Moscow, Russia - The Russian March has become a scary annual tradition in Moscow and Russia's largest cities - a saber-rattling show of intolerance and racism in a country that still prides itself on the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
Thousands of far-right ultranationalists, neo-Nazis, soccer fans, and monarchists clamoured for their ideas in uptown Moscow on Tuesday, chanted xenophobic slogans, occasionally thrust their hands in Nazi salutes, and unfurled banners with slightly disguised swastikas, soccer club insignia, Russian Imperial flags, and portraits of the last czar, Nicholas II.
November 4 is "National Unity Day", a public holiday the Kremlin introduced in 2005 to replace the November 7 celebration of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The holiday is tied to the 1612 expulsion of Polish troops who had briefly seized Moscow at a time of political disarray. But the holiday has been usurped by extreme nationalists and the Russian March has become a must-show-up event for many in the country.
Similar rallies also took place Tuesday in about two dozen Russian cities - and in Ukraine's capital, Kiev.
Surrounded by hundreds of riot police officers in Moscow, nationalists occasionally chanted "Zig heil!", while firing off straight-arm Nazi salutes.
I don't want to shoot Ukrainians because Putin wants me to. Ethnically and culturally, they're just like us.
Ultranationalists are by no means a monolithic group with a unified agenda. Having mushroomed in Russia and some ex-Soviet republics after the 1991 Soviet Union's collapse, these groups often disagree over doctrine, insignia or plans. Some are pious Orthodox Christians, while others reject Christianity as a "foreign" and "Jewish" religion.
In addition to old feuds, a new schism emerged among Russian ultranationalists this year. The crisis in Ukraine prompted some to volunteer to fight in eastern Ukraine - a fellow Slavic nation that shares historic, cultural and linguistic ties to Russia - against pro-Russian forces, while monarchists and National Bolsheviks chose the pro-Kremlin side.
"I don't want to shoot Ukrainians because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants me too," said Dmitry Demushkin, leader of the Russkiye (Russians) movement during the march. A veteran skinhead who formed one of Russia's first neo-Nazi gangs in the early 1990s, he now sports auburn hair and a full beard that makes him look like a character from a 19th century Russian novel. "Ethnically and culturally, they're just like us."
An editorial published Sunday by the National News Service, a leading ultranationalist internet portal, also noted Ukraine's importance for this year's march.
"The upcoming Russian March is taking place in an unprecedentedly complicated situation," it said. "The conflict between Russian nationalists who consistently oppose Putin's Russo-phobic regime, and the national traitors who sided with the regime … has divided the potential participants of the Russian March into two irreconcilable camps."
Russian ultranationalists consist of small, autonomous groups that often exist in obscurity to avoid official scrutiny. "Although [their] exact estimate is difficult to count, the division [over Ukraine] is about 50/50," said Alexander Verkhovsky of the Sova Center, Russia's leading hate-crime monitoring group based in Moscow.
Tuesday's march in Moscow was indeed divided. The larger march held in southeastern Moscow gathered several thousand participants, and a smaller one that supported independence of two regions of eastern Ukraine - Donetsk and Luhansk - took place in northern Moscow with about 2,000 people, according to organisers and eyewitnesses.
United far-right agenda
Ukrainian crisis aside, there is one thing that unites these groups and makes them popular among some ordinary Russians. It is their extremist, far-right agenda and hatred for millions of non-Slavic and mostly Muslim migrant labourers from ex-Soviet Central Asia and Russia's North Caucasus who have arrived in significant numbers in central Russia in recent years.
|Russian riot police patrol during a march 'For unity of the Slavs' [EPA]
"They are our enemies, don't say they're friends or partners. I can spell it for you: They are nothing but enemies," said nationalist activist Sergei Makarov with a black-white-and-yellow flag of the monarchists that read "God is with us."
At the march, he walked in front of the monarchist group and enthusiastically chanted "Russia for Russians" and obscene slogans against Central Asians, Caucasus natives, and the police.
The way groups oppose this influx is also different. Last year, 21 non-Russians were killed and 178 wounded in apparent hate-motivated attacks, according to the Sova Center. Not all the assaults could be attributed to organised ultranationalist groups - and their real figure could be much higher, it said.
But the number pales in comparison with the peak of racially motivated attacks in 2008, when 110 people were killed and 487 wounded, according to Sova.
A government crackdown sent hundreds of ultranationalists to jail, including dozens of teenagers who killed non-Russians with hammers and knives or kicked them to death.
Instead of direct violence, many nationalist groups now resort to "raids" against migrants working without papers - often in cooperation with police and migration officials. For example, the Russkiye movement has a subdivision named "Guest Busters" that tracks down labour migrants and reports them to police and migration officials.
"The practice of raids in search of illegal migrants that sometimes turn into pogroms has grown unprecedentedly, becoming one of the main tools of the nationalist movement," Sova said in a 2013 report on ultranationalism.
The November 4 march reflects growing intolerance of non-white labour migrants among Russians. A poll conducted in early October showed 54 percent of Russians support the idea of "Russia for ethnic Russians", who account for about 80 percent of the country's population of 142 million.
The rest are at least 100 ethnic groups that profess Islam, Buddhism and Judaism and have mostly lived in what is now Russia for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
What we need is a Russia solidarity, a Russian democratic national state, and we have to fight for it.
One of the march's official organisers is Russkiye, a movement that tries to register as a political party and promote its far-right agenda legally. The movement that boasts tens-of-thousands of members has absorbed two older groups that were banned by Russian courts as extremists.
The Slavic Union, whose Russian acronym SS intentionally mimicked the one used by the Nazis' infamous paramilitary, was outlawed in 2010.
Four of its former activists were sentenced to life in prison earlier for a 2006 explosion targeting non-Slavic traders at a Moscow market that killed 14, including two children, and wounded dozens.
The Movement Against Illegal Migration was banned in 2011. Its leader Alexander Belov was arrested and charged with fraud.
In a country that lost 27 million people in World War II, fiercely lambasted the US for discrimination against blacks, and promoted "the friendship of nations", the emergence of neo-Nazis after the 1991 Soviet collapse was a shock. Ordinary Muscovites were astounded when they saw the participants of the first Russian March in 2005 parading through central Moscow, thrusting their right hands and chanting "Heil Hitler".
The paradox stems from conspiracy theories that claim that Germans "stole" the ideas of National Socialism from earlier Russian nationalists - and that the collapse of the Russian Empire was a conspiracy of the Anglo-American political system.
The Russian neo-Nazis also blame Bolsheviks, many of whom were Jews or belonged to national minorities, and later Communist ideologues for what they call the "disparaging" of ethnic Russians. Same goes for Putin's government which allegedly ignores the interests of Russia's "leading" ethnicity.
|Russian ultranationalists stand behind Russian Imperial flags [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
"What we need is a Russia solidarity, a Russian democratic national state, and we have to fight for it," said Vladimir Tor, a nationalist leader as he walked with his supporters during the march.
Thousands yelled "Down with Putin" and "Russians need a Russian state".
Ultranationalism has become part of mainstream Russian politics since the rise of the Liberal Democratic Party, which entered the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in 1993.
Its leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky - who ran for president five times and was deputy chairman of the State Duma for 11 years - became notorious for anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-US statements.
Although the party obediently votes in most of the Kremlin's initiatives and is widely seen as a pseudo-opposition group, Zhirinovsky's loud statements clearly resonate with millions of Russians.
Other ultranationalist groups have tried to get registered as political parties in order to field their candidates in elections, but have been rejected on technicalities - most likely because the Kremlin is afraid of their popularity.
Source: Al Jazeera