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Preparing to Mark End of War, Russia Cracks Down on Extremism

Taking an unusually quick step against extremist leaders, Russian security agents last week arrested an ultranationalist politician who made death threats against two liberal members of the Russian Parliament.

The arrest was seen as a reflection of the determination of Russian authorities to present a solid front against extremism and neo-fascism as the country prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Allied victory against the Germans in World War II.

The arrest coincided with an announcement that President Boris Yeltsin plans to issue a decree on measures to control extremist activity and stop the growth of neo-fascism.

Alexei Vedenkin, a leader of the Russian National Unity movement, was seized March 2 by agents of the Federal Counterintelligence Service, a spokesman for the agency said.

In a nationally broadcast television interview last week, Vedenkin boasted of the mass repressions that would take place when his party came to power.

He said those who fail to join his movement “will go into gas ovens” and he would personally be prepared to execute Russia’s outspoken human rights commissioner, Sergei Kovalyov, and Sergei Yushenkov, the head of the lower house of Parliament’s Defense Committee.

Both Kovalyov and Yushenkov have been outspoken opponents of the ongoing Russian war against the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

A popular Russian Sunday news program, “Itogi,” repeated the broadcast, with a commentator offering the assessment that the “Russian Nazis” had launched their election campaign.

The Prosecutor General’s Office, which ordered Vedenkin’s arrest, said he was charged with inciting ethnic hatred, threatening a person with murder, stealing documents and disclosing state secrets.

The latter charges relate to Vedenkin’s on-air claim that the vast majority of his movement’s followers are members of Russia’s security services, formerly known as the KGB and renamed the Federal Counterintelligence Service.

Vedenken’s claim prompted swift denials from security officials.

Meanwhile, as the country prepares to commemorate the end of World War II in May, a number of important exhibits linked to the anniversary have already opened.

In the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow and at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, exquisite art work seized from Germany by Soviet troops in World War II is on display for the first time in decades. The work had been secretly stored in the basements of the museums.

The so-called “trophy art” seized during World War II is at the center of an ownership dispute between Germany and Russia.

The issue is complicated by reports that some of the artwork now being shown was seized from wealthy Jewish families who were the victims, not the perpetrators, of war.

Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery also recently opened an exhibition of World War II documents, including two secret supplements to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement in which the Soviet Union agreed with Nazi Germany to divide Eastern Europe between the two countries.

The supplements defined the boundaries of Poland and territories of interest to Russia and the Third Reich. They are considered significant because their existence was long denied by Russian authorities.

Among the 400 pieces on display are documents outlining plans by Adolf Hitler to invade Russia and data on the extermination of Jews, Communists and the “spiritually poor” in the Baltic republics; in the republic formerly known as Byelorussia; and in Russia itself.

In another exhibit, at the Central Museum of the Russian Army, more spoils of war as well as Nazi memorabilia are due to go on display this week.

Russian newspapers have reported that among the items to be presented will be uniforms that belonged to Hitler and his propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels. The uniforms were seized by Soviet troops in Berlin during the final days of the war.

Col. Vladimir Lukin, a senior museum official, was asked whether the display could become a shrine for neo-Nazis instead of providing an antidote to extremism.

He said believed that most people would view the exhibit simply as a history lesson.

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