Russians have long associated the word ‘fascist’ with horrors committed by the Nazis during the Second World War. But, in today’s Russia, the word has increasingly been used to disparage and silence anyone whose views diverge from Russia’s increasingly nationalistic agenda.
On April 28, 2016, a crowd of approximately twenty-five people attacked students, teachers, and organizers of the seventeenth All-Russian High School Historical Research Competition. The competition, which was titled “A person in history: Russia in the twentieth century,” aims to bring students from all over the country together to research Russian history using a variety of resources available in Moscow. The competition is organized by Russia’s leading human rights organization Memorial, which was founded in January 1989 to highlight the political repression that took place under the Soviet Union.
As participants were arriving at Moscow’s Dom Kino (“cinema house”) for the award ceremony, picketers began to throw raw eggs while repeatedly shouting “fascists” and “traitors.” Lyudmila Ulitskaya, an internationally acclaimed Russian writer and novelist, who was part of the competition’s jury committee, was doused in green-colored disinfectant, along with several other participants. Several signs at the demonstration read, “We don’t need alternative history,” suggesting that protesters believed the students’ research was distorting Russia’s past.
The demonstrators were affiliated with the ultraconservative National Liberation Movement. The movement aims to restore Russia’s sovereignty, which was supposedly lost as the result of the Soviet Union’s break up. According to the movement’s leadership, the United States orchestrated the dissolution of the Soviet Union in order to establish its control over Russia’s territories and resources. The National Liberation Movement’s rigid nationalistic agenda reflects the Kremlin’s current ideological narrative, in which liberal views and dissent are traitorous, foreign-funded NGOs are puppets of the West, and the United States is seeking to overthrow the current Russian leadership.
Daniil Turovsky, a correspondent for the online independent outlet Meduza, asked the picketers why they attacked the schoolchildren. One said, “We are casting demons out of these Jewish children. These children are influenced, they are not normal and should undergo treatment.” The last statement alluded to the Soviet Union’s practice of persecuting dissidents and placing them in mental institutions.
Ulitskaya expressed sadness about the protest. “This is all very unpleasant. Schoolchildren who came from all over the country were sent some sort of a message,” she told Radio Ekho Moskvy. “But again, at least it was not sulfuric acid,” she said.
During her interview, Ulitskaya said it was unlikely the attackers would be held responsible for their actions. Indeed, passers-by and competition participants noted how the police did nothing to stop the protesters. Immediately following the incident, Memorial issued a statement addressing the head of Moscow’s Police Department and expressing concern over the department’s lackluster response. According to the statement, the assault by demonstrators continued for almost an hour, because of police passivity.
While refusing to involve themselves in this particular incident, Russian security officials have regularly used excessive force and violence to stop one-man pickets and disperse peaceful protests organized by members of the opposition. “Usually, even it’s a real one-man protest, the police will come and put everybody in the back of a van. This time nothing happened, even though our colleague had an eye injury,” Yelena Zhemkova, Memorial’s Chief Executive told The Moscow Times.
This dynamic underscores a larger trend. When dissidents protest, the government moves in rapidly to break up demonstrations. When pro-government groups take to the streets, the state does nothing.
What is even more troubling, however, is that so-called patriotic activists have become part of an aggressive and intolerant part of Russian civil society that are quite comfortable using violence against their fellow citizens. When violence replaces dialogue, the well-being and safety of citizens are at risk. The Russian government encourages such violence through its aggressive propaganda, as well as a complacent state police.
Last week’s attack on Russian schoolchildren is the most recent instance of such violence. Sadly, it will not be the last.