MOSCOW - The small group of young political activists had scarcely arrived at the imposing Uzbek Embassy, where they planned an unsanctioned protest, when police swooped in.
Apparently tipped off, scowling officers with Moscow's Rapid Reaction Force methodically hauled off 10 National Bolsheviks. The leader, Olga Shalina, who wears a lapel pin depicting a hand grenade, finished only half of her prepared statement before she was dragged away.
"Out with tyrants!" she shouted. "Revolution!"
The abortive July 4 demonstration was a brief skirmish. But it was just part of a larger battle between the administration of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and a one-time fringe political movement, which authorities fear has grown into a significant threat to state power.
'Damage' to Kremlin
"In the Kremlin, they are hysterical," says the National Bolshevik's 62-year-old leader, Eduard Limonov. "They are like a bull that sees a red cape, because we don't believe in playing by the rules of their game. We are really doing damage to them."
The government, in turn, is engaged in a crackdown on Limonov's group, which has attracted thousands of restive Russians in their rebellious teens and 20s. A Moscow court ordered the party banned June 29, after prosecutors accused it of trying to form an illegal armed group.
A few days later, 39 party members went on trial in a Moscow courtroom for allegedly trying to "destabilize" the government, after party members briefly occupied the presidential offices near the Kremlin on Dec. 14. Experts said it is one of the largest mass trials in the post-Soviet era.
National Bolsheviks has been repeatedly denounced in recent months by Kremlin officials and in the state-controlled media. Earlier this month, a national television channel aired a broadcast comparing Limonov to Adolf Hitler. A new pro-Putin youth group, "Ours," was formed last year specifically to counter the threat of the Bolsheviks, political experts here say.
Putin's deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov has told interviewers that the National Bolsheviks "pose a danger" that should not be underestimated, and he warned that "coups could be attempted."
Masha Lipman, a political expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the crackdown was an overreaction by authorities, reflecting the Putin administration's obsession with controlling Russia's political landscape.
"The Kremlin, with its policy of overdoing control, is seeking to bar all activity that may be unexpected - to cleanse the political space in Russia," she said.
Party members are frequent targets of violence. Since January, group officials say, there have been 15 attacks in Moscow by gangs of young men carrying iron bars, baseball bats and road flares.
Limonov says the attacks are part of an overall Kremlin strategy. "Putin has demolished politics in our country," he said. "He's created a police state on the pretext of the Chechen war. He created in Russia a kind of dictatorship - modern, of course - camouflaging his policies under the title of democracy."
The National Bolsheviks were born in the 1990s as a movement of punks and skinheads. But in recent years, the party has transformed itself into a more conventional, and powerful, political force.
It helped organize nationwide protests last winter against the Kremlin's efforts to reduce subsidies for social services. It has joined with Russia's embattled liberal democratic parties in calling for the Kremlin to loosen its control of the courts, parliament and the media.
And the party, which once supported the war in Chechnya, now calls for Russia to abandon the republic to separatists.
The core of the National Bolsheviks' appeal is its militant nationalism, probably the single most powerful political force in Russian politics. Putin's popularity, experts say, is linked to the perception that he is a strong leader who has restored much of Russia's dignity and stature in the world, and has tried to reassert the nation's influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
For many young people, though, Putin has been too timid. Limonov claims Putin "made a terrible mistake" after the September 2001 attacks on the United States by accepting the establishment of U.S. bases in Central Asia. "We're becoming a colony of the West," he said.
Party with flair
The party has also attracted attention - and recruits - through its flair for street theater. National Bolsheviks, who call themselves NatsBols, have splattered eggs and smeared mayonnaise on political targets. In May, party members with alpine equipment scaled a hotel facing Red Square and unfurled a giant banner urging "President Putin, Get Yourself Out!"
On the one hand, one Moscow party official said, these antics have gained the party "credibility." On the other, said party spokesman Pavel Zherebin, they have led to the jailing of some of the party's most active members.
Still, young people continue to flock to the party. Today, there are about 17,400 National Bolsheviks, scattered through 57 of Russia's 89 regions, making it one of the largest political organizations in Russia.
Limonov seems part Lenin and part rock rebel Lou Reed, and an unlikely leader. A pencil-thin figure with a silvery Van Dyke beard, he is the author of 37 books, including It's Me, Eddie and Russian Psycho.
Kicked out of the Soviet Union for anti-Soviet activities, Limonov landed in New York in 1974, where he worked as the housekeeper for a wealthy Manhattanite and learned to scorn Western bourgeois culture. By 1982, he was in Paris, fashionably disillusioned with Western political orthodoxy.
He returned to Russia in 1991, in the midst of an anti-Soviet revolution that left him cold. In 1994 he founded the National Bolsheviks.
"I was so sick of conventional politics that I have decided to create some entirely new idiology [sic] based on style," he wrote in a Moscow alternative newspaper.
At first, Limonov's black-clad young followers chanted: "Stalin, Beria, Gulag!" - exalting the Soviet dictator, his secret police chief and his network of political slave-labor camps.
Limonov became a staunch defender of the former Serb president, Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial for war crimes in The Hague. On a visit to Bosnia, Limonov was filmed firing a heavy machine gun in the general direction of Sarajevo - an act he now dismisses as a publicity stunt.
But Limonov split with the right-wing ideologue Aleksandr Dugin in 1998 over the party's drift into xenophobia. Limonov's views changed dramatically, said Andrei A. Piontkovsky, director of Moscow's Strategic Studies Center, after his 2001 arrest and conviction on a weapons violation, a charge that Limonov says was trumped up by the Kremlin. He spent 2 1/2 years in the Federal Security Service's Leftortovo Prison.
"He was a dangerous radical 10 years ago," Piontkovsky said. "Now he speaks as an exemplary human rights activist. He is a strong advocate of democracy, freedom of the press and social justice."
At his apartment, Limonov claimed thugs coordinate their attacks on party members with police, who monitor his every move. "Here, everything is bugged," he said, gesturing at the apartment walls. "They've been listening to me since I left prison."
Olga Kudrina, 19, joined the Moscow branch in 2003, to the dismay of her middle-class parents. Later, she dropped out of the prestigious Moscow State University, where she studied advanced mathematics and computer science, so she could spend more time on party work.
Prosecutors have accused her of aiding comrades arrested in protests, including the occupation of the Ministry of Health building last year. Now she is awaiting trial, but not, she claims, frightened of the prospect of going to prison.
Nor does she fear that the movement she has dedicated herself to will be crushed by the state.
"The National Bolshevik Party is like a living organism," Kudrina said. "To stop it from living, you have to liquidate us all."