After the Russian March: Reflections on Nationalism in Russia

Russians now regard certain parts of Russia in the Northern Caucasus as not really belonging to Russia, while parts of certain foreign countries, such as Ukraine, are seen as belonging to Russia. This is a dangerous phenomenon for everybody involved.

The Russian March has long since become the main event of Russia’s National Unity Day celebrations. Andreas Umland, renowned political scientist and Valdai Club expert, shares his views about the place of the Russian March on the socio-political stage and the specific features of nationalism in Russia.

What do you think about the phenomenon of the Russian March (Russkiy marsh), held annually for nine years already? Is it a significant event in the social and political life of the country, or is it just more like a meeting of outcasts?

While the organization of the Russian March is indeed dominated by the most extreme parts of the Russian nationalist spectrum, the March has turned (especially this year) into a significant political phenomenon. The ethno-centrist ideas of the Russian Marchers are becoming more and more mainstream. Even the government seems to be taking on some of the Marchers' views, rather than questioning them. In this way, social outcasts become political actors.

Is it possible for nationalists to become a source of real political power in a multinational and multi-religious Russia?

Paradoxically, this looks more and more probable. The hate speech that is spread, on an almost daily level, via the Russian mass media – not least of all through state-controlled television – has led to the strange phenomenon wherein many Russians now regard certain parts of Russia in the Northern Caucasus as not really belonging to Russia, while parts of certain foreign countries, such as Ukraine, are seen as belonging to Russia. This is a dangerous phenomenon for everybody involved – Caucasian Russian citizens that are not accepted as such, Ukrainian citizens whose state's sovereignty is under question, and those ethnic Russian citizens who play with fire without fully understanding the risks involved, for their own country and people. A further spread of such attitudes can easily lead to a spiral of escalation within, or on the borders of Russia, which may then be difficult to get under control. We have seen what happened to Yugoslavia, once it entered an ethno-centrist and irredentist discourse.

Is the current growth of nationalist sentiment a sign of coming change? Will the authorities listen to protests of “the Right”? And what concrete steps can the authorities take to ameliorate the situation?

I am afraid that things, in the future, might get worse or, perhaps, even much worse, if no principled changes are made. I am not yet seeing an adequate reaction from the authorities to the spread of ethno-centrist sentiments bordering on racism. To be sure, President Putin recently censored Vladimir Zhirinovsky when the latter made some scandalous statements on the Northern Caucasus. Also the prosecutor’s office and police are more effective today in dealing with violent neo-Nazi skinheads than they used to be some five years ago. However, the public discourse is becoming more and more infected with ethnocentrism, irredentism and conspiracy theory. The variety of texts that are being spread range from high-brow theories a la Lev Gumilyov, publicized via educational institutions, to primitive racism from various ultra-nationalist fringe groups that are getting more and more exposure in the mainstream mass media. As long as these tendencies continue, political control, police surveillance and legal persecution of extremely right-wing tendencies will merely address the symptoms and not core of the problem.

Is it possible for the Russian authorities to return more peaceful semantic content to the Day of National Unity? What moves would make this possible?

It would be necessary to radically re-conceptualize the national history and international position of the Russian nation, and then implement this re-defined concept on a mass scale through the media, educational institutions and political campaigning. But I do not see the political will to do that among the power holders, who prefer playing with fire to get some short-term political gains. Only when the entire public concept of Russia changes and the Russian nation begins to be seen as culturally multi-ethnic, traditionally tolerant, open to immigration, and territorially saturated, can the Day of National Unity have different content.

How serious in your opinion is the problem of ethnic tensions in Russia compared to Western countries?

There are significant ethnic tensions in the West, too. Yet a difference is that these tensions are seen, by the Western political and intellectual elite, as problems in themselves. In contrast, in Russia, there is a tendency to blame the various internal and foreign migrants for the tensions. The Russian official public likes discussing various deficiencies of the migrants rather than productive ways of fully integrating them into Russian society. As mentioned, that approach by itself is tantamount to playing with fire.

Is the Russian nationalist movement similar to ones in other countries? What are its key differences?

There are many similarities, but also some differences. A principal difference is that the acceptance of certain nationalist slogans in mainstream society has reached a considerable degree in Russia. Another difference is that the considerable irredentism of the Russian extreme right seems to be shared by large parts of the political and intellectual establishment. This joint discourse of the power holders and ultra-nationalists is characterized by a large dose of escapism. That means that a large part of the Russian public wants to escape from the current sad reality of Russia's internal order and international relations, by dreaming up a fantasy world in which Russia is a global political center that reassembles "her" lands and will be reborn as an empire (although one should mention that the word "empire" itself is rejected by many de facto imperialists). While such megalomania can also be found among many non-Russian right-wing extremists, in Russia, these unrealistic dreams unite certain segments of the extreme and moderate right, social outcasts and mainstream politicians.

For the second year in a row, Alexei Navalny has refused to participate in the Russian March. Will this affect his political rating?

I would rather say that Navalny's relative disengagement from close collusion with radical nationalism can increase his support, as it removes an irritant for many of his liberal supporters. An even more explicit distancing of Navalny from, and his apology for, voicing ethno-centrist ideas (that are, as mentioned, destructive for Russia anyway), would remove a major point of disagreement within Russia's democratic movement. The various Russian democratic forces have to unite within one umbrella organization, and with one leader. Otherwise, they will never have a chance to gain political power. Currently, Navalny is the most obvious leader for the democrats. Yet, he has to make sure that he can carry the entire liberal spectrum of society with him, rather than fishing for support among the nationalist fans of Putin, Zyuganov or Zhirinovsky.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.