ST. PETERSBURG — A Scottish anti-abortion campaigner named Jim Dowson was railing against "Nazi fascists in the EU" in a hotel conference room when an image of a bare-chested Vladimir Putin riding a bear galloping through the Siberian wilderness appeared behind him.
"The salvation of my generation is the great Russian people, because Vladimir Putin understands that the rights of the majority should be put before the whims and perversions of the minority," Dowson said. "Obama and America — they're like females! They're feminized men. You have been blessed by a man who is a man! And we envy that."
Russia's appeal to Europe's fringe was on full show Sunday at the International Russian Conservative Forum, a conference organized by a pro-Kremlin ultranationalist party to cement far-right ties, as one participant put it, "from Gibraltar to Vladivostok." United by their hatred of Washington, the European Union, and LGBT people, about 200 far-right politicians and activists from across Europe gathered in St. Petersburg's Holiday Inn to rail against liberal tolerance and implore Russia to lead the fight for Christian morality.
"Constantinople has been and gone," said Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party until last year. "Rome and the persons who came from Rome have gone the same way. It's absolutely inevitable that in the lifetimes of most of the people in this room, Western Europe will either become an Islamist caliphate or there will be a terrible civil war or perhaps both. Which makes the survival of Christendom absolutely impossible without the rise of the Third Rome: Moscow."
Since returning to Russia's presidency in 2012 on the heels of unprecedented protests against him, Putin has sought to recast Russia as a bulwark of conservative values. Though designed to shore up political support at home, measures like bans on offending religious believers and "gay propaganda" have also struck a chord with many on the European right who now see the Kremlin as an ideological fellow traveler. Leaders of anti-immigrant parties across Europe have received enthusiastic welcomes in Moscow. Others have visited Crimea and rebel-held eastern Ukraine to provide a fig leaf of legitimacy to separatists votes there as observers.
Russia has responded in kind. RT, the Kremlin's foreign-language propaganda network, gives heavy airtime to insurgent European parties and rolling coverage to anti-EU demonstrations. A Russian bank gave France's Front National — whose leader, Marine le Pen, is an open admirer of Putin's — an $11.7 million loan last year. Many in Bulgaria saw a Russian hand in anti-fracking protests that helped reverse a shale gas deal with Chevron. One lawmaker from Hungary's ultranationalist Jobbik party is even under investigation on charges of being a Russian intelligence agent.
Sunday's conference aimed to formalize the relationship. Its program was adorned by a line from remarks Putin made in 2013 accusing Europe of backing away "from the Christian values at the foundation of European civilization." Rodina, the party that organized the conference, caucuses with Putin's United Russia party and enjoys the patronage of Dmitry Rogozin, a deputy prime minister who once led the party.
The very fact that the conference was happening at all suggested the Kremlin's tacit approval, if not outright support. Last December, police repeatedly disrupted a streamed speech in the same venue by exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, arguably Putin's top critic, then ended it by turning off the hotel's electricity. Former Kremlin spin doctor Stanislav Belkovsky had to move a lecture for Khodorkovsky's foundation in St. Petersburg twice after similar harassment on Saturday. Eight members of a small crowd that gathered outside the Holiday Inn to protest the conference were arrested.
Rhetoric at the conference, however, outstripped — and sometimes contradicted — Russia's official line. Of the three members of the European Parliament there, one, Germany's Udo Voigt, has described Adolf Hitler as a "great German statesman." The other two hail from Greece's Golden Dawn, whose logo is a barely disguised swastika. "It's a bizarre lineup," Jared Taylor, an American "racial realist," told BuzzFeed News. "It's the fringe of the fringe." Speakers railed, variously, against Freemasons; the corrupting influence of Hollywood; "Nazi fascists in the EU"; a "global cabal" of "bloodsucking oligarchs"; non-white immigrants practicing "alien traditions"; "fags and dykes"; and "Zionist puppet filth."
This may have proved a bit much in Russia, where Putin frequently rails against "neo-Nazis" in Ukraine and has raised rhetoric over World War II to levels unseen since Soviet times. Rodina's leader, lawmaker Alexei Zhuravlev, had been scheduled to open the conference, but mysteriously failed to appear. "I have to go to Donbass immediately," he tweeted on Friday, using a Russian name for the conflict zone in east Ukraine. "It's an urgent matter. No further details." Igor Morozov, a member of Russia's upper house of parliament, also dropped out. State TV crews were conspicuously absent.
Conference speakers insisted their critics had it all wrong. "Everything that's happening in the Donbass is anti-fascism. Everything that Ukraine does is fascism. There's no other fascism in the world," said Alexei Zhivov, leader of an obscure organization called the Battle for Donbass. Others tried to outdo each other in their fealty to Russia and Putin personally. "It is striking how cleverly and subtly President Putin is avoiding armed conflict," said Voigt, the German far-right leader. Kris Roman, a Belgian man who runs a "think tank" called Euro-Rus that appears to consist solely of himself, listed several Kremlin critics who were murdered or died suspiciously. "I know where they live," he said. "They live in hell."
The irony of denouncing fascism and Nazism while espousing essentially the same views seemed to be lost on some participants. Dowson, the anti-abortion campaigner, called Obama a Nazi. "I don't find it derogatory to be called a fascist," Roberto Fiore, a former European lawmaker from Italy, told BuzzFeed News — apparently having forgotten that he signed an "anti-fascist memorandum" in Crimea last August. Russian nationalists who have fought alongside separatists in Ukraine handed out patches embossed with a kolovrat, a Slavic pagan equivalent to the swastika. "They have no idea," Taylor, the American, said. "Well, they have an idea, but it's a wrong idea."
The conference, slated to last for eight hours, was forced to end early after the hotel reported a bomb threat. Organizers announced that it was a hoax and shepherded participants away to sign a joint resolution on the next steps for the movement, then awkwardly milled around when it emerged that none of them had actually read it.
The flurry of press attention alone seemed to justify the price of admission — attendees paid for their own flights — for many. Griffin said he hoped that the conference was just the start of more help from Russia. "If someone offered you a pot of money, would you take it?" he said.