In the uproar following the violence in Charlottesville earlier this month, one of America’s leading neo-Nazi websites, The Daily Stormer, was all but chased off the internet, thwarted even by Russian authorities within hours of its attempt to register a new .ru domain.
But Moscow’s swift move came with a striking irony: American and European right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis have in recent years flocked to Russia’s biggest social network site, VK.
VK, Russia’s most-trafficked website, has emerged as a social media hub for high-profile American far-right groups like the National Socialist Movement — which the Southern Poverty Law Center has called “notable for its violent anti-Jewish rhetoric” — despite the fact that pro-Nazi propaganda is illegal in Russia.
“VK is like Facebook with never having to say you’re sorry,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which combats anti-Semitism. “It’s the kind of place where extremists, backers of terrorism, haters, and bigots migrate when they find that their messages can no longer be easily placed on Facebook and other social sites.”
After losing its .ru domain, The Daily Stormer, which hadn’t previously posted much on VK, started using the network to update followers about its attempts to relocate. In doing so, the neo-Nazi site rejoined a platform that has grown popular among American fringe groups and white supremacists. The largest of several pages claiming to represent the Ku Klux Klan on VK has over 10,000 followers. (Though considerably smaller, The Daily Stormer’s VK page has doubled from roughly 160 followers last week to 390 as of this writing.) VICE News reached out to Daily Stormer for comment, but have yet to hear back.
“These American groups have a romantic, imaginary vision of Russia, which is actually much more diverse than they imagine.”
American extremists’ presence on VK can largely be attributed to the network’s relatively lax platform, which doesn’t censor content to the same extent as Facebook or Twitter, especially in English, according to Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Moscow-based SOVA Center, which tracks xenophobia and nationalism in Russia.
But analysts say American white supremacists’ infatuation with Russia’s top social network has been buttressed by their view that Russia stands as a bastion of white European christendom. That belief has been fueled by the welcome they’ve received from some elements of Russian society, most notably the nationalist Rodina party and Moscow’s state-run television, according to Anton Shekhovtsov, author of the forthcoming book “Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir.”
“These American groups have a romantic, imaginary vision of Russia, which is actually much more diverse than they imagine,” Shekhovtsov said. “This image is partly corroborated by some Russian actors themselves.”
For example, American white supremacists were invited to join in the 2015 right-wing International Russian Conservative Forum in St. Petersburg, organized by the Rodina party. Attendees included Sam Dickson, a lawyer for the Ku Klux Klan, and Jared Taylor, the white nationalist founder of the New Century Foundation.
“They’re still the social media where everything is possible.”
Richard Spencer, the American who takes credit for the term “alt right” and who’s called Russia the “sole white power in the world,” has been featured repeatedly on Russian state-controlled television network RT as an authority on international affairs.
Matthew Heimbach, a promoter of the Charlottesville rally and founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party, dubbed a hate group by the SPLC, has spoken glowingly of Putin and been featured as a guest on RT.
In August 2016, Heimbach posted to his VK page using an anti-Semitic code of triple parentheses: “After the constant harassment by (((Facebook))) censors, I think its time to start using my VK account more regularly.”
A search through VK turns up what appear to be recently updated personal pages for leaders of groups the Southern Poverty Law Center calls American white nationalist organizations, like National Socialist Movement leader Jeff Schoep and League of the South president Michael Hill.
Both published posts on VK after the violence in Virginia last week, with Hill lauding right-wing marchers “going into battle in Charlottesville” as “the tip of the spear,” and Schoep calling the rally “a glorious day, for white solidarity in America.”
One of the Russian-language pages claiming to represent the Ku Klux Klan, with 2,600 followers, circulated an image last week on VK of George Washington driving the Dodge Challenger that plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
Even David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader and candidate for governor of Louisiana, appears to have a Russian-language page publicizing his work on VK, although the most recent post was in March 2015.
When asked about the proliferation of extremist groups on VK, a representative said the site blocks groups based on “whether community content complies with our platform rules and the Russian legislation.”
The spokesperson, who declined to provide a name in emailed comments, continued: “VK does not block communities only because of the fact that other services have blocked pages with similar names.”
Community pages will be shut down if they publish posts calling for violence, engage in bullying, or otherwise violate the company’s terms of service, the spokesperson wrote.
VK has been granted relatively wide latitude to host controversial content beyond what Russian regulators will sanction elsewhere on the internet, said Alexander Baunov, a political analyst at Russia’s Carnegie Center.
“They’re still the social media where everything is possible,” Baunov said by phone from Moscow. “Russian nationalist groups often have their websites blocked quite quickly, but VK goes much slower.”
Indeed, last week The Daily Stormer’s attempt to claim a .ru address was thwarted by the Russian government within hours. The agency responsible for overseeing Russia’s top-level domain, the Coordination Center, said on Aug. 17 that state media regulator Roskomnadzor had asked private registrar RU-CONTENT to revoke the registration.
“The U.S. far right is dominated by white racism. But it’s not the same with the Russian far right imperialists.”
“As the custodian of a country code top-level domain of the nation that fought and defeated Nazism in the Second World War, [the Coordination Center] reaffirms its unwavering commitment to keep .RU and .РФ clean from all and any attempts to promote fascist, racist, and extremist ideologies and activities online,” the domain coordinator said in a statement, including the Cyrillic equivalent of .ru.
But Baunov said VK typically takes its cue from Russian courts, removing content only after receiving a ruling. “They will block Islamist groups and pornographic groups after decisions from regional courts,” Baunov said. “But it’s still a place where you can set something up easily and administrators won’t intervene.”
Despite recent overtures, American neo-Nazis and white supremacists don’t appear to have any support in the Kremlin, analysts said. Their gravitation toward the Russian web and their worshipful embrace of Vladimir Putin hasn’t been reciprocated by Putin himself or his inner circle, even though the Kremlin has reached out to other European far-right groups like Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France. Putin’s United Russia has also signed cooperation deals with anti-migrant, right-wing populist parties like Italy’s Lega Nord and Austria’s Freedom party.
“I don’t see, from the Russian side, any high-level interest in those groups,” said Shekhovtsov of American neo-Nazis with a Russia bent.
“The U.S. far right is dominated by white racism. But it’s not the same with the Russian far-right imperialists. They really don’t actually agree on this point,” Shekhovtsov said.
American white supremacists could be seen as submitting a job application to the Kremlin in hopes of support that hasn’t yet been approved, Shekhovtsov said. That’s in part because Putin’s version of nationalism is actually premised on building a powerful multiethnic state rather than a racially pure one, he said.
“Maybe it’s good to submit a job application and wait,” he said. “If you can prove your usefulness to the regime in Russia, there may be some interest developing.”