Mainstreaming Russian Nationalism

By Sean Guillory.

Nationalists in Vologda. Photo source

On 26 October about 5-10 youths of “Slavic appearance” attacked a Moscow-Dushanbe bound train as it sat at Ternovka station in Voronezh province. Yelling nationalist slogans, the gang smashed about 20 car windows with rocks. Passengers received minor injuries. “I can’t exactly say why a group of people attacked our train,” a source from the Tajik Railroad told Gazeta.ru. “It’s possible that it’s connected to the intensification of anti-migrant sentiment in the Russian Federation.”

This incident is the latest in a series of nationalist inspired attacks on migrants in Russia. While commentators sought to identify the reasons for the Biryulyovo race riot, little attention has been paid to the apparent increase in nationalist activity since the government’s anti-migrant campaign in early August. True, while many nationalist attacks are not connected to any organization (the Russian nationalist movement is variegated, decentralized and often spontaneous), there has been an uptick in organized activity. Indeed, two weeks prior to the Biryulyovo riot, the nationalist gangs Moscow Shield and Stop Drugs stormed a migrant dormitory in Moscow’s Kapotnya District. The raid, part of which you can view online, saw of youths roaming floor to floor wielding clubs and traumatic weapons to root out illegal migrants. But migrant raids are only one form of nationalist activity. The Sova Center, which monitors extremism, has recorded a number of incidents in which nationalists declared “white” only buses and trams, staging “people’s assemblies” to protest migrant crime, and individual physical attacks on non-Slavs. In its September report on racism and xenophobia, the Sova Center stated that “the public activities of the far-right are notably higher than in the summer.”

What is important about Russia’s far rights, though, isn’t just its increase in public activity. More telling is that this activism comes alongside a concerted effort to move nationalism into the political mainstream.

Since the Duma protests of winter 2011-2012, the Russian far-right has become a normal aspect of Russian politics. Nationalists were an important contingent in the protests and served as key members of now defunct opposition Coordinating Committee. Alexei Navalny has successfully intertwined anti-migrant sentiment with anti-corruption politics. Navalny’s response to the Biryulyovo riot revealed him as a populist opportunist willing to exploit racism.

Russian nationalists are increasingly adopting the language of democracy to propagate their positions. For example, when asked about the demands of the Russian March planned for Unity Day, Konstantin Krylov, a leader of unregistered National-Democratic Party, said, “The Russian March’s demands will include such inflammatory things as the freedom of conscious, speech, assembly, and unions. These are old demands. The Russian liberation movement also advanced these a hundred years ago. True, if the situation has changed in the last hundred years it has become worse because we were given these freedoms after 1905, but now there are still some problems with them.” For Krylov, the liberal freedoms the Russian March represents are there to protect the freedom to be racist.

The discourse around the Biryulyovo riot on the Internet appears to have normalized this freedom. A recent Vox Populi study of online references to the Birlyulyovo riot found that over half of the mentions to the riot considered the demands of the rioters “lawful and just.” Those demands included calling for the authorities to find Shcherbakov’s murderer, to close the Pokrovsky fruit and vegetable warehouse, and solve the problem of illegal migrants. On the surface, demanding that the authorities catch murders and address illegal migration is justified. However, the methods residents employed and many on the internet cheered were outside of any notion of liberal legality. If anything they spoke to the illiberalism of the mob. The freedom of speech and assembly coupled with a breakdown of institutions of legal grievance exploded in racist hatred. As Navalny approvingly wrote on his blog, “If there is no fair system to resolve conflicts and problems, then people will create them themselves, in a primitive and wild fashion. That is to be expected: after all, they are the ones being murdered.” This primitive and wild behavior was ratified on the Internet, which became, according to Kirill Rodin, Vox Populi’s director, an instrument “for the spontaneous igniting of interethnic hatred.”

But stoking nationalism isn’t just the providence of the opposition. The Moscow mayoral election proved that anti-migrant rhetoric is a campaign staple. Even state authorities are tapping nationalist activity in the fight against illegal migrants. In St. Petersburg, for example, migration authorities have recruited Russia Cleanings, a nationalist group that has been conducting sweeps of markets for illegal migrants since August, to participate in official migrant inspections. Politicians are appealing to popular xenophobia as a means to control it. But as Andrei Kolesnikov recently wrote, appeals to nationalism only widen “the bounds of what is permissible in the discussion of what is national.” The real result is that “xenophobia has become commonplace. The everyday rejection of non-Russians has been gently supported from above. The nationalist discourse has become normative and dominant—both above and below. The language of hatred has been sanctioned from the highest floors, meaning that all is permitted.”

Perhaps sensing that the political spectrum has taken a sharp turn rightward, organizers of the Russian March have extended invitations to Navalny, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Putin and others. “If Navalny comes, excellent, we will be very happy. It will be good if Sobyanin comes as well. We will be very happy to see Putin, Medvedev, or Rogozin. They can consider this an official public invitation. We will not invite homosexuals and pedophiles. We ask them to not bother [coming],” said Vladimir Tor, the chairman of the National-Democratic Party. Then he added, “All Russian people can come to the Russian March. Our doors are open to all. I’m convinced that any rational politician must use the energy of the Russian March.” Indeed, Tor and others hope to unite all Russians under their fourteen word slogan: “We must secure our Russian land for the future of our people and the future of our Russian children.”

In the wake of August’s anti-migrant campaign and the Biryulyovo riot, this year’s Russian March, which organizers hope to draw 30,000, will be a big test of how mainstream far-right nationalism has become. The Moscow authorities have agreed to the march, but as a precaution relegated it outside the center to the southeastern district of Lyublino. But this might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The March’s nationalist organizers think that Lyublino is an excellent idea—it’s a working class district and exactly the people nationalists want to appeal to. Come next week, we’ll find out soon how far Tor’s fourteen word slogan reverberates.

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