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Russia 2010: Nationalism's Revenge

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For several days now, Russia has been haunted by nationalistic demonstrations, violent ethnic brawls, and resulting mass arrests. The series of interrelated events was triggered by the death on 6 December of a Russian soccer fan in a scuffle between ethnic Russian and north Caucasian youth in Moscow. International media has focused on the following violent clash between neo-Nazi demonstrators, on the one side, and Russian policemen on the other, on Manezh Square in the Moscow city center on 11 December, as well as on some subsequent clashes in the Russian capital. There were several other, less spectacular, but also massive Russian nationalist public gatherings before this confrontation in Moscow as well as more in other cities including Rostov-on-the-Don and St. Petersburg.

Russia's Murderous Skinhead Movement

In fact, these news-making events are merely the latest episodes in a story that -- often unnoticed outside and concealed inside Russia -- has been developing over several years now. The Moscow SOVA (Owl) Center for Information and Analysis, Russia's leading xenophobia monitoring NGO, has been closely watching the multifarious Russian ultra-nationalist scene since the middle of this decade. According to SOVA, from 2004-2009, Russian racists killed on average between one and two persons per week -- a death rate that has no equivalent, in any comparable country. The peak of the violent campaign was reached in 2008 when SOVA reported 114 deadly hate crimes as well as 497 cases of serious injuries -- most of them committed by young russo-centric skinheads.

To be sure, the number of grave hate crimes (violent health damages, murders) recorded by SOVA decreased in 2009-2010 as a result of the increasingly harsh measures of the Russian state against neo-Nazi youth groups during the last couple of years. Yet, as the events of last week illustrate, the Russian state's recent resoluteness in persecuting racist murders has so far had little effect on the overall spread of ultra-nationalism in Russian society, in general, and Russia's male youth, in particular. It also needs to be noted that SOVA has a conservative approach to counting xenophobic offenses and is cautious to qualify a certain misdemeanor or murder as a hate crime. Moreover, many, if not most xenophobic assaults are, because of the bad reputation of the Russian law enforcement agencies, probably never reported to the police. It is thus likely that the real numbers for the various ultra-nationalist transgressions listed in the below table is higher -- perhaps, much higher -- than it has been possible to record for SOVA.

Neither the Russian nor the Western public have so far become fully aware of the magnitude of Russia's neo-fascist subculture. Meanwhile, the embassies of Asian and African countries in Moscow have been struggling to deal with the problem that, each year, dozens of their nationals are insulted, harassed, attacked, injured, as well as killed, in Russia because of their skin color. In March of this year, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs took the unusual step to issue an official recommendation not to visit the Russian Federation because there had been several assaults on Korean citizens in the preceding months.

The Sad Irony of Post-Soviet Russian Anti-Fascism

Especially during the last decade, Russia has been presenting itself, on the international scene and in national mass media, as the prime defeater of fascism. Yet, among foreign students, guest workers and migrants who come to visit or to live in Russia as well as among Russian citizens with a "non-Slavic" appearance, the country has acquired a strange reputation. Russian officials and mass media have been missing no opportunity to berate neighboring countries such as Estonia and Ukraine for their alleged support of "fascist" tendencies. Most allegations concern some post-Soviet governments' permissiveness towards reunions of veterans who had collaborated with the Nazis and fought with the SS and Wehrmacht against the Red Army during World War II.

Incongruously, at the same time, Russia's authorities have been ignoring, misunderstanding or/and misinterpreting far more serious trends in various sectors of their own society. Racially motivated hate crimes are frequently presented as outcomes of mere "youth hooliganism" while the manifestly neo-Nazi skinhead mass movement has, until recently, often been dismissed as a marginal phenomenon. In fact, the overwhelmingly ultra-nationalist Russian skinhead movement has been estimated to have between 20,000-70,000 members, depending on the definition of such membership. This would seem to make the Russian skinheads the largest informal, openly neo-Nazi youth movement in the world.

Reflecting the degree of delusion among relevant Russian officials about what is actually going on in their country, government-controlled mass media has initially been trying to interpret the last events in Moscow as a result of football fanaticism, an allegation strongly rejected by the relevant soccer fan clubs of the Russian capital. In a further surrealistic turn, Russia's Minister of Interior Rashid Nurgaliev, classified the instigators of the Moscow city center race riot on 11 December as "left-wing radicals."

Putin's Utilization of Russian Nationalism

The apparent uneasiness of the Russian authorities to deal with the rising ultra-nationalist tendencies in their country has an obvious reason: A more moderate and subtle, though hardly less manifest form of nationalist xenophobia has been a -- if not the -- major legitimizing code of Russia's neo-authoritarianism during the last 10 years. Manifest bellicism and frank law-and-order rhetoric was the ticket that made Putin popular as Boris Yeltsin's last prime-minister in 1999.

In August 1999, it was essentially Putin who started the Second Chechen War. In September of that year, a number of apartment bombings in Moscow and elsewhere, by supposedly Caucasian terrorists, led to a further escalation in Russian-Caucasian relations. Within weeks, Putin's popularity skyrocketed as he was seen as the right man to secure the safety of Russia's citizens from separatist fanatics and religious fundamentalists in the country's unstable south. The Caucasophobic frenzy and climate of insecurity within the Russian population in the second half of 1999 were important determinants in the election of the previously unknown former KGB officer to President of Russia in spring 2000.

In November 2010, the strange aftertaste of this breathtaking turnaround in Russian politics was further increased with the release of Dr. Yurii Felshtinsky's documentary, "Blowing Up Russia." Now freely available on the New York Russian-language site, this carefully researched historical documentation provides stunning footage and several authentic interviews with eyewitnesses of the terrorist events in 1999. This evidence suggests that the Russian security service may have either been directly involved in, or were ready to use as a model, the 1999 apartment bombings.

Whatever really happened in Russia in September 1999, the nature of the political trends that took their beginning in the anti-Caucasian hysteria of that autumn are hardly disputable. Since then, Russian public discourse -- whether in mass media, party politics, academia or other social spheres -- has become more and more characterized by an isolationist, ethnocentric, and manichean view of the world. Within this mode of thought, the Russians appear as an insufficiently respected, but heroic ethnic collective that has been cheated into its current national borders by cunning Western governments, treacherous Russian liberals, and the thankless national elites of the former Soviet Union. In the New Brave World of Vladimir Putin, it has become a compliment to be labeled a Russian "nationalist" (in the "good sense of the word"), and is common to defame those critical of Soviet history or Putin's rule as "agents" of foreign powers, notorious "Russophobes," or even "fascists."

The Dialectics of Nationalist Political Campaigning

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============================================================================== Andreas Umland, CertTransl (Leipzig), MA (Stanford), MPhil (Oxford), DipPolSci, DrPhil (FU Berlin), PhD (Cambridge). Visiting fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution (more...)
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