“Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.”
—Thomas Adams

Conspiracy theories have found a ready audience in many countries in many different times. When cataclysmic events shock a country to its foundations, when people feel impotent before history’s tidal wave, when war or economic collapse or political disintegration mark the end of a historical era and, having rendered old points of reference obsolete, signal the beginning of an uncertain future, a certain segment of any society will turn to the comfort of easy, all-encompassing fantasies in order to explain the heretofore inexplicable and to find something, someone, to blame. Disaster is far easier to digest if an enemy, an evil foe whose destruction will bring the solution of our ills, the end of our pain, is apparent. The steadfast, the loyal, and the strong can then exorcise the demons of uncertainty, and, having identified the enemy, unite the forces of light to strike back at the darkness. The will to action will be satisfied.

Russia, a long-suffering and, for much of its history, isolated nation that has been perplexed by any number of catastrophes, has had a particularly pronounced tendency to seek answers in fantastic conspiratorial theories. In his new book Black Hundred: The Rise of the Extreme Right in Russia, Walter Laqueur, a man who has spilt much ink on the subjects of nationalism, Nazism, and communism, attempts to describe the origins of the convoluted set of conspiracy theories that set Russia’s extreme nationalists apart from those of a more moderate and rational complexion. Mr. Laqueur further surveys the current extremist political scene, on which the Black Hundred and its soulmate. National Bolshevism, have emerged from the shadows following the collapse of the Soviet Union. These are the book’s primary tasks, which Mr. Laqueur completes successfully. Where Black Hundred falls short is in its attempt to expound on the subject of Russian nationalism in general. The book is too long for the first jobs, and too short and unfocused for the second.

“Why concentrate on various fringe groups, thus creating the impression that all Russian patriots are chauvinists, villains, and madmen?” Mr. Laqueur asks himself in the book’s introduction. The answer to this question is apparent to anyone familiar with the current Russian political landscape: an extreme nationalist presidential candidate (demagogue Vladimir Zhirinovsky) who receives six million votes, an extremist ideology that has had adherents among the country’s topmost leadership (from czarist ministers to Stalinist commissars to various public figures in both Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s governments), and “a political-literary journal [promoting that ideology] circulated in hundreds of thousands of copies” do not represent, writes Mr. Laqueur, “a fringe phenomenon.” The extremist ideology in question is not defined in exactly the same way in all times and in all places in Russia but is, rather, a loose set of ideas focused on attempts by alien powers and internal collaborators, acting as part of a worldwide conspiracy, to destroy Russia, to make her a colony of foreign enemies, and, ultimately, to carry out the genocide of the Russian nation. Mr. Laqueur calls this ideology “Black Hundredism.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that the ideology which spawned the Black Hundred, those extremist nationalist groups at the turn of this century, should arise in a country threatened as Russia was at that time by the specter of revolution. Great and Holy Russia had been defeated in war by the Japanese, her armed forces humiliated, her czarist system exposed as inept and corrupt; wild-eyed, atheistic revolutionaries had assassinated government officials. To many patriots, the time had come for constructive change; these “liberal conservatives,” such as Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, tried gradually to reform the czarist system, to move it toward a constitutional monarchy, and to build civic institutions in this land of autocracy. The Christianity preached by like-minded intellectuals would be that of the Golden Rule, of Christian love operating as the moral framework of society. But for the Union of the Russian People and other extreme nationalist groups, collectively known as the Black Hundred, this was a time of violent backlash in which the obscurantist wing of Russian Orthodoxy would hunt down the satanic enemies of Holy Russia. This was the time of pogrom. Supported by the government, touting the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion as well as anti-Masonic propaganda, the Black Hundred would use these conspiratorial tales of machinations by Jewish bankers, the Sanhedrin, and Masonic lodges—all directed toward world domination and the destruction of Holy Russia (as the most spiritually pure and able enemy facing them)—to explain the troubles that had befallen the Fatherland.

The spadework for the bizarre theories of the Black Hundred had been done by Frenchmen seeking explanations for the catastrophe of Jacobinism (and finding Masons, among others, responsible) and by Europe’s anti-Semites, whose suspicion and hatred of Jews would find a ready audience in Russia, a country with a long and dark history of anti-Semitism. The catastrophe of World War I and the Bolshevik coup appeared to confirm the fears of conspiratologists. Had not many prominent Bolsheviks been Jews? A certain wing of the White Russian emigration would find Zhidomasonstvo (Jew masonry) behind the “stab in the back,” but as Mr. Laqueur explains, they would not be the only Russians afflicted by such paranoid visions: conspiratorial Bolshevism itself would be both an effective stimulus and carrier of wild theories.

Moreover, by 1941, as far as the Soviet Union’s leadership was concerned, internationalist communism was as dead as Leon Trotsky, the Stalinist stake having been driven through its heart as surely as the pick wielded by a Stalinist assassin had penetrated Trotsky’s skull. Russian nationalism was reborn as National Bolshevism, and traditional anti-Semitism found its Soviet counterparts. anti-Zionism and “anti-cosmopolitanism.” Mr. Laqueur ably chronicles the synthesis of communist and nationalist paranoia and gives a thorough and erudite survey of the extreme nationalist groups that have emerged as the “redbrown” opposition in Yeltsin’s Russia. The Black Hundred tradition lives on in their propaganda, this time seeking to explain the collapse of the Soviet Union and finding the traditional enemies in league with hostile intelligence services, the U.N., and others in yet another attempt to destroy Russia.

Where Mr. Laqueur falters is in his exposition of the phenomenon of Russian nationalism in general. Information on Russian nationalism is, of course, necessary as background to his story, but one wonders if his lengthy discourse on the Slavophiles, Solzhenitsyn, and other Christian Russian (as opposed to Soviet or National Bolshevik or Black Hundred) traditionalists is necessary. It is apparent that the author’s sympathies are with the “Westerners” in the debate between those who seek Russia’s renewal along Western models and the Russophiles who see Russia reborn within the framework of national tradition. Perhaps this explains a certain casual imprecision of language when Mr. Laqueur deals with those on the “right.” At times, Mr. Laqueur uses terms like “right,” “far right,” “extreme right,” “conservative,” and “nationalist” almost interchangeably, without attempting to define his terms. Despite his frequent disclaimers to the contrary (“[not] everyone on the right of the political spectrum shares these [Black Hundred] fantasies”), a reader, particularly one not familiar with the current Russian political spectrum, may think that anyone on the “right” is, at least, suspect. Defining one’s terms is particularly important in a situation like Russia’s, where “right” can mean anyone from monarchists to leftover communist bureaucrats. Is Solzhenitsyn’s “conservatism” trying to conserve the same things as the communist holdovers?

Furthermore, Mr. Laqueur tends to dismiss out of hand the “right’s” preoccupation with a spiritual rebirth as the first step to the renewal of Russia. “First the conscience, then the economy,” says Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Mr. Laqueur simply misses the point if he believes Solzhenitsyn, and others following his path, are merely regurgitating Slavophile truisms. He frequently repeats his contentions that Russia’s problems are “social” and “economic” and that the “right” (which right?) has no political or economic programs to offer. Mr. Laqueur is wrong on both counts. Philosophers and observers from Adam Smith to various Founding Fathers to Tocqueville have commented on the impossibility of free enterprise or republican government operating justly and effectively without the moral underpinnings of Christianity. Solzhenitsyn, based on his experiences in the West, has identified the source of our decay in the decline of religious morality, indeed of religious belief, and the concomitant growth of materialism. The program of Russophile traditionalists like Solzhenitsyn is the Stolypin program of rural reform and gradual economic transformation coupled with evolutionary democratization. If their program is vague and sometimes confused, then it is no more so than that of Yeltsin’s current government.

Democracy in postcommunist lands, to paraphrase Lech Walesa, needs its “right leg” in order to stand on its own two feet. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has lamented the unfortunate coupling of the word “patriot” with the fanatics of extreme nationalist groups, and the political tar-brushing Yeltsin’s critics are likely to get in the press (ours and theirs) does not help the situation. As Russian religious philosopher Sergey Bulgakov once observed, “When the place of the Russian patriot is vacant, it will be taken by the Black Hundred.”


[Black Hundred: The Rise of the Extreme Right in Russia, by Walter Laqueur (New York: Harper Collins) 288 pp., $27.50]