What Ever Happened to Russian Nationalism?

Just two years ago, Russians’ capacity for street protests seemed limited to soccer hooligans and race riots. On December 11, 2010, a few thousand sports fans gathered outside the Kremlin to mourn the murder of one of their own by a man from Kabardino-Balkaria, a Muslim Republic of the North Caucasus. The assembly soon degenerated into a melee with Moscow police, and poured into a nearby metro station, before ultimately claiming the life of a bystander.

This, it appeared at the time, was the most the world could expect from Russia's struggling civil society, a ramshackle patchwork of decidedly unpopular liberals and apparently bloodthirsty nationalists. In November 2011, the “Russian March” took place, and Alexey Navalny scandalously participated for the fourth time in the parade's seven-year history. Navalny, a self-professed “nationalist democrat,” said that ethnic nationalists and liberal oppositionists had common ground and should unite against the Kremlin.

A month later, massive fraud allegations in Russia's parliamentary elections sparked the largest street demonstrations in over a decade, kicking to the curb most of the quibbling about who between the liberals and the nationalists better embodied the nation's future. The number of Russians willing to attend protest rallies jumped from a measly two thousand to perhaps over 100 thousand. There was enough to go around, and oppositionist infighting — even if it never stopped — was certainly overshadowed by a surge of mass harmony.

A Russian nationalist demonstrator dressed in a Nazi uniform. This year's Russian March organizers have banned such costumes. 12 June 2012, photo by Evgeniy Isaev, CC 2.0.

The Russian March

In a few hours, the first Russian March in Moscow since last winter's protests will begin. Konstantin Krylov, one of the movement's biggest figures and an organizer of the parade, has indicated [ru] on his blog that he seeks a more inclusive tone this year:

В этом году 4 ноября будет отличаться от всех предыдущих. Если раньше это был день, когда русские националистические силы объединялись, чтобы напомнить о себе, то сейчас 4 ноября свидетельствует о том, что русское национальное движение стало неотъемлемым фактом общероссийского протестного движения. Мы не против видеть там и Навального, и других оппозиционных политиков.

This year, November Fourth [the Russian March] will be different from all those before it. If it before was a day when Russian nationalist forces united to remember themselves, November Fourth today testifies that the Russian nationalist movement has become an essential fact of the all-Russian protest movement. We're not opposed to seeing Navalny there, or other oppositionist politicians.

Like many Russian liberals, Echo of Moscow's Anton Orekh remains skeptical about the need to recognize such “essential facts.” In a blog post [ru] on October 31, he pointed out that Moscow officials reversed recent policy by granting the nationalists a marching permit inside the city's center this year. Orekh predicts that the police will facilitate rather than harass the parade, raising suspicions that the government is inflating the nationalists’ clout:

Хотите в центре? Нет проблем.

Уверен, что Марш пройдет великолепно. И у полиции не будет никаких претензий. И никакого экстремизма там не найдут, никакого призыва к беспорядкам. Никого не накажут, не посадят и не оштрафуют.

You want [to march] in the center? No problem.

I'm sure the March will turn out wonderful. And the police won't have any complaints. And they'll find no extremism there, or calls for riots. No one will be punished, jailed, or fined.

Writing [ru] in the liberal online portal Ezhednevnyi Zhurnal, Dmitri Ermoltsev let fly even greater unease about a possible alliance with the nationalists:

И прежде чем сесть с ними в одну лодку, например в грядущий Координационный  совет, твердо бы заучили литовскую поговорку: с чертом даже яблоки опасно собирать — не только яблок не получишь, но и мешка лишишься.

And before you sit down with them in one boat (like the future Coordinating Council), you ought to commit to memory this Lithuanian proverb: it's dangerous even to pick apples with the Devil — not only won't you get the apples, but you'll also lose your basket.

Writing on LiveJournal, nationalist blogger nazpat took issue with Ermoltsev's article, particularly the description of political marginals, which read:

Дело в том, что протест создает для националистов возможности, которыми они прежде не располагали. Доселе они были маргиналами в публичном пространстве.

The thing is: the protest movement creates opportunities for the nationalists that they didn't have before. Up until now, they've been marginal in the public space.

Nazpat responds [ru] by arguing that nationalists are the only social force that has ever prompted the direct intervention of Vladimir Putin:

[Н]е зря повторюсь Путин лично улаживал конфликт Манежка-2010. Повторюсь – единственный раз он полез разруливать выступление массовое людей, встречаясь, уговаривая, обещая.

There's a reason I repeat that Putin personally settled the Manezh 2010 conflict. I'll say again: it's the only time he has bothered to sort out a mass demonstration, conducting meetings, persuading sides, and making promises.

Navalny's Unending Nationalism

At the moment, it's unclear whether or not Navalny will attend this year's Russian March, though, on October 30, he tweeted [ru] an announcement from Krylov's group that the city had approved a permit for the parade. The next day, Navalny posted [ru] on his LiveJournal a link to a new music video by the band Rabfak, which stormed the RuNet last October with its viral hit, “Nash Durdom Golosuet Za Putina” (Our Madhouse Votes for Putin). That video currently has over 550 thousand views on YouTube — just 30 thousand more than “Khavtit Kormit Kanzas!” (Enough Feeding Kansas!), the song Navalny shared.

Alexey Navalny in Moscow, 24 May 2012, photo by Denis Mironov, CC 2.0.

Rabfak's new song is a wordplay on the nationalist slogan “Khvatit Kormit Kavkaz!,” which targets federal subsidies to the local governments of Russia's North Caucasus. (Navalny is a member of this campaign.) The music video features a montage of amateur footage of ethnic Caucasians committing criminal acts and performing traditional dances, with the implication that their culture is saturated in violence. (Just days prior, nationalist Vladimir Tor posted a similar video [ru] to his LJ.)

Writing on Facebook, journalist Andrey Loshak criticized Navalny for reposting the song, writing [ru]:

Меня смущает четкое понимание, что если бы РМ собрал вдруг больше, чем митинг белых ленточек, Навальный бы несомненно принял сторону тех, кого больше.

I'm troubled by the distinct realization that — if the Russian March suddenly attracted more than the White Ribbon rallies — Navalny would undoubtedly join the side with more people.

Such accusations of expedience are not new. In fact, more than a year ago, in October 2011, journalist Yulia Latynina went so far as to defend Navalny's “nationalism as an instrument.” She wrote at the time:

Я хорошо понимаю Навального. Он политик, для него национализм — инструмент. Это очень опасный инструмент. Но других инструментов у тех, кто попытается реально реформировать Россию, нет. Потому что если рассказывать, что Россию мы реформируем с помощью всеобщего избирательного права и обещаний всеобщего благосостояния, то, ребят, это немножко нереально.

I understand Navalny well. He's a politician and, for him, nationalism is an instrument. It's a very dangerous instrument, but there are no other instruments available to try and reform Russia. Because, if you want to say that we're going to reform Russia with the help of universal voter rights and promises of universal prosperity, then, guys, you're being a bit unrealistic.

While Russia today is far from a “reformed nation,” it ironically was the rhetoric of universal voter rights and other fairness abstractions that in the end did mobilize the protests to catapult Navalny to the movement's center stage. Last year's winter is old news, however, and the descending cold of 2012's final months has reintroduced the specter of scarcity. While the recent Coordinating Council elections did mobilize nearly 100 thousand voters, the opposition's ranks don't any longer appear to be growing. As a result, the opposition's internal competition for support is less obscured.

This week, the chief editor of Nezavisimaia Gazeta, Konstantin Remchukov, told [ru] Echo of Moscow that one of the biggest changes in the last year has been Navalny's transformation from blogger and netizen to real world politician. He embraces the Coordinating Council as an unqualified success and a bridge that connects Navalny to the formal world of power brokering.

If Remchukov is correct, tomorrow's Russian March will be an interesting test of how (or whether) Navalny sees his new role affecting the nationalist-democrat brotherhood he's worked to foster.


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