The Kremlin Is Losing Control of the Nationalist Movement It Helped Create

Russian nationalism, with its dangerous xenophobic overtones, is now spreading to the country's 'silent majority.'
Riot police detain a marcher during a demonstration on National Unity Day in Moscow. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

For all the crude xenophobic placards and slogans at this week's Russian March, one stood out for its—dare I say—cleverness. 

“The good half of the population already hates the regime. Soon you will get to know the bad half,” read a sign carried by a marcher.

Not only was it clever, but it also rang true. In a recent editorial, Gazeta.ru wrote that “for the first time, nationalist marches are taking on an oppositionist character.”

After years of successfully manipulating nationalists for their own purposes and cultivating xenophobia among the population, the Kremlin is now standing face-to-face with the monster it helped create. “Those nationalists who did not join up with the authorities in time attached themselves to the protest movement—you have to avoid your own marginalization somehow,” political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov wrote in a recent commentary

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In addition to the predictable chants of “Russia for Russians,” “Stop Feeding the Caucasus,” and various anti-migrant diatribes at this year's Russian March, there were plenty of calls for the end of Vladimir Putin's “Chekist regime.”

But to get a grip on what is really happening in Russia now, we need to look beyond the dramatic and violent manifestations of nationalism—the race riots in Moscow's Biryulevo district, the attack on a Moscow-Dushanbe train, or marchers calling for “death to Caucasians”—and look at the more latent, and widespread, variant.

And widespread it is according to a recent poll by the independent Levada Center. According to the poll, nearly 73 percent of Russians—and more than 80 percent of Muscovites—favor the deportation of migrant workers. Some 66 percent of Russians agreed to some degree with the idea that “Russia is for Russians,” while only 19 percent said such a sentiment was “fascist.”

Levada Center director Lev Gudkov said it showed that “between 70 and 80 percent” of Russians harbor xenophobic sentiments.

Most of these people will never attend the Russian March. They won't ransack a vegetable warehouse searching for migrants. And they are unlikely to attack a train from Tajikistan.

But they are deeply disturbed by what they perceive as an influx of migrants and with the criminality they associate with it.  Many believe—despite evidence to the contrary—that non-Russian citizens of the Russian Federation are privileged and ethnic Russians are discriminated against. 

“To understand Russian nationalism, even racism, you need to realize that despite their political, cultural, and numerical dominance, many Russians see themselves a nation without a state,” Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies wrote in The Nation.

It is this latent nationalism of the silent majority that is driving much of the political dynamic right now. These aren't black-clad skinheads. Many are respectable urban professionals, students, and entrepreneurs. In a 2012 report, the Public Chamber warned of a “sharp rise” in xenophobia among city dwellers and the highly educated.

And they're in play politically. “Nationalism has become a universal method of fighting for voters—both for the authorities and for the opposition,” Kolesnikov wrote in Gazeta.ru. 

Gudkov says the rise in nationalist sentiments has been driven by a combination of anxiety about the economy that followed the 2008 financial crisis, anger about official corruption, and the Kremlin's general “crisis of legitimacy” since the 2011 protests.

Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's recent hedge regarding the Russian March, demonstrably not attending but encouraging his supporters to do so, makes some sense—tactically at least—given this environment. Numerous Russia-watchers have noted that he is trying to find that sweet spot that allows him to hold on to both his liberal and nationalist supporters.

But Navalny's nationalist-liberal dance may actually be less of a balancing act than it appears at first glance. Many of his liberal supporters are also latent nationalists. “More and more, Russians from across the political spectrum are identifying with (and organizing around) a national identity tinged with racism,” Ilan Berman, vice president of the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council wrote recently here. 

In a recent Power Vertical Podcast, Sean Guillory noted that Navalny's conception of “democracy is really a Russian democracy and not one that seeks to incorporate all people of the Russian Federation. He's a democrat but he's a Russian democrat first and foremost.” 

And he is playing to the silent majority. Much of this majority also hails from the post-Soviet generation that is now coming of age, a generation that, in addition to being more democratically oriented than their parents, is also somewhat more nationalistic.

Navalny has long argued that Russian nationalism needs to be brought into the mainstream and liberalized to keep it from being monopolized by retrograde elements. But what exactly is liberal nationalism in a multiethnic state? Ideally, it wouldn't be nationalistic at all, but rather an inclusive form of civic patriotism.

Perhaps it will evolve to this at some point. But neither Navalny, nor Russia's silent majority, appear to be anywhere near there yet.


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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