than soft cover for Russian imperialism.

Dugin’s theories are buried in fabricated history. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder notes, Dugin is a “[c]ontemporary Russian fascist,” one whose “references are German Nazis and postwar West European fascists.” Dugin’s primary theory, positing Russia as a country eternally at war with the U.S., builds upon the work of Lev Gumilev, himself a resounding fraud.

To be sure, Dugin’s theories were easy to mock. As Clover wrote, Eurasianists’ theories “are barely credible and are best understood as a sort of metaphor.” But as one researcher on the Russian right said about Dugin’s 1997 Foundations of Geopolitics, “There has probably not been another book published in Russia during the post-communist period which has exerted a comparable influence on Russian military, police, and statist foreign policy elites.”

For many in Moscow, particularly within the Russian security services, Dugin’s theories offered a way back for the Kremlin and Russian imperialism writ large. Ignoring Dugin’s own fascism — he named his alter ego after a Nazi official in charge of paranormal research, after all — officials during the Putin years lapped up Dugin’s teachings. During Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin appeared to be doing little more than following Dugin’s own ideas for Ukrainian fracture.

As Marlene Laruelle, a professor at George Washington University, wrote, “The influence of [Dugin’s] personality and his works must not be underestimated.”

A new world

In 2014, Russia appeared ascendant, boasting a successful Olympic Games, a stronger post-2008 economic recovery than many Western states, and the perceived ability to out-dance the U.S. at every step, from Edward Snowden to events in Syria.

After the annexation of Crimea, nationalists — white nationalists, especially — across the U.S. looked to Putin for guidance. He was, said one, now the head of the “last great White empire.” All the while, Dugin acted as the lynch pin binding Russia’s growing ties with the Western far-right.

These new ties between Moscow, Russian nationalists, and America’s neo-fascists over the past few years centered on the two most prominent young American white supremacists the 21st century has produced.

Richard Spencer’s wife called Dugin a “well-educated scholar” with a “rare intellectual caliber.”

The first is Richard Spencer, the infamously dubbed “dapper white nationalist.” In 2014, Spencer managed to organize a conference in Budapest, Hungary, for like-minded fascists. “The Future of Europe,” he called it. The keynote speaker was slated to be none other than Dugin.

Unfortunately for them both, Hungary barred Dugin’s entry, citing sanctions, while Spencer was detained and eventually expelled from the country. But shortly thereafter, Spencer would be writing for Dugin’s site, sharing Dugin’s thoughts with his own followers, and pushing pro-Russian policies.

While Buzzfeed in 2014 reported that Spencer said he knew Dugin “personally,” it’s still unclear how Dugin first came across Spencer’s radar: Spencer doesn’t speak Russian, and Dugin’s English remains broken.

However, in the final days of the American presidential campaign, a series of clues emerged tying the two together. It turned out that Spencer had married a woman named Nina Kouprianova, who had, over the few years prior, pushed a steady stream of pro-Russia, and pro-Dugin, material to her own followers.

Originally from the Soviet Union, Kouprianova — writing under the name “Nina Byzantina” — had whitewashed Putin’s regime at every turn, appearing on Russian propaganda networks as an “independent scholar” and claiming that Russia had “chosen the path… of healthy debate.” (Spencer, as it is, also appeared on RT multiple times, described by the channel as the editor of an “online culture journal.”)

Kouprianova also acted as one of Dugin’s translators. With her fluency in both Russian and English, she helped introduce Dugin’s writings and theories into English — some of which would later be published via Spencer’s own publishing house. Rather than point to his fascism, chauvinism, or sheer fraudulence, Kouprianova claimed Dugin was a “well-educated scholar” with a “rare intellectual caliber.” He was, she said, “one of the greatest minds of our time.”

All of this, as Spencer began referring to Russia as the “sole white power in the world.”

Traditional voices

But the Spencer-Kouprianova tandem wasn’t the only pair tying directly back to Dugin, or recruiting American white supremacists toward the Kremlin’s perceived court philosopher. Matthew Heimbach acted as Russian nationalists’ other twin American pole, around whom people like Dugin could expand their following.

As the presidential campaign started, Heimbach was already one of the leading figures among the young white supremacists backing Trump; in 2016, he was arrested for shoving an anti-Trump protester at a Trump rally.

But where Spencer relied on his supposed intellect, Heimbach preferred grassroots organizing — acting, in a sense, as the brawn to Spencer’s brain. By 2015, Heimbach had decided the he would form his own organization, which he would call the Traditionalist Worker Party.

The Traditionalist Worker Party didn’t hide its bigotry. In time, it would grow into a “major energizing and motivating factor for young racists,” as the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Ryan Lenz told ThinkProgress. And at its launch party, there was only one logical voice to christen them: Dugin.

“I see Russia as kind of the axis for nationalists,” Heimbach said.

In a speech — this time by video, as Dugin was barred from entering the U.S. — Dugin issued a “common message” to his “American friends,” exhorting Heimbach and his followers to success. “I’m very glad that I can address you,” Dugin said. “The actual modern world is losing its identity — the cultur[e], the civilization, is in great danger, and I think, maybe, it’s the greatest danger in all our human history.”

According to Heimbach, Dugin’s speech was “amazingly well-received, and exciting for the American white nationalist movement.” (Dugin would later present a similar speech at Texas A&M University, this time at the behest of none other than neo-Nazi Wiginton.)

Heimbach didn’t stop with Dugin. Soon thereafter, he announced plans to travel to Russia for the second annual conference — organized by the Russian Imperial Movement, itself an outgrowth of efforts from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin — focused on gathering leaders of the West’s white nationalists under one roof in St. Petersburg. (The 2015 conference had featured, among dozens of others, a former KKK lawyer and white supremacist Jared Taylor, one of Spencer’s ideological mentors.)

“I see Russia as kind of the axis for nationalists,” Heimbach said. During the Soviet period, he added, “there was the Comintern, the Communist International. And in the modern era, it’s almost like a nationalist version — or the Traditionalist International.”

The conference was postponed, but in 2017, Heimbach welcomed a representative from the Russian Imperial Movement to the U.S. — the first summit on American soil between an American white supremacist and an official representative of a notorious Russian nationalist movement. The Russian Imperial Movement, apparently impressed with Heimbach’s hospitality, said that, moving forward, “the task is to share the experience of political [and] information warfare,” as well as “joint squad tactics training.”

“When we went to the White House, we took a photo with a Russian imperial flag,” Heimbach told ThinkProgress. “Hopefully before too long, when we’re able to meet in D.C., it will be on the terms of the Russian Imperial Movement [and] the new imperialist tsarist Russia meeting with the delegates from a free and independent white homeland.”

Implosion

In late 2016, everything seemed right: for Russia, for America’s white supremacists, for the marriage between the two. Trump had been elected, promising good times and glad tidings to Moscow and the young white nationalists buoying his campaign. The future appeared bright.

As Dugin reveled to extreme right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, “Anti-Americanism is over! Now the people of free America, free Russia, all anti-globalists of the world, should build a new world — a new architecture!”

A year later, however, that bright future has dimmed.

Trump still refrains from criticizing Putin, and has undercut American efforts at propping up human and civil rights globally. But his election hasn’t proven to be nearly the panacea Russia expected, as Ukraine, Syria, and the ongoing sanctions regime illustrate.

For the young white supremacists riding Trump’s coattails, matters appear even worse.

After last summer’s violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, membership among the young white supremacist cohort became more toxic than ever before, with any number of websites and platforms kicking off Spencer, Heimbach, and their ilk. Suddenly, no one showed up at Spencer’s events — at his nationwide tours, at his college appearances. He was, as Trump’s first year closed, now a bully without a pulpit. In March, he announced he would be rethinking his entire strategy, slinking back into the shadows.

Heimbach’s fall, meanwhile, has been even more spectacular. He was recently arrested in his trailer after — in a twist as ludicrous as any over the past few years — having an affair with his mother-in-law, and battering his father-in-law when the latter found out. It was a bizarre ending for a man ThinkProgress had dubbed the “most important white supremacist” of 2016. Given a prior arrest, Heimbach is facing the prospect of significant jail time. And his Traditionalist Worker Party, by all appearances, is no more.

And then there’s Dugin: The man who once had the Kremlin’s ear — or so he, and many, would claim — is out of a job, following his pro-genocidal comments aimed at Ukrainians. It’s unclear how, exactly, Dugin makes a living. But any interest in his teachings has effectively dried up.

As has Russia’s interests in American white supremacists — for the time being, at least. Dating from at least 2014, the ties seem to have peaked toward the end of 2016. But Trump’s victory, for both, appears increasingly hollow. And the dreams of a Traditionalist International, like the Comintern before it, appears all but dead.

This article has been updated.