“Give Russia back to the Russians,” “Stop Feeding the Caucasus,” “Freedom, Nation, Order” – these were the slogans chanted by approximately 7,000 nationalists at a rally called the Russian March, which took place on the bleak outskirts of Moscow on Nov. 4, the day Russia officially celebrates National Unity Day.

Young people clearly prone to violence against non-Russians still form the core of the Russian March, which took place for the seventh time. But this year, the rally was also attended by many respectable-looking, middle-aged nationalists who identify as moderates.

The march itself was far from unified, though. The nationalists split into columns: skinheads in masks, Orthodox fundamentalists, typical retirees carrying icons of Christian saints, and perfectly ordinary-looking parents with children. Bringing up the rear of the procession was a group of Nazis carrying an SS Division Totenkopf flag. The march participants also had a variety of slogans, from traditional anti-Caucasian chants and anti-Semitic tunes to slogans against the ruling United Russia party and Muslims. The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, which specializes in monitoring xenophobia in Russia, reported that the participants shouted slogans inciting ethnic hatred, which is a punishable offense, but the police did not respond.

Nationalism in Russia: The Origins

Sociologist Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center polling agency, believes that as many as 60 percent of Russians support the nationalist slogan, "Russia for the Russians,” while about 50 percent of Moscow residents support limiting the flow of migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia to the city. “The problem is not even the spread of xenophobic sentiment from the lower classes to the general public, but the fact that social resistance to xenophobia is weakening,” Gudkov said.

Russia's domestic nationalism

According to the Levada Center, domestic nationalism in Russia started growing stronger in the mid-1990s and became more prominent after the 1998 financial crisis, when the government defaulted, and many people lost their jobs, businesses, and savings. “At that time, Russian society lost its vision of the possibilities for its development and needed another basis for collective national identification," Gudkov said. These sentiments peaked in the mid-2000s, when the town of Kondopoga in Karelia and the Stavropol Territory saw rioting and murders motivated by ethnic hatred.

Experts cite a few reasons for this trend. First, many people are disillusioned with the authorities, said Igor Bunin, head of the think tank Center for Political Technologies. A good example of this is the December 2010 rally by soccer fans in Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square during which tens of thousands gathered with nationalist slogans to demand an investigation into the murder of a fellow fan by immigrants from the Caucasus.

"It was the first time that nationalism was combined with a social protest. It was a reaction to a sense of injustice, the failure of the judicial system, and the lack of legal forms of influencing authorities,” Lev Gudkov said.

The second reason is the authorities’ inconsistent migration policy. On one hand, the administration welcomes inflows of migrants from poor regions of the Caucasus and Central Asia in light of Russia’s population decline and labor shortages. But on the other hand, these migration processes are often unmanageable and corrupt. 

Human rights activists are sure that the roots of Russia's radical nationalism lie in the wars in Chechnya. Before 1994, Russians were treated with respect in the Chechen capital of Grozny, but later this was not the case. The second Chechen campaign broke out in the wake of a spate of Russian nationalism that saw Chechens treated like enemies. The increasing hostility and hatred brought about the so-called moral crisis," said human rights activist Svetlana Ganushkina. 

Another reason for the increase in nationalism, according to Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, stems from Russia's search for a national identity. In the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union began to break apart, republics gained independence through national liberation movements. Because the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic was the dominant part of the Soviet Union, the Russians had no one to liberate themselves from. Besides, nationalism would be difficult in Russia, which has 140 ethnic groups, Petrov pointed out. “Each ethnic group in Russia has its own historic territory; therefore, nationalism would mean the disintegration of the country.”

Russian Identity

Sociologists argue that a typical nationalist perceives himself in opposition to other ethnic groups, so one of the main questions in the Russian nationalist community is: “What is a Russian?” Some who consider themselves Russian nationalists are trying to gain footing through concepts that go beyond racism.

“The Russians are a people, who, irrespective of their ethnicity, construct their self-awareness on the tradition of a thousand years of Russian statehood, on belonging to the Russian culture and speaking the Russian language,” said historian Yury Krupnov. This interpretation is supported by the state.

Distinct from Europe

All nationalist movements are officially illegal in Russia. “I am certain that more or less any large nationalist organization, if allowed to develop legally, would have leaders who would ultimately evolve to be no more radical than any right-wing European politicians,” said Alexei Navalny, a prominent anti-Kremlin activist, who attended the Russian March.

Others are not so sure. “Europe has institutions and public movements that officially oppose this; there is heated public debate, which to a large extent alleviates the aggressive nature of nationalism. Russia has none of that,” said Lev Gudkov.

Furthermore, European nationalism is aimed at restricting the inflow of immigrants. “In London, Lisbon, and Paris no one is saying that new migrants should be expelled,” Gudkov added, whereas according to Levada Center data, up to 40 percent of Muscovites are in favor of the forced expulsion of foreigners from the city.

Gudkov believes the rally in Manezhnaya Square last December showed the ruling party “the significant threat nationalism poses,” which is why the authorities have tried to control the nationalist sentiment in Russian society. “The authorities try to absorb these sentiments, as happened at the social protest, rather than fight them by tackling underlying problems,” the sociologist concludes. Nikolai Petrov is certain their efforts are ineffective because problems either continue or are aggravated. “They should be broadly discussed in public,” Petrov said.