Nationalism in Russia – A Growing Problem or a Benefit to Putin’s Rule?
© Dmitry Serebryakov, 2014
As Russia prepares to host the 2018 World Cup, there are many speculations as to whether the country will do anything to tackle its high number of cases relating to racism within sport. Many footballers, including the Brazilian striker Givanildo Vieira de Sousa (better known as Hulk), and Ghanaian midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong, have spoken out against the “vile racist abuse” that happens almost in every game. Furthermore it has recently been reported that racist incidents have doubled in the last football season.
The issue of racism in Russia does not only exist in sport, it is a widespread problem. The growth of xenophobia in Russia seems to directly correlate with the increase in domestic and international problems that the country faces today. It acts as a distraction to government corruption, declining household incomes, and the Western economic sanctions placed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea.
Although the government claims to have cracked down on extreme far-right movements such as ‘BORN’ (Militant Organization of Russian Nationalists) and ‘Movement Against Illegal Immigration’, it utilises the presence of nationalism to strengthen Putin’s power. The discussion of whether “Russia is for Russians” is still a heated topic in the Duma to this day, suggesting that the reason for locking away extremist individuals is to disassociate their acts with the government.
During the Soviet era, multiculturalism and internationalism were a few of the key principles that made the superpower so unique, until its eventual fall in 1991. However, these policies were abandoned after ex-Soviet countries gained their own independence. There was a growth in labour migration from former Soviet Union republics, especially Central Asia, to Russia. This was due to the fact that some of these newly formed states lacked the job opportunities that Russia seemed to have.
In recent years, there have been many cases of race-motivated hate crimes committed against migrant workers. An ‘Amnesty International’ report in 2008 revealed that there were around 85,000 neo-Nazis in Russia. Numbers of violent cases have been climbing steadily – reaching 202 in 2012. It’s important to bear in mind that a lot of these also go unreported because the government wants to keep the numbers low. Furthermore, a public opinion poll published by ‘VTsIOM’ in 2013 revealed that a shocking 74% of Russian citizens “regarded the large number of labour migrants as a negative phenomenon”.
The worrying thing about this increase of nationalist groups and political parties is the fact that they are so radical in their views and approach. In 2007 two men from areas that are predominantly Muslim, were stabbed and beheaded by two masked men dressed in combat fatigues claiming to be members of the ‘RNSP’ group. This act was filmed and the video was distributed across Russian social media.
A high proportion of those targeted are Muslim. One of the reasons is that many of the migrant labourers coming from Central Asia are Muslim. Another may be because of how the Muslim insurgencies in the northern Caucasus and the Chechen areas have caused trouble with the government for years. There have been terrorist attacks carried out by the rebels in response to the oppression from the government and in hope of independence from Russia. Some of the most shocking terrorist acts include the ‘Moscow Theatre Hostage Crisis’ of 2002 and The ‘Beslan school siege’ of 2004. The attack in Moscow lasted 3 days, with 850 people taken hostage and 130 killed. While in Beslan, over a thousand hostages were held for 3 days and of those, 385 were killed, including 186 children. In both cases the perpetrators demanded an end to the Second Chechen War and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. Some of the Russian soldiers returning from the troublesome Caucasian region exacerbate the hatred towards Muslims.
It is important to note that nationalism in Russia is not reflected by a single major group of people wanting a “pure Russia” only for people of Slavic origin. Although there are a few that hold this extreme view, there are also people that want to restore the USSR and consider Russian-speakers from ex-soviet countries to be “Russian”. President Putin himself has not expressed any support for either kind of nationalism and has been narrowly trying to avoid having to side with one or the other in the current political climate.
The youth group ‘Set’, which has over a thousand activists from 11 different regions, promotes Putin as a leader and produces patriotic products such as clothes, flags, and even propaganda videos. Acting as an example where nationalistic ideas benefit the president. However, the extreme far-right parties sometimes feel that Putin is not stern enough with his immigration policies and protest against him as a leader, making the rise of nationalism a double edged sword for Putin’s rule.