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Old Saturday, August 16, 2008
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Default Surgence Of Russian Nationalism


Russian nationalism assumed a new outlook in 2006 with the introduction of firearms and explosives into the realm of xenophobic and nationalist violence - making it more demonstrative and explicit in nature.1 This surge in racially motivated violence has become a cause of serious concern for the country’s ethnic minorities. The real cause for alarm is the fact that xenophobic feelings run deep in Russian society and a majority of Russians exhibit characteristics of a traditional rural society suspicious of strangers. Public opinion polls conducted by human rights groups routinely show that more than half of the populace support the slogan, “Russia — for ethnic Russians,” and also express negative attitudes towards peoples from the Caucasus, Central Asia, and other regions. 2

Analysts have attributed this xenophobic trend to the liberal values of the Russian authorities. These values have created an open society in Russia on the one hand and have led to an explosion of nationalistic attitudes in the country on the other. It has, therefore, been argued that the problem is rooted deep within the society and merely punishing the perpetrators of hate crimes was not enough. In an effort to deal with the growing problems associated with nationalism and xenophobia, the authorities have taken a number of steps. In April 2006, the Chairperson of the Council of Federation Committee on Information Policy, Lyudmila Narusova, said that it had become necessary “to sound the alarm, to create an atmosphere of intolerance to any manifestations of xenophobia in society.” 3 Accordingly, an organisation called the Association of Civic Resistance to Fascism was created. Earlier, representatives of a number of Russian parties signed the Anti-Fascist Act on the initiative of United Russia. 4

Interestingly, however, there has also been a continued expansion of ethno-nationalism within official domestic policies. For example, the discriminatory campaign against Georgians and the ban on foreign traders selling goods in Russian retail markets. This discrepancy in official policy coupled with an improvement in living standards has aggravated the threat of ethno-nationalism in the country. Russian political scientist Emil Pain, a former advisor to Boris Yeltsin, had warned a few years ago about the inevitability of such a phenomenon arguing that nationalism would be growing with the improvement of the economic situation and living standards in the country. According to his most recent analysis, members of government with non-Russian last names are also now becoming a target of xenophobes. 5 In contemporary Russia, therefore, large-scale ethno-nationalist violence is occurring regularly, and there are signs that the trend will continue. Although Russian law requires that the Federal Security Service (FSB) should quell mass unrest and ethnic disturbances, the organisation chose to keep a low profile during the Kondopoga events6 in September 2006, resulting in nationalist forces across the country joining forces under the banner, “Down with xenocracy-the rule of foreigners.”

Nationalist movements, however, are not a new phenomenon in Russia and can be traced back to the reinvention of a Russian national identity by a group of intellectuals in the 1950s. The political support for such nationalist elements further strengthened these ideas within the Russian society. Radical nationalists, therefore, became especially influential from the mid-90s to 2000, when their organisations were officially registered and they operated legally all over the country. Eventually, the more radical of these groups were banned by the State. However, experts have warned that hatred against foreigners is still widespread in Russian society and continues to undermine societal stability.

This paper will trace the Russian nationalist movement from its origins to its institutionalisation in electoral alliances, parliamentary factions, and political movements of first the early 1990s and also the role of nationalism in contemporary Russian politics. Nationalism is a highly contextualised and dynamic phenomenon that follows the development of the involved groups and systems of relations between them. It is not entirely ethno-centric, rather a civic phenomenon including ethnic, cultural and civic components.

The Origins of Russian Nationalism

Scholars disagree greatly on the roots of Nationalism in the Soviet Union. Modernisation of ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union has been touted as one of the reasons for the increase in nationalist sentiment in the country. For example, the Rakowska-Harmstone theory7 argues that modernisation of Soviet society created new native elites, including native Ukrainians and Georgians who thought themselves the victims of discrimination by Russians. This phenomenon eventually created a series of national movements within ethnic societies in the Soviet Union. In his analysis of the causes of nationalism, Motyl argues that although socio-economic factors played a part in creating nationalistic ideas in society, it was political factors that had a greater affect on the process.8 Yet others like Suny and Conor argue that both factors contributed equally to the Rise of nationalism in Soviet Russia. 9

The idea of Russian nationalism however did not gain ground in the Soviet Union till the mid 1970s but the years between 1953 and 1964 were crucial for its formation10. The end of the Stalin era and the ensuing process of de-Stalinisation created the necessary conditions for the creation of “Russian nationalism as a significant political and intellectual movement.”11 In denouncing the terror of the Stalin era, Khrushchev created an environment whereby the social elite were able to develop various different kinds of political orientations. Eventually the views of the elite became “manifestations of the intense socio-political debate” that was brewing “between antagonistic ideological groups within the elites themselves.” 12 It was during this era that the intelligentsia and the political elite made use of journals to express their views. These journals were publications that were mass produced and carried poetry, prose, literary criticism, memoirs and essays on various topics including history, economics and culture. These journals also contributed to an awakening of the political culture in the country. 13

The period between 1965 and 1970 was characterised by a paradox between a partial rehabilitation of the Stalin legacy on the one hand and an unprecedented socio-political debate in the censored press on the other. The major issue of debate, however, remained Russian nationalism. Yitzhak M. Brudny thus describes:

“Village prose, ecology, the preservation of historic monuments, the contemporary relevance of the Slavophile legacy and the nature of east west relations were all intensely discussed in a fashion unimaginable just a few years earlier.”14

As a result of official policy during that time, Russian nationalist intellectuals got a chance to “articulate their ideas with unprecedented freedom” 15 and by the end of the 1960s they became a significant force in Soviet culture and identity. 16 The inclusion of Russian intellectual nationalists continued from the 1960s till 1982 when they were largely abandoned from the mainstream political process.17 Although the era of “inclusionary politics” for Russian nationalists ended in 1982, between 1983 and 1985 there was a temporary compromise between the nationalists and the communist party whereby the party’s ideological establishment criticised nationalist ideas harshly but there was also recognition of the fact that Russian nationalists had become the most prominent group within the Russian political elite.18 Ultimately, the policies aimed at introducing a western type market economy and democratising the political system implied an end to the privileges being enjoyed by Russian nationalists. It also meant an end to the ideas of radical nationalist groups and village prose writers19 and the triumph of ideas supported by liberal nationalists. Furthermore, the introduction of Perestroika meant that members of the Russian nationalist movement had to choose between either supporting or opposing the reform process. It was inevitable though that those most Russian nationalists chose to oppose the reform process. In fact Perestroika united the village prose writers and the radical nationalists in their opposition towards reform and also towards seeking an alliance with anti-reformist forces within the establishment.20 The Russian nationalist elite continued with their efforts to become major players in domestic politics till 1989 when the elections for seats in the USSR Congress of Peoples Deputies were held,21 followed by a disintegration of the USSR in 1991. The politics between these years was transitory in nature as the culture dominated by the literati and their journals was being “replaced by political parties, electoral alliances and parliamentary factions.” 22

During the 1990s, the conflict between reform and tradition translated into a controversy between different political options of modernity. As a result, most nationalist Russians began to realise that the changes taking place were irreversible and tried to adapt themselves to the changing situation. The introduction of the multi-party system in the 1990s resulted in the political modernity of Russian society. As a consequence of the development of political organisatons, associations and various political movements, national patriotism emerged as an alternative to both Marxism and liberalism. Both the Marxist and nationalist political opposition against Yeltsin manifested itself in the form of the creation of many nationalist organisations and the distribution of pamphlets and publications by these organisations across Russia. In 1995, some 100 such organisations were operating in Russia. In the late 1990s, the number declined as a result of the fusion or disintegration of these organisations. At this time, some new nationalist parties came into existence. These included the Russian People’s Republican Party founded by General Lebed, the Movement in Support of the Army, the Defence Industry and Military Science (DPA) founded in 1997 by General Lev Rokhlin.23 Rokhlin’s murder, under mysterious circumstances, lead to the DPA becoming anti-Semitic and racist. The policy proved to be counter-productive, however, and DPA soon lost its political importance. In the autumn of 1999, the Unity Party was created to support the government and to help Putin become the Russian President. The party was a nationalist one with ingredients of liberalism and was later renamed One Russia.

Types of Russian Nationalism

Russian nationalism has support within most tiers of Russian society including the armed forces, Orthodox Church, the state administration and also the Russians living outside the country. The numerous nationalist organisations have different orientations and include the anti-communist Orthodox Monarchists, fascists, national socialists and Bolsheviks and also neo-Eurasians.24 The different views of these organisations towards the idea of nationalism have invariably led to the creation of a “two-fold nationalism proclaiming the Russian Idea.” The two groups have been thus described as ethnocentric nationalists25 and great power nationalists (also referred to as statists). They may also be referred to as Eurasians or neo-Eurasians.26 Whereas the former refers to an interpretation of the Russian idea in terms of the Russian nation and its traditions, the latter refers to a primacy of the state and empire.27

Figure 1: Two Basic Types of Russian Nationalism

Pochvenniki or Ethnocentrity Gossudarstvenniki or Eurasianism
Inner Development/Rural Russia Expansionism/Urban Russia
Monoethnic or Russified Russia Multinational Empire
Russia’s enemies are the aliens living inside it. Russia’s enemies is the West (US in particular)
Isolationism Imperialism/Restoration of the Empire

Source: Thomas Parland, The Extreme Nationalist Threat In Russia: The Growing Influence of Western Rightist Ideas, London and New York, Routledge Curzon, 2005, p. 76.

Whereas the establishment within Moscow and St. Petersburg adhere to the statist nationalism, the common people remain influenced by the ethno-centric interpretation of the Russian idea. 28

Nationalism in Contemporary Russia

In the contemporary scenario, majority of the Russians espouse nationalist views. The first people to inspire irritation are the Caucasians, Central Asians, and Chinese. Jewish people rank third or fourth. Chechens continue to top the list of the most-hated people in Russia, a hostility that can be attributed to the war in Chechnya. According to a report released by the SOVA Centre in November 2007, from 1 January to 31 October, 2007, there were 270 racially motivated attacks including 53 fatalities. In 2006, in the same period, there were 220 attacks with 447 victims, and 48 deaths.29 The majority of attacks were aimed at people from Central Asia and the Caucasus and African countries.30 Moreover, rights advocates have expressed strong concerns over recent moves by Russian nationalist-patriotic groups to form their own armed groups. 31

Alla Gerber, head of the Holocaust Foundation in Russia, warns, “Today there are 70,000 skinheads in Russia, I’d like him to talk about that, and law enforcement organs don’t allow proper investigations into cases of incitement of racial hatred, and today people with a different skin color or nationality are killed.”32 As a result Russia’s numerous nationalist-patriotic movements are beginning to openly state their plans to form armed paramilitary groups and seize power by force. Some of these groups organise forums during which they explain to their members how to get hold of weapons. Slavyansky Soyuz (Slavic Union) is one of these groups. It is known to have called for an armed uprising and broken into the websites of Russian human-rights organisations.

The group’s website features its insignia, a symbol approximating the Nazi swastika. It offers links to a prominent skinhead website and displays pictures of youth with their right hand raised in the air in imitation of the Nazi salute, and a series of articles disparaging various ethnic and religious groups.

Skinhead groups are on the rise and are now active in all Russian regions. According to official figures, there are 10,000 skinheads in Russia. Human rights groups and experts contend the real figure is more than five times higher. Skinheads were responsible for most of the racially motivated attacks and killings in 2007.33 Skinheads first appeared in Russia in the early 1990s like other youth sub-cultures, such as hippies, punks, bikers. Moscow, St. Petersburg and Nizhni Novgorod became the centres for this movement. By the middle of 1998, there were between 700 and 2,000 skinheads in Moscow, 700 to 1,500 in St. Petersburg and up to 1,000 in Nizhni Novgorod. There were also hundreds in various cities such as Yaroslavl and Voronezh, as well as in the Siberian cities of Irkutsk and Omsk, and also as far as Rostov-on-Don and Krasnodar in the south and Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East. By the end of 1999, the figures for Moscow had risen to between 3,500-800, in St. Petersburg up to 2,700, Nizhni Novgorod more than 1,500, and Yaroslavl, Pskov and Kaliningrad about 1,000. 34

Role of Authorities

Although criminal prosecution and other administrative practices of suppressing right-wing radicals have improved over the years, they are not yet systemic or consistent and depend largely on subjective factors such as professionalism and the attitudes of individual officials. Critics have argued that the authorities have played a key role in aggravating the country’s increasingly xenophobic attitude. They usually cite the example of the government’s support for discriminatory measures against ethnic Georgians living in Russia. In 2006, Russia was heavily criticised for deporting thousands of ethnic Georgians living in Russia and canceling flights between the two countries. The move came after Georgian authorities detained four Russian diplomats on spying charges. In September 2006, the town of Kondopoga in northwestern Russia was the scene of violent riots between local Russians and ethnic Chechens working in the area.35 Following the events in Kondopoga, efforts to legitimise anti-migrant rhetoric and discriminatory practices became a mainstream trend in domestic politics. Initially, it was voiced by regional officials and public figures. Karelian Governor Sergey Katanandov responded to the Kondopoga events with statements comparing the characteristics of “us (our people)” and “them”.36 In Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov responded by saying that he would protect “his people” in Karelia.37 On 5 October 2006, President Putin spoke about protecting the interests of “indigenous Russian population” in retail markets.38 The President’s statement was structured in such a way that many people, and not only right-wing radicals, interpreted it as an expression of solidarity with their rhetoric.

In a related move, in April 2007, some 20,000 non-Russians were banned from working in Russian retail markets. The law was introduced as a consequence of unrest in Kondopoga.39 It was the latest in a series of laws on immigration. Ahead of the April legislation, the number of foreigners working in Russian markets was reduced to 40 percent of the workforce. On 15 January, 2007 migrants from CIS member states coming to Russia under a visa-free regime were banned from selling alcohol and pharmaceuticals.40

According to critics, such politics serve to further embolden radical forces within the society as the “nationalist initiative” methods and slogans are increasingly shifting to government and pro-governmental structures in anticipation of the December 2007 parliamentary elections in Russia. It is not surprising, therefore, that since late January 2006, anti-fascist and anti-xenophobic rhetoric is being increasingly used to discredit political opponents of the ruling political party and to suppress democratic freedoms in Russia. For example, a campaign was launched in February 2006 against Governor Oleg Chirkunov of Perm Krai, the only Russian governor who was not a United Russia member. The pretext for the scandal was an incident at the Open Youth Forum held locally under the auspices of the Governor, where a young neo-Nazi introduced himself in Chirkunov’s presence. The next day, the Governor apologised to the local public for the incident, while the materials of the forum were made available to prosecutors for a review. The pro-presidential populist Young Russia and Nashi groups accused the Governor of sponsoring fascists and staged a rally against him. The scandal eventually settled, and in September 2006 Oleg Chirkunov headed the United Russia Party list in the regional elections.41


The growing xenophobia and ethnic violence is a harbinger for the creation of a nationalist movement in Russia, which is decidedly different from the past. A proliferation of such nationalist movements would hold important consequences for Russian politics and society, particularly for the North Caucasus and its adjoining regions. The nationalistic feeling reflected in the slogan “Russia for Russians” threatens to endanger the multi-ethnic foundations of the Russian Federation.

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