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Bad Russians. Who organizes rallies in support of Putin in Europe, and what do Rossotrudnichestvo and neo-Nazis have to do with it?

Putin's supporters have held dozens of pro-Russian rallies in Europe since the invasion of Ukraine began. However, visa sanctions are unlikely to stop pro-Putin rallies and public speeches: they are not organized by tourists, but by natives of Russia and the Soviet Union who have lived in Europe for a long time and who are holders of residence permits or EU passports. Many of them are affiliated with Rossotrudnichestvo* and its structures, and local neo-Nazis provide assistance in organizing the rallies. Compatriots abroad, who are protected by EU laws, boast that they have established a “European underground” and have been sponsoring the Russian military in Ukraine, bypassing the sanctions.

*Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation

  • Friends of the neo-Nazis

  • Rossotrudnichestvo's little helpers

  • Urban Lunatics

  • Fighting Putinists in Europe

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Friends of the neo-Nazis

About two thousand protesters gathered on Cologne's central square on Sunday, September 4. People wearing T-shirts with Russian flags and the word “Russia” written on them stood by a mobile stage in front of the Cologne Cathedral. Many held placards calling for the lifting of sanctions and the launch of Nord Stream 2, as well as for ending arms shipments to Kyiv and improving relations with Moscow. There was also a fundraiser on the square to support separatists from the “republics of Donbass,” although the so-called LNR and DNR had been recognized as terrorist organizations by the German general prosecutor's office back in 2014.

The news of the rally was picked up by Russian and Belarusian propagandists. “Mass uprisings began in the German city of Cologne. Residents of the country [...] demand the lifting of sanctions against Russia,” wrote BelTa, Belarus' state channel. “Residents of German Cologne went on a rally in support of Russia and against arms supplies to Ukraine,” echoed the Russian propaganda resource Sputnik. The pro-government Telegram channel Readovka noted that the rally was anti-Ukrainian in character.

The Russian media wrote that most of the disgruntled protesters were ethnic Germans. However, at the rally, Russian speech could be heard almost louder than German. The rally flyer also listed the organizers - they were Elena Kolbasnikova and Maxim Shlund. Like the majority of people who came to the rally, they are representatives of the Russian diaspora that have been living in Germany for more than 20 years. Kolbasnikova, according to her, “works in the medical field” and provides medical care at home. She's a native of Dnipro, but an active supporter of Russian aggression. In an interview with the pro-Putin YouTube channel Voice of Germany, she refers to Maxim as her husband. Both pose in a 2019 photo the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper published during the “Light the Candle” campaign, and both regularly hold pro-Russian rallies. In April, Elena was fired from her job for organizing such events, although she managed to get compensation in court.

After February 24, Kolbasnikova and Shlund, as well as other natives of post-Soviet countries, organized mass rallies and protest rides several times. Similar protests took place in several other German cities and caused a wave of indignation. Many demanded that Kolbasnikova be deported or at least prosecuted for justifying the war. Despite the dissatisfaction of Germans, the woman says she will continue to hold rallies for Russia.

Cologne rally flyer / Organizer Elena Kolbasnikova
Cologne rally flyer / Organizer Elena Kolbasnikova

The leader of the ultra-right-wing Pro NRW party, the right-wing radical Markus Beisicht, who is known in particular for his intolerance of refugees, helped Kolbasnikova to organize the rallies. In 2012, his supporters deliberately brought cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to the mosque in order to provoke Muslims. That ended in clashes in which 29 police officers were injured.

Elena Kolbasnikova, Maxim Shlund with his friend Alexei, the three organizers of the demonstration in Cologne  YouTube / The Voice of Germany
Elena Kolbasnikova, Maxim Shlund with his friend Alexei, the three organizers of the demonstration in Cologne YouTube / The Voice of Germany

Although Markus Beisicht does not call himself a neo-Nazi, his views are no secret to anyone; for example, he offered his services as an attorney to defend the openly neo-Nazi Alex Reitz, also known as “Hitler of Cologne,” when the latter was tried for extremist activities (he put up swastika posters, incited hatred against Jews, and glorified Hitler). Beisicht himself published articles inciting hatred against Jews, Muslims and sex minorities.

This is not the first time that neo-Nazis have helped the Russian diaspora in Germany organize rallies. Back in 2016, for example, The Insider described how neo-Nazis from another far-right movement, Pegida, were helping the Russian diaspora organize anti-migrant rallies. Then, as now, those rallies were clearly synchronized with disinformation thrown in by Russian TV propaganda. While currently they are devoted to the war in Ukraine, back then the pretext was a fake story about “a Russian girl raped by migrants.” This synchronization, however, is far from accidental. An important role in coordinating those rallies was played by Russian government agencies, primarily Rossotrudnichestvo, a federal agency that oversees matters of compatriots living abroad.

Rossotrudnichestvo's little helpers

According to UN estimates, there are about 10 million natives of Russia in the world (third only after India and Mexico), while about 30 million people outside Russia consider themselves to be Russians - a rather serious resource for the Kremlin's “soft power.” Rossotrudnichestvo has been engaged in bringing propaganda to the Russian diaspora since its founding, and after the war it became an important part of the Kremlin's propaganda machine in justifying the war in Ukraine.

Dozens of videos about the invasion - with manipulation, substitution of concepts, lies, and other propaganda techniques - have been posted on the agency’s community pages on social media. In particular, a series of similar videos, collectively titled #stophatingrussians, claim that works by great Russian composers are banned in the West, and that Germany “has returned to a genocide of the Russian-speaking population again after 77 years.” According to one of the videos, sanctions against Russia were imposed because Europe does not appreciate the exploits of the Soviet soldier who had liberated it, without mentioning the real reason at all.

Using compatriots abroad has become a workable option under sanctions. This part of soft power has proven to be the most resistant to economic and visa sanctions. European laws protect emigrants who have settled in EU countries. It is possible not to issue an entry visa to a tourist, but it is extremely difficult to expel immigrants for their views or deprive them of a residence permit for supporting Russia. After February 24, the Kremlin began to use this skillfully. Most of Putin's supporters in EU countries are not tourists, but Russians who moved there a long time ago. Even before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, such events were regularly held in EU countries and, as a rule, did not arouse much emotion among Europeans. The situation changed after February 24. Russia's national symbols - the flag, coat of arms, and St. George ribbon - turned into symbols of the aggressor state. Many compatriots living abroad refused to participate in such rallies, but part of the community continues to attend them and defend the values of the “Russian world.”

A total of dozens of pro-Russian rallies have taken place in Europe since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. All of them received media support from Russian Foreign Ministry structures and propagandists, even though some rallies were attended by no more than 10 people. For example, all the main Russian media outlets - Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Izvestiya, and Channel One - covered the extremely small rally in Dublin. The rally in Haifa, which was attended by 30 people, was covered not only by the media, but also by the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. One of the protesters called on Russia to make short work of Ukraine and then take on Israel. In response to this suggestion there were shouts of “Akhmat is power!”

“A grand “success” of the Russian embassy in Israel! [...] Pro-Russian activists feeding off different agencies slammed each other, unwilling to hold joint rallies, and quarreled over slogans and personal ambitions,” journalist Shimon Briman wrote of the Putinist gathering in Haifa.

Pro-Russian rally in Haifa
Pro-Russian rally in Haifa

On the eve of Russian flag day, August 20th, in Limassol, a Russian tricolor, 53 meters long, was stretched by dozens of compatriots, who used it to make the symbols of the Russian “special operation” - the letters Z and V. In addition to the flag, they held posters “Russia, we are with you!” and “We support Russia's actions!” Two days later the same was repeated in Larnaca. In addition to this rally, a patriotic protest ride was organized. The organizers were Russians living in Cyprus, supported by the Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots (CCRC) and the Youth Club of Russian Compatriots in Cyprus.

Pro-Russian rally in Limassol
Pro-Russian rally in Limassol

Despite the obviously provocative character, the rally was approved by the local authorities. However, the event ended in a scandal: a Ukrainian woman ran up to the organizers, waving a kitchen knife and shouting insults at the crowd. A few seconds later she was taken to the police. The odious head of Rossotrudnichestvo, Yevgeny Primakov, called the hooliganism a terrorist act and the woman a terrorist, and demanded that a criminal case be opened against her. The Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots fearlessly stated that they will continue to hold pro-Russian rallies.

In France, Russians in T-shirts with Z-symbols can be found in the southwest of the country in an Atlantic Pyrenees department brasserie - and this does not seem to perturb the authorities of the region. There are regular meetings of Russians under the auspices of pro-Russian societies, such as the Russophones des Pyrenees. Judging by their Facebook page, the community members live in France permanently on long-term visas or have already acquired citizenship, which means that they are not threatened by visa sanctions for wearing the Z symbol.

Most of the publications of Russophones des Pyrenees relate to everyday matters. But among the posts about finding a plumber or a French tutor there are reposts by Rossotrudnichestvo employees about the cancelation of Russian culture and “an unprecedented increase in Russophobia.” There are also posts in support of the Russian “special operation” and videos from Rossotrudnichestvo rallies in other French cities. For example, in Marseilles, where a demonstration in support of the war and against sanctions took place on March 19 in front of the Russian embassy. It was organized by the France-Russia-Accord association, known for its pro-Russian stance. The group held several actions between February and June.

In Germany, protest rides in support of Russia caused a wave of indignation. They were held in April in several cities at once. The largest one was in Berlin, with 700 cars participating. The rally took place immediately after the news of the tragedy in Bucha. At the time, many supporters of Putin called the massacre in the Ukrainian city a staged event. Russian-speaking residents of Bonn and Hannover also staged pro-Russian rides. Police officers tried to prevent possible clashes between Russians and Ukrainians who did not want to see the flag of the aggressor country. In Hannover, manure was thrown at demonstrators. After the event, some participants of the rally found that their cars had been burned. In some cities, such as Frankfurt am Main, authorities banned protest rides and the use of “special operation” symbols at rallies. As in the cases of other countries, the organizers and participants of the events in Germany were natives of Russia, who held residence permits or passports of citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany.

On social media, events organized by Rossotrudnichestvo structures are often presented as “rallies held by local residents,” and the Putinist stance as the beliefs of a significant part of Europeans. “In Verona, Italy, concerned citizens went on a rally in memory of the tragic death of Daria Dugina,” reads the description of the event in Telegram feeds. But the event was organized by the Verona Russia Association, and it was mainly attended by supporters of the community, headed by its president, Palmarino Zocatelli. He was acquainted with Dugina and, to all appearances, shared her views, regularly justifying the Russian invasion in comments under news articles posted by the Russian media.

Many Russians abroad prefer to provide financial support to the Russian military fighting in Ukraine, as well as “LNR” and “DNR” fighters. Wire transfers from EU countries to volunteers with Russian bank cards are made in thematic groups on Telegram. The money collected is used for expensive gear, which the Ministry of Defense does not provide to Russian soldiers: copters, scopes, and thermal imagers. Most remittances come from Germany, followed by Italy and Spain. It is difficult to calculate how many people participate in this charity, as fundraisers are not organized on a regular basis and the groups are mostly closed. Sometimes money is collected in a European account and then a large sum is wired to Russia.

Transfers in euros are made through the Russian payment system Zolotaya Korona, which operates under the KoronaPay brand name in EU countries. This service, unlike other operators, managed to avoid European sanctions and operates completely legally. The only change that affected the application was placing the $5,000 cap on one-time transfers. Cryptocurrencies are also used to help the militants of the “DNR” and “LNR”. On August 23, the SBU reported it had blocked the cryptocurrency wallet of a Russian volunteer who was collecting money for the occupants. Most of the funds were used to purchase military equipment. By the time the account was blocked it held $21,000. Now that the funds have been seized, the issue of their withdrawal to the Ukrainian jurisdiction is being resolved.

Urban Lunatics

The lion's share of the much-publicized Putinist stories in Europe are the pranks pulled by inadequate individuals who can hardly be considered to properly reflect the mood of the diaspora; yet they get a lot of coverage of their scandalous nature.

For example, at the beginning of August a Russian woman chased two Ukrainian women in Salzburg shouting “Glory to Russia,” “Russia will win,” and “Fuck your Ukraine.” The girl was quickly identified as Yulia Prokhorova (Chernysheva). She has been living in Germany for about three years and has been running patriotic blogs on YouTube and Telegram, in which she talks about a nuclear strike on Kyiv. Yulia came to Austria on vacation. The law enforcement authorities of Austria and Germany did not prosecute the Russian woman. The punishment caught up with her in another way: the hotel where she was going to stay cancelled her reservation after the prank in Salzburg. This was not the first time Yulia Prokhorova tried to provoke Ukrainians. Previously, she attended anti-war rallies where she danced the “kalinka” and unfurled the Russian flag. Residents of Austria and Germany regularly complain about the girl to BAMF, the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.

Yulia Prokhorova (Chernysheva) posted a screenshot that, in her opinion, confirmed that the sanctions against Russia did not work: she paid for the hotel in rubles
Yulia Prokhorova (Chernysheva) posted a screenshot that, in her opinion, confirmed that the sanctions against Russia did not work: she paid for the hotel in rubles

Another outrageous incident occurred in Bad Wiessee, where a Russian woman pounced on a Ukrainian woman with a child with the words “you must be annihilated like the Jews.” She called herself a “native German.” A video in which two natives of Russia attacked a refugee from Ukraine because her son was shouting “Glory to Ukraine” also made its way onto the Internet. Mikhail Mozzhechkov, president of the Russian Club in Tokyo, also distinguished himself by calling the Ukrainians who fled the war “rabid refugees” on his Facebook page.

The ban on tourist visas will affect neither Prokhorova, nor the “native German,” nor other boorish compatriots. However, experts are concerned that the move may harm Russian oppositionists - so far, the easiest way to leave Russia in case of threats or harassment has been by tourist Schengen visa.

Fighting Putinists in Europe

After the clashes between Russians and Ukrainians, the FRG banned the display of the letters Z and V as support for the “special operation”. This is considered a violation of Article 140 of the German Penal Code on public justification of war. The violation carries a fine or imprisonment for three years. To get around this law, compatriots gave protest rides and rallies neutral and non-war-related names, such as “against discrimination and Russophobia.”

In Germany, hundreds of cases have already been opened for justifying the war, including against those who supported the invasion on the Internet. In Hamburg, the National Bolshevik Marcel Jacobs, an activist with the “Other Germany” (Das andere Deutschland) movement, was detained on August 4. “He was searched and his gear and knives were seized,” Olga Shalina, head of the Moscow branch of E.V. Limonov's Other Russia, told RTVI. Presumably, the arrest was linked to the Telegram channel in which Jacobs expressed support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Latvia is discussing amendments to the law on immigration, under which residence permits already issued to citizens of Russia and Belarus will not be renewed. The Estonian Foreign Ministry warned that Russians could be deprived of their residence permits, for example, for organizing rallies against the demolition of Soviet monuments.

The head of the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry suggested that Russians be allowed into the country after the question “Whose is Crimea?” “Only from this answer, when a person crossing the border of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Poland says that, in his opinion, Crimea is not occupied, we can assume that letting this person in is not in the interests of national security,” the minister said.

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