On July 27, something unexpected happened in St. Petersburg, Russia. Two dozen activists gathered in the recently created “free speech zone” on the city’s iconic Field of Mars and held a state-sanctioned LGBT rally—the first of its kind since Russia banned “homosexual propaganda” in 2013. But that was hardly the biggest surprise. Unlike many previous unsanctioned rallies, this one went off without a hitch: no ultranationalist counter-protestors showed up to attack the LGBT activists.
“The Nazis are busy with Donbass,” one un-named activist told Radio Svoboda, referring to the region of Eastern Ukraine currently facing a separatist crisis.
Terms like “Nazi” and “fascist” have been bandied about as key buzzwords in the Ukraine crisis. Since the conflict started in February 2014, both pro-Russian separatists from the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and Russian politicians have repeatedly called the government in Kiev fascists, neo-Nazis, and Banderists—followers of the 20th Century Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, reviled by Soviet Russia for cooperating with Nazi Germany during World War II.
Meanwhile, slanted Russian news coverage on the Ukraine crisis has rallied Russia’s population to the side of the separatists in their struggle against the “Kiev junta.” A poll by the independent Levada Center, based in Moscow, showed that, as of June 14, 69 percent of surveyed Russians believed the Federation Council’s March 1st decision to grant President Vladimir Putin the right to send troops to Ukraine (later renounced by Putin himself) was justified, while 59 percent thought Russia should actively support pro-Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine.
But amid aggressive rhetoric and political posturing, Russia’s ultranationalists, many of whom are ideologically closer to fascism than anyone in the Ukrainian government, have become totally preoccupied with the conflict in Ukraine, but cannot find a common position on it.
A new report by Moscow’s SOVA Center for Information and Analysis suggests the crisis has all but displaced the Russian far right’s usual agenda. Ultranationalists may once have united around their opposition to issues like LGBT rights and, especially, labor migration from Central Asia and the Caucasus, but developments in Eastern Ukraine have left this group struggling to develop a unified stance on the so-called “Russian Spring” uprising.
Seldom has the idiom “politics makes strange bedfellows” seemed truer. Many extreme nationalists in Russia now support the policies of the Putin regime, which they previously considered “anti-Russian,” while others find themselves on the side of the country’s liberal opposition, with which they otherwise share little in common. The result, according to the SOVA report, has been a decrease in far right political activity during the first half of 2014 and an increase conflict between different ultranationalist groups.
On the surface, this might seem unexpected. By all accounts, Russia’s annexation of Crimea has heralded a wave of nationalist sentiment throughout the country. But nationalism in Russia is an extremely broad umbrella encompassing movements and beliefs across the political spectrum. More importantly, many nationalists groups—particularly extreme ones—have distinctly anti-Kremlin views. These are exactly the people now struggling with an identity crisis.
“All the politicians’ and citizens’ attention refocused on Ukraine, and it turned out that [the ultranationalists] didn’t have a clear and prepared response,” SOVA director Aleksandr Verkhovsky told the Russian independent TV channel Dozhd. “Those who support the authorities found themselves in the rearguard of supporters…and those who don’t, frankly, are afraid to stick their necks out.”
According to SOVA’s research, the majority of Russian ultranationalists do, in fact, support Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the May 11th referendums on autonomy in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. But “why” is another question entirely.
What Are Ultranationalists Thinking?
Some ultranationalists see the conflict in the Donbas region as a fight between Ukrainian “Banderists” and ethnic Russians and support separatism for this reason. Others believe there are no Ukrainians in Ukraine, and the conflict is actually between ethnic Russians, some of whom have lost their identity to cultural and linguistic “Ukrainization.” Among this latter group of ultranationalists, the reasons for supporting Putin’s policies are similarly diverse. Some believe Putin is truly defending Russian interests in the region. Others approve of his actions, but feel they are driven by ulterior motives—a plan to crack down on political freedoms in Russia while the population is distracted, a desire to raise his own approval rating, or even a plot to slander the Russian far right with a media campaign against “fascists” in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, ultranationalists who disapprove of Russia’s position ascribe to yet another perspective, namely, that the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was a popular revolution against corruption. To them, the conflict in Ukraine is not ethnic (an idea they believe was imposed by the Kremlin), but based rather on differences in worldview. Pro-Kiev Ukrainians who want to build an independent state are facing off against backwards pro-Russian separatists nostalgic for the Soviet Union. While some of these ultranationalists still support the annexation of Crimea (and the potential annexation of Eastern Ukraine), they do so with serious reservations. These critics of the Kremlin have received sharp rebukes from other ultranationalists and writers from the far right website “Sputnik and Pogrom.” They have, in turn, accused their detractors of being paid agents of the Kremlin and traitors.
Tensions between these various Russian ultranationalists have even boiled over into violent attacks. In May, three purported ultranationalists in St. Petersburg attacked a local neo-Nazi allegedly for taking part in separatist protests in Odessa, Ukraine. Pro-separatist social media claimed the attackers were members of a Russian branch of Right Sector, a Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary-turned-political party that has become virtually synonymous in the Russian media with the “fascism” allegedly reigning in Ukraine.
In June, Russian ultranationalists in Novosibirsk beat up Aleksandr Marchuk, a member of the “Other Russia” party who had taken part in separatist activities in both Crimea and the Donbas. Founded in 2010, the “Other Russia” served as a successor Russian writer and radical Eduard Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party, which was banned by the government. Since its foundation in the early 1990s, the National Bolshevik Party had fused nationalist and communist ideology with radicalism and avant-garde hipsterism. It had even advocated for the annexation of Crimea and the seizure of territory in Northern Kazakhstan (Limonov served 25 months in prison for ordering a member of his party to buy weapons, allegedly for an invasion of Kazakhstan). While less extreme than its predecessor, the “Other Russia” was firmly an opposition party—that is, until Limonov publicly expressed support for (now former) Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year. The move angered many members of the party, and led some to defect. In Novosibirsk, the effect was particularly severe: all the members defected, leaving only Marchuk the only representative of the “Other Russia” in the city. Now alone in his vocal support of “Novorossiya,” Marchuk was an easy target for extreme nationalists that disagreed with him. Online, Marchuk’s beating was met with support from anti-separatist utranationalists
These and other un-reported conflicts between ultranationalists of different stripes are unsurprising, writes Vladimir Titov, a Russian far right nationalist writer and member of the “Nation of Freedom” political movement. From the Russian nationalist point of view, support for the “Russian Spring” uprising in Ukraine is self-contradictory, he argues. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have not led to any clear benefits for Russians: taxes have not decreased, the Kremlin continues to crack down on civil liberties, the country is growing less democratic, and the authorities have not imposed a visa regime on the countries of Central Asia to stem the flow of labor migrants into Russia. Additionally, Russia’s extremism laws, which now may even criminalize sharing extremist content in social media, continue to be applied to nationalists, and the government still will not register many nationalist political parties.
“In short, all the evils of the Russian land—be they corruption, arbitrary rule, ethnic crime or technological degradation—have not disappeared. In contrast, these and other problems will only get worse in the long run…And while comrade Putin pretends to be Tamerlane…the gap between our country and the civilized world will grow,” Titov writes.
What’s Behind The Shift?
So why, then, are many ultranationalists taking the Kremlin’s position on Ukraine? Some, Titov says, are acting in their own selfish interests to make their organizations more mainstream—they want their views represented in major (and high-paying) government media outlets, hope to get their parties registered, or want to “atone for past sins.”
One such example may be the notoriously anti-Kremlin Limonov himself. In 2009, Limonov initiated the Strategy-31 civic protest: on the 31st day of each month with 31 days, a diverse group of activists gathers on Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square to exercise the right to hold peaceful public gatherings enshrined in Article 31 of the Russian constitution. The government has never sanctioned these protests, and riot police frequently appear and make numerous arrests. Now that Limonov has tempered his criticism of the Kremlin, voilà—the protesters have received formal permission to gather.
Limonov insists, nevertheless, that he is still anti-Putin and anti-government, and that he simply agrees with the Kremlin’s policies on the Ukraine issue. But it is difficult to ignore the benefits that come from getting on the government’s good side. And if Limonov, the paragon of Russian political radicalism, recognizes this, certainly other ultranationalists do too.
Yet, these people are in the minority, Titov believes. The biggest source of the “‘patriotic’ anti-Ukrainian hysteria” in Russia is something worse: pure xenophobia.
“Russian xenophobes long were forced to keep their feelings to themselves. Expressing hatred for ‘kikes and Caucasians’ was not safe: there was a risk of being charged under Article 282 [“Inciting hatred or enmity, and humiliation of human dignity”]…or getting knife in the ribs from a hot tempered native of the North Caucasus Federal Region,” he writes. Now, however, Ukraine has become a new outlet for these xenophobes’ hatred, and the ongoing crisis there and high tensions between Moscow and Kiev has given them near carte blanche in expressing it.
On the surface, these shifts in Russia’s far right may seem paradigmatic, but there are also many reasons to doubt that divisions created by the Ukraine crisis will fundamentally change ultranationalism in the country. As the SOVA report notes, tensions between ultranationalist leaders in Moscow and St. Petersburg seldom affect their provincial branches, where local activists from different groups continue to work together. Additionally, ultranationalist violence against non-Slavic minorities may have even grown worse since the start of the Ukraine crisis. During the first half of 2014, 13 people lost their lives in xenophobic attacks across Russia, 6 more than during the same period of 2013. This seems to at least partially disprove Titov’s theory that Russian xenophobia has been rechanneled exclusively toward Ukraine.
Most importantly, the Ukrainian crisis, currently halted under a shaky ceasefire, will eventually come to an end, and the situation in Russia may very well return to “normal” for ultranationalists in the country.
“Sooner or later interest in Ukraine will fall, and the far right will need to find new enemies,” said Vladimir Mukomel, an expert on migration and integration with the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, in an interview with Voice of America. “Of course, there is nothing better than old new enemies, so the nationalists and the media will redirect their attention to migrants.”
Finally, there are reasons to be concerned that the Ukraine crisis may make ultranationalism even more threatening. The SOVA report suggests that some ultranationalists have joined the fight in Ukraine, most likely on the side of the separatists, and Titov claims that a significant number of Russian skinheads are fighting on the side of the Ukrainian government. As SOVA director Verkhovsky told Dozhd, their return to Russia after this conflict subsides could be highly dangerous.
“It will be like in the early 1990s, when people returned from fighting in Transnistria and Serbia,” he said. “Frankly, they didn’t beautify the political landscape…and now it will be the same.”
If he’s right, labor migrants and LGBT activists in Russia will have plenty to fear for quite a while.