The International Russian Conservative Forum was held in St. Petersburg on Sunday, purportedly a gathering of respectful traditionalists from the European Union, Russia, and beyond, rather than a pep rally for fascists and racists.
But the lineup, including Hitler apologists, Holocaust deniers, apartheid fans, and a Russian skinhead who once decapitated a puppy as a publicity stunt, gave it an air of dark surrealism. Speakers condemned the U.S. as the enslaver of Europe and sang the praises of Russian President Vladimir Putin, holding up Russia as the last fortress of Christendom in the war waged on it by liberalism and multiculturalism.
“In the West, we are brainwashed to hate Vladimir Putin,” said British anti-abortion-rights campaigner Jim Dowson. He went on to say that Russia is blessed to be ruled by “a real man” while the U.S. is led by the “feminized” Barack Obama.
Roberto Fiore of Italy’s Forza Nuova said that as a Roman he saw Russia as the Third Rome, which inherited the Roman imperial crown by way of Byzantium. He said Russia was uniting Europe “against liberalism and Islamic fundamentalism” and that it was about to usher in a revolution “that would change Europe’s history.” The Russian organizer, Fyodor Biryukov of the Rodina party, agreed. He said the forum heralded the start of a new “conservative revolution against a few hundred families that possess the world.” Rodina was founded by the Russian defense industry czar, Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin, who chose not to participate or comment on the forum.
After being being reelected in 2012, Vladimir Putin reinvented himself as a defender of conservative Christian values, a change of tack apparent in the arrest of the Pussy Riot band members for “insulting believers." Another cornerstone of his ideology is the Soviet victory in the war with Nazi Germany. Russian propaganda paints Putin as an “anti-fascist” who opposes what the Kremlin calls the rise of neo-fascism in Ukraine, which Russia invaded last year.
These two ideological lines clashed at the forum, as both the timing and the choice of venue played against the organizers. The gathering was held as the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe approaches and in the city where nearly 700,000 died during the 900-day siege of Leningrad, as it was then known.
“Hitler couldn’t capture Leningrad, but these guys did,” wrote liberal politician Leonid Volkov on Twitter before the forum.
The Kremlin said Putin was aware of the event. It offered no additional comment.
A group of protesters gathered outside the Holiday Inn where the forum was held. One of the posters read: “We don’t need foreign Nazis in St. Petersburg—we сan’t dispose of our own.” Police detained two young female protesters and a neo-Nazi who tore up one of the posters.
Moderate nationalist Konstantin Krylov went out to taunt the protesters. “I came here to see those terrible fascists, but I couldn’t find any,” he said.
Yet right there were the likes of Fiore, who boasted that for a large part of his career he had “defended fascism on a number of issues” and ventured that “85 percent of people in Italy will tell you that fascism has done many good things which attracted the world’s admiration.”
Fiore fled to Britain in 1980 after Italy issued an arrest warrant in connection with a blast at a Bologna train station that killed 85 people and that was blamed on a far-right extremist cell. He returned when charges could no longer be pursued. His sympathy for Russia is intertwined with deep anti-Americanism. “It is a historical fact that America brought the Mafia to Italy. We need Russia to liberate us from the American rule,” he said. 
Other notable figures at the forum included German Udo Voigt, a member of the European Parliament, who glorified Hitler as a “great statesman” and claimed that the Holocaust's death toll had been grossly exaggerated.
But like every other participant, he has hardly any weight in his country. Major far-right movements—Hungary’s Jobbik, France’s National Front, and Germany’s Pegida—declined to participate, an organizer said. Vilen Siderov of Bulgaria’s Ataka party showed up in St. Petersburg a day before and flew back the same evening. Two Russian members of parliament who were to preside over the forum also dropped out the day before it began.
Greece’s Golden Dawn was the only major party that sent its delegates to the event. Its representative Eleftherios Synadinos complained about “persecution,” citing the arrest of the party’s leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, in connection with the murder of a leftist musician. “It is symbolic that his trial begins on April 20,” Synadinos said (that's Hitler’s birthday). His colleague Georgios Epitideios later said the remark wasn't significant and didn’t represent the party line. Golden Dawn was previously accused of praising Nazis and playing Hitler’s party anthem at one of its gatherings.
Most of the speakers expressed their support for the pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine. “It is clear that the vast majority of people in East Ukraine and Crimea are ethnically Russian and are entitled to view the revanchist and aggressive Ukrainian nationalists as a threat,” the former leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, said.
A few Russian volunteers fighting in Ukraine were in the audience. One of them, Alexey Milchakov, or "Fritz," is a young neo-Nazi from St. Petersburg who now heads a rebel storm unit of fellow skinheads who deny Christianity as a "Jewish religion" and adhere to the pagan beliefs of the ancient Slavs. He gained notoriety in 2012 after publishing photos that show him decapitating a puppy, then barbecuing and eating it.
He dismisses claims by Russia's leaders that the rebels are fighting fascism in Ukraine.
“We are fighting a Russophobic junta. It’s a duty of a Russian nationalist to fight it,” Milchakov said. He said Russian history books include distorted information about fascism and its champion Benito Mussolini.
“You know [Putin’s party] United Russia translates into Italian as Fascia Russia?” he asked. It doesn't.