Grabow-bei-Blumenthal, in the East German state of Brandenburg, is a tiny village of about 300 people, hardly more than a few streets surrounded by farmland. Until recently, it had two possible attractions to outsiders: the old manor house, now a hotel, and the church, a half-timbered structure that dates from the late 16th century. But over the past few years, there’s been an unusual sight in the little town and the surrounding fields, one that has drawn reporters and TV crews from around Germany: young families dressed in what look like peasant clothes of a previous century, who farm using traditional methods and live according to what they see as ancient principles.
It’s known as the Anastasia movement, a back-to-the-land group that originated in Russia in the late 1990s and has been slowly spreading through Eastern and Central Europe ever since, and has been described as a movement with antisemitic elements in their beliefs connected to the far-right, by some civil-society organizations. Grabow, where the group owns more than 200 acres of land, is the biggest settlement in Germany, but there are at least 17 throughout the country, from Bavaria in the south to Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in the north. The movement is decentralized, and its practices vary from settlement to settlement, which nevertheless share core values. Members reject modern science and technology and practice organic gardening and herbal medicine. They believe in fresh air, communion with nature, and the traditional family—along with esoteric concepts such as the healing power of cedar trees, mental projection, and “telegony,” the idea that a woman’s first sexual partner leaves a genetic stamp on future offspring. And their founding text holds that the world has for millennia been engaged in a struggle with dark forces in which the Jews play a leading role.
A number of the group’s German leaders have documented far-right credentials. Markus Krause, the head of the settlement in Grabow, has ties to multiple extremist groups, including the Ludendorffers, a far-right group inspired by Erich Ludendorff, a World War I general involved in Hitler’s failed 1923 Munich putsch. Frank Willy Ludwig, another influential figure in the German Anastasia community, has attended rallies by neo-Nazis and appeared as a speaker at Holocaust-denier conferences.
This combination of hippie-style rural living and far-right ties has left many Germans disturbed. Some in left-wing and anti-extremist circles believe that behind Anastasia’s ecologically-friendly exterior is a potentially dangerous movement that’s quietly establishing itself in the countryside all over Germany.
“This is a right-wing movement that takes over rural areas,” says Andrea Johlige, a Left Party representative for a nearby area of Brandenburg. “When they arrive, the people in the villages think that it’s nice to see young families coming in. They don’t realize who’s coming in, and by the time they do, it’s too late; they’re there.”
Anastasianism was inspired by a series of novels by Russian business owner Vladimir Megre. The first one, Anastasia, came out in 1994. The book, which Megre has claimed is based on a true story, describes his chance encounter, on a business trip to Siberia, with a woman named Anastasia, a native of the taiga (a cold subarctic forest). Anastasia, “a very young woman with long golden hair and a fantastic figure,” turns out to be a kind of prophetess, with the power to command animals and to live effortlessly off the land in every season. Over the course of 10 books, she reveals to Megre the ancient secrets of the forest as they apply to nutrition, agriculture, politics, and history. She also has his child, whom they raise according to the neo-pagan principles she expounds.
The books have sold millions of copies, mostly in Russia, and been translated into 20 languages. The philosophy of Anastasianism is difficult to sum up because the books are a kind of grab-bag of anti-modern ideas, including nature worship, New Age theories, and pre-Christian Slavic traditions.
“In Russia they are very legible as crypto-nationalists,” says Nica Davidov, an anthropologist at Monmouth University who studied the movement in 2015. “It’s xenophobic, it’s Russia for Russians. It’s this idea of ‘Let's go back to good old times, even if those good old times are mythological.’”
The group has more than 300 settlements in Russia, although the exact number of adherents is hard to determine. There are Anastasia settlements around the world, including Chile, Canada, and the United States, although the majority are in Russia, Hungary, and Germany. Each one of the “kin domains,” as the settlements are known, is independent of the others, but they’re united by the teachings in the Anastasia books. These cover such a range of subjects, however, that the character of settlements can vary widely. “Some people are really woo-woo true believers, and some just want to do the back-to-the-land thing, and this is a nice framework for it,” says Davidov. Megre is not considered a guru or prophet; he and his family run a profitable business selling cedar oil and other cedar products online.
Anastasia followers claim that Jews play a small role in their cosmology and that Megre’s views on this subject are nuanced, but there are passages in the books that leave little room for interpretation, and trade in classic antisemitism.
“Historians both ancient and modern have said that the Jewish people have conspired against authority,” reads a passage from Book Six: The Book of Kin. “That they have aspired to deceive everyone, from the least unto the greatest. In the case of the poor, to try to trick them out of at least a little, in the case of the rich, to bring them to utter ruin.” In Book Seven: The Energy of Life, Megre adds, “Jews have been persecuted for centuries in various countries of the world. Persecuted for what? For using any means they can to make as much money as possible. And many of them are successful."
Anastasianism has grown quickly in Germany, considering that the first German translation of Megre’s books appeared in 2011. Anastasians have been active in the anti-masking and COVID-denial movements in Germany over the past year. Last fall, members joined huge protests in Berlin against COVID measures, the long-bearded men and long-skirted women standing shoulder to shoulder with far-right activists and conspiracy theorists. Many Berliners were shocked at the idea of these supposed hippies marching with neo-Nazis. But right-wing agrarian movements have a long history in Germany. The country industrialized rapidly in the early 20th century, and the backlash to this change often had a reactionary character. To the groups that advocated a return to a more natural way of life, going back to the land meant celebrating “blood and soil” and shunning the “corruption” of cities. Many of these groups were violently antisemitic. The Artamans, a small but influential movement devoted to preserving the Aryan race, counted Heinrich Himmler and Rudolph Hess among its supporters. When the Nazis took power, these “ethnic settler” groups were dissolved into the Hitler Youth. After World War II, they went quiet. But the tradition never entirely died, and certain far-right groups continue to celebrate village life—and sometimes to try to dominate it.
Daniel Trepsdorf, at the Regional Center for Democratic Culture in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, has spent ten years documenting ethnic settler movements in Germany. In villages all over the former East, Trepsdorf says, where many young people have moved out and little industry or civil society remains, radical right-wing groups like the Sturmvogel, the Neo-Artamenen, and the now-banned Wiking-Jugend have tried to establish what amount to their own mini-states by intimidating neighbors and local officials. These groups’ tactics include patrolling mayors’ houses with dogs at night, leaving dead animals on doorsteps, and the occasional barn-burning.
Locals who live in villages targeted by settlers rarely speak out, says Trepsdorf, because from their point of view their situation is not secure.
“Journalists and the police will soon be gone, but the Nazi in the neighborhood stays—he knows my children, he knows my daily routines, he knows my friends. And in the country it takes more than half an hour before the police are on site in an emergency,” he said, paraphrasing concerns of villagers.
This is what some people fear for Grabow, although it’s not yet the reality. When VICE World News visited last year, Markus Krause and his family were working on their land at the edge of town. Krause, in short lederhosen and a woodcutter’s shirt, politely declined an interview, while his wife, in a long homemade red dress and matching cardigan, looked on. In the evening, in the fields outside town, the lighted tents of other members of the group could be seen.
Krause is a land surveyor, putting him in a good position to know when any new land is up for sale. He’s also a native of Grabow. A man living down the street, who preferred not to give his name, remembered playing marbles with Krause as kids. He described him as a good neighbor who dealt with him fairly. As for Krause’s group having far-right connections, he had no problem with that.
“Politicians are all pigs feeding at the same trough,” he said. None of them cared about him or understood his problems, he felt; in the upcoming elections, he was considering voting for the NPD, Germany’s fringe right-wing extremist party, just to send a message.
The German media generally counts Anastasia as another ethnic settler movement, one that might be especially dangerous because it conceals its right-wing politics behind an ecological front. "Green Garden, Brown Soil," reads a typical headline from 2019 (in Germany, "brown" means "Nazi"). But on Anastasia’s Telegram groups (which have thousands of members each), the politics discussed does not usually get much more extreme than common anti-science views against masking, vaccines, and other COVID measures, and much of the discussion is about home-building, beekeeping and organic farming. The movement offers a wide funnel that could conceivably draw many people fearful of modernity.
Anastasians generally refuse all media attention, but VICE World News managed to talk to one small group at their farm outside the village of Lychen, about 80 kilometres from Grabow. The founder of the settlement, André Proetel, initially intended it as a more ambitious, large-scale project, but it is now just a pleasant clearing containing a trailer, a small house, a covered tent with a kitchen in it, gardens, and a large teepee just beyond. A little farm stand out front offered basil, strawberries, and other produce. Proetel today claims no connection to the Anastasia movement, although his Facebook page identifies him as a “family landowner,” the term Anastasians use to describe themselves. While four blond children gathered to watch, Proetel described how the Anastasia books had inspired him to live off the land, saying he loved the books and that they are open to interpretation, comparing it to the Bible.
It was the parts of the books about gardening that he loved in particular, he said.
Before he planted seeds barefoot on his own land, he said, he followed the Anastasian precept of rolling each one around in his mouth so that it could know just which nutrients his body needed.
Proetel wouldn’t say how many people lived in his settlement or if the children attended school, but did provide some general thoughts about the state of German politics.
As we ended our conversation, he said he didn’t like all the conflict in politics, and that he found peace in the community he had helped create.