A Russian Neo-Nazi and Suspected Spree Killer in Serbia

How did a notorious young neo-Nazi accused of assassinating ten people in a high-profile Moscow murder spree get so cozy with Serbia and Russia’s political elite? Meet the talented Mr. Goryachev.  

One rainy day in late May, Ilya Goryachev sat down to write a letter. “I am going to tell you one more time about myself and my ties with Serbia,” he began. Still adjusting to his cramped cell in Belgrade’s central prison, the accused 30-year-old killer from Moscow was careful not to leave anything out:

He’d sipped coffee with the country’s former foreign minister. An MP had invited him to speak with politicians in parliament. A president had presented him with a Swiss watch. Two Orthodox bishops had blessed him.

This would all be very impressive, but coming from a well-known neo-Nazi leader suspected of carrying out numerous politically-motivated assassinations, it was chilling.

Several days later, the letter appeared on right-world.net, a web portal dedicated to “the revolt against the modern world”. The site had been registered to Goryachev’s recently defunct neo-Nazi outfit, Russky Obraz.

But that was only his first letter from Belgrade’s central prison. Over the course of the next few months, there would be several more, detailing Goryachev’s involvement in a complex network of political patronage in Russia, his personal impressions of various public figures in Serbia, ramblings in homage to his far-right heroes, and proclamations of innocence.

About two weeks before his arrest, the bespeckled historian with the patchy goatee attempted to recall his earliest introduction to the foreign country in which he would later find himself locked in a prison cell. “In many ways, my interest in Serbia arose because of the war in 1999. I was in 11th grade and each morning on the school board we drew a map of Yugoslavia and marked on it the location of downed U.S. aircraft according to reports from our media,”  Goryachev reminisced.

Not long after the NATO bombing, he decided to enroll in the faculty of history at Moscow State University — the most prestigious place to study history in Russia. His research project, “The position of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the Independent Croatian state 1941-1945”, netted him a Patriarch’s diploma awarded on Easter by the Russian Patriarch himself.

In a recent letter from Belgrade’s central prison, Goryachev claims he defended a thesis in 2004, and that Russian historian Elena Guskova served as his advisor. But Guskova, who is a member of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences and the senate of the Republika Srpska, maintains a website that reveals the budding historian never defended a graduate thesis — only a diploma-level thesis. Even worse, Guskova notes that Goryachev was “expelled from graduate school after the second year of study”.

Why had Goryachev been expelled? Guskova says he’d been a highly driven and talented student, but that he’d become so heavily involved in political pursuits that he had little time left over for his studies. He’d always intended to return to academia someday.

Spotty academic records aside, his student days at Moscow State University were important for another reason: It was in the history library one summer that he first made the acquaintance of a broad-browed, similarly embittered bookworm by the name of Nikita Tikhonov. While Tikhonov wasn’t quite as obsessed with Serbia as Goryachev (Tikhonov wrote his thesis about “the genocide of ethnic Russians in Chechnya”), the two students became fast friends anyway, bonding over their shared love of history and extreme right-wing politics.

The meeting that changed the course of Goryachev’s life probably happened sometime in 2002, during a research trip to Belgrade. A contact in the European far-right introduced Goryachev to several members of Obraz, a Serbian Orthodox clerical-fascist movement. The experience so inspired the budding historian that when he returned to Moscow, he immediately co-founded a Russian version called Russky Obraz with Tikhonov. It would eventually grow into a far more expansive organization than its Serbian progenitor: Before it effectively ceased to exist, Russky Obraz had chapters in 20 out of 83 regions in Russia, and one in Belarus.

But early on, Russky Obraz’s activities were limited to the production of a magazine. The first issue, released in March 2003, included a photo stolen from a United Colors of Benetton ad which depicted people of different races with their arms wrapped around each other. The photo’s caption read: “This is also genocide”.

Members of Russky Obraz staged a rally in support of accused Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic in front of the Serbian embassy in Moscow in June 2011.
Members of Russky Obraz staged a rally in support of accused Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic in front of the Serbian embassy in Moscow in June 2011 (right-world.net).

Meanwhile, the young men’s political careers were blossoming. Tikhonov worked as a speechwriter for United Russia’s Boris Gryzlov, a close ally of Vladimir Putin. Goryachev become active in the People’s Union, a nationalist party with ties to former Bosnian Serb leader and accused war criminal Radovan Karadzic.

Back in those days, Karadzic was still hiding from international law disguised as a bearded warlock and homeopathic fertility specialist named Dr. Dragan Dabic. When he was finally captured in 2008, he got a big-shot defense attorney named Goran Petronijevic.

This past May, Goryachev got rather lucky when Petronijevic signed on as his lawyer as well. But his attorneys in Russia, Mark Feygin and Nikolay Polozov, are even more famous. They served as the defense team for Pussy Riot.

There was a time when Goryachev didn’t need lawyers, because the Russian authorities allowed him to do whatever he wanted. Shortly after his expulsion from graduate school, he became an international affairs assistant to Duma deputy Nikolay Kuryanovich. Though Goryachev blisters at the “neo-Nazi” label (when journalists use it to characterize his beliefs, he threatens to sue them at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg), his old boss was a prominent member of Slavic Union, a “Russian national socialist movement” with a website that actually linked to the works of Adolf Hitler. As Kuryanovich’s assistant, Goryachev arranged for the two of them to visit the Balkans. During one of these trips, they met with prominent Orthodox bishops Ephrem of Banja Luka and Amphilokhy of Montenegro. The Serbian church officials allegedly blessed the Russians’ good work, unperturbed by their affiliation with a movement whose logo had been inspired by a swastika.

Of course, in Serbia as in Russia, it can be difficult to discern meaningful ideological differences between ultra-nationalist groups and state institutions sometimes, including the church. Though the Serbian iteration of Obraz was banned last summer, its leader Mladen Obradovic has been treated with quite a bit of leniency by the courts, which have twice thrown out his original prison sentences for inciting hatred on appeal.

In Russia, the line between the state and far-right organizations can get even murkier. In fact, blurring those distinctions has actually been part of a state policy that people in wonky circles refer to as “managed nationalism”. Basically, the Russian government’s appeases far-right organizations by recruiting them to work for the Kremlin. Those pictures you’ve seen lately of neo-Nazis bashing gay kids in Moscow? More likely than not, they’re the enforcers of the country’s new “anti-gay propaganda” law.

The former Russian ambassador to Serbia, Aleksandr Konuzin, with members of Serbian Obraz in June 2010 (e-novine.com).

Which is why it came as little surprise when the former Russian ambassador to Serbia, Aleksandr Konuzin, posed for a photo with a group of Serbian Obraz members at the Gazimestan monument in Kosovo in June of 2010. The Gazimestan memorial commemorates the 1389 Battle of Kosovo between the Serbian and Ottoman armies, an event of special importance to Serbian identity as the nation’s defeat is understood to have ushered in several centuries of Ottoman Turkish domination. In the photograph, Konuzin can be seen standing in front of the monument with his arms draped around young men in black Obraz t-shirts.

Back at home, members of Putin’s own United Russia have ties to Russky Obraz. Maksim Mishchenko, a former Duma deputy and head of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Young Russia, collaborated with the organization on some projects, including the controversial “patriotic Russian march” on Bolotnaya Square, just 800 meters from the Kremlin. He also admitted to helping Goryachev arrange educational visits to monasteries in Kosovo and Serbia “to study Serbian nationalism”.

In December of 2008, Mischenko and Goryachev signed an appeal to Kremlin officials, urging them to keep “immigrants” away from Red Square on New Year’s Eve. And several months later, they both traveled to Belgrade to take part in an event marking the 10-year anniversary of the NATO bombing of Serbia. Activities included cheering Radovan Karadzic’s name and burning the European Union flag.

Not long ago, people referred to Vladislav Surkov as “the second most powerful man in Russia”. As the Kremlin’s chief ideologue and “grey cardinal”, he was responsible for designing and stage managing Russia’s sham democracy. Instead of shipping every suspected dissenter off to die in a Siberian penal colony, the new “postmodern dictatorship” neutralized opponents’ power by illusive, more sophisticated means.

Surkov created fake opposition parties, fake youth movements, and fake ultra-nationalist groups. He backed modern art projects, civic forums for NGOs, and contemporary literature festivals, as well as skinhead and Christian fundamentalist groups, according to Russia expert Peter Pomerantsev. The point was to control political opponents by controlling all political discourse, from neo-Nazism to pro-Western liberalism, Orthodox fundamentalism to the urban elitism of the Moscow art scene.

What he could not co-opt and control, he would attack — using one of the many Kremlin-friendly groups at his disposal. The Putin regime believed the biggest threat to its existence was a pro-democracy “color” revolution, like the Orange Revolution that had swept across Ukraine in 2004. So the Kremlin set about launching what Russia expert Robert Horvath called a “preventative counter-revolution” against the democratic “orangists”. This was one of the utilities of managed nationalism. Neo-nazis were given free rein to terrorize the opposition. Ultra-nationalist youth were instructed by Kremlin officials to make opposition youth too afraid to attend rallies. And one of the groups most important to the counter-revolutionary campaign was Russky Obraz, led by Ilya Goryachev.

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Lily Lynch

Lily is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine. She lives in Belgrade, Serbia. https://www.instagram.com/lynch.lily/