International media followed events in a southern Moscow suburb with a sense of foreboding and concern.
Youths rioted, fought with security services and attacked migrants in retaliation for the killing of a young Russian named as Yegor Sherbakov. The murder was blamed on a “non-Russian” and sparked a wave of anger among far right activists who shouted white supremacist slogans. Following the riots the death of a migrant was blamed on the activist group.
This has led to speculation in the media that Russia is facing a serious threat from the far right and that ethnic tensions are set to emerge in what is, and always has been, an ethnically diverse and ill-defined nation. It appears this is set to become an increasingly prominent issue as Russia comes into the global spotlight over its controversial anti-homosexuality laws alongside the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and its successful bid to host the 2018 FIFA world cup.
But while much analysis has analysed where this precedent could lead, very little has been devoted to explaining where this phenomenon has come from and why ethnic tensions are on the rise.
Political Power Games
It’s no secret that Russian politics has been through a tumultuous period since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It has stabilised since the turn of the millennium under the stewardship of Putin, but still the political system suffers from serious issues of access and lack of democracy. Putin is undoubtedly the most popular leader in Russia but the power games behind closed doors suggest a less than harmonious attitude within the Kremlin walls. Despite the decision of Medvedev to step aside in 2012 to allow Putin to return as President, the leadership still struggles with warring factions between more liberal minded apparatchiks and the more militarist hard-liners. It has been claimed by some that this explains the sometimes arbitrary and random decisions made by the Russian government.
One thing that did cause analysts to sit up and take notice came during the 2011 legislative elections. Large protests broke out in Russia criticising the democratic process and challenging the dominance of the United Russia party which is strongly affiliated to President Putin. These were seen as the prelude to the formality of Putin being re-elected President, but instead they marked an interesting move in the Russian populace to oppose the status quo.
There is also a rising importance of opposition movements in Russia – both civil and party political. The Communist Party is currently the second largest party in Russia and the far right Political party LDPR is also popular. The music group ‘Pussy Riot’ has also appeared in the news recently and have become a symbol for opponents of the Russian regime.
However, overall, the far right scene in Russia is unaligned to this process and has remained aloof even from the LDPR and other far right political movements. According to a report by the Sova centre many of these groups have turned to street-level activity and violence in order to get their message across. The have an intrinsic distrust of law and order and oppose anyone who isn’t an ethnic Russian. This, interestingly, is not a solely Russian phenomenon—it is also happening among far right groups in Germany, whilst the Golden Dawn party in Greece relies heavily on its street level activities to gain support from the population.
The far right in Russia is, therefore, clandestine and difficult to challenge from a political perspective. Again, the roots for this mistrust of government and propensity to turn to street-level activism can be seen in the history of Russia.
The definition of what it is to be Russian has been an issue at the heart of Russian society for decades. As far back as the time of Josef Stalin, minorities were persecuted and seen as ‘non-Russian’. Stalin, himself having been born in Georgia, opposed the presence of minorities in the corridors of power and even moved entire populations across Russia to far-flung parts of the empire.
However, the concept of a Communist state, it can be said, managed to keep harmony among a diverse nation in the face of a hostile west. With the fall of Communism this has changed. Now many ethnic Russians are residents in states which used to be part of the Soviet Union but are now sovereign territories; some openly hostile to Russia. Equally, within Russia this can be said to have translated into a wide-ranging debate about what it means to be an ethnic Russian.
Again, this is not a purely Russian phenomenon. The concept of ‘frustrated nationalism’ can be seen as a factor in explaining the rise of far right and ethnic-nationalist attitudes in West Germany during the immediate post-war era and in modern day East Germany.
The humiliation of Russia on the world stage was complete with the loss of Ukraine and the loss of huge resources to oligarchs that the state tries either to deal with or bring to justice.
Therefore, the youthful activists who were the victims of the Russian collapse are now the street activists with an intrinsic distrust of government and a blatant opposition to the presence of non-Russians within their territory.
When discussing the far right and neo-Nazism there can be a propensity among analysts to overstate the importance of economic issues. While one cannot ignore the importance of economic factors in explaining the rise of the far right, one should not underestimate the importance of a concept of ethnic nationalism and frustrated nationalism either.
Economic issues can often be temporary, yet latent racism and ethnic-nationalism can continue to exist. This is what drives the far right and leads to violence as any non-Russians can be clearly seen within society.
So this goes part-way to explaining where the far right is coming from in Russia. There are multiple other factors that greater research could elaborate on more. It’s a worrying trend, but it also appears that the authorities are powerless to stop it. Furthermore this is in no way a Russian phenomenon, but is becoming more noticed in international media with the increased exposure of Russian society. In this sense, it appears that this trend isn’t going to end and until the authorities can re-attach with the people, the quest for an ethnic-nationalism and use of violence could be set to continue.
Pingback: The rise of frustrated nationalism in Russia - ...