Behind Russia’s ultra-nationalist crackdown

Despite targeting neo-Nazis and other hate groups, the Kremlin is rolling out its own version of the ‘Russian world’.

''Russian March'' i
Ultra-nationalists carry flags and banners as they take part in the so-called 'Russian March' in Moscow [Yuri Kochetkov/EPA]

Moscow, Russia – Lanky, bespectacled and nerdy, the defendant said he was merely a publicist who advocated ideas that are now “heard on the Russia television channel”, a national TV network.

But a Moscow City Court jury found Ilya Goryachev, 33, guilty of illegal arms possession, masterminding five killings, and organising a brutal neo-Nazi gang that hatched plans to create a “Fourth Reich” in Russia.

Moscow's highest court sentenced Ilya Goryachev to life in prison [AP]
Moscow’s highest court sentenced Ilya Goryachev to life in prison [AP]

Goryachev fainted on July 24 while a judge was reading the verdict that sentenced him to life in jail.

He claimed earlier he was a “political prisoner” framed by the FSB, Russia’s main KGB-successor intelligence agency, and spouted the names of Kremlin officials, lawmakers, and Orthodox Church clerics he once worked for.

His trial epitomised the government’s crackdown on white supremacist neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalist groups that held massive rallies, killed hundreds of non-Russians, and advocated the anti-migrant idea of “Russia for ethnic Russians”, which is now shared by more than half the population.

Yet amid this crackdown, President Vladimir Putin’s government has also sought to forge its own state nationalism – and used elements of the ultra-nationalist agenda in its increasingly anti-Western, neo-conservative and isolationist ideology that the Kremlin started to forge after last year’s annexation of Crimea.

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“The nationalist rhetoric has always been present in the Kremlin’s political discourse, but of course, it has become more swaggering, insolent, bold after Crimea,” Andrey Kolesnikov of the Moscow Carnegie Center, a think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

This ideology is disseminated by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine – and is indeed heard on the “Russia” television channel.

“Just because the government wants to keep its monopoly on nationalism – and this is one of the most important political goals, because this ideology is popular and among other [factors] keeps Putin’s ratings high – it responds very harshly to manifestations of nationalist extremism,” Kolesnikov added.

Hate groups 

Goryachev was found guilty of founding the neo-Nazi group BORN, or the Military Organization of Russian Nationalists. Unlike other neo-Nazi gangs that hunted down dark-skinned non-Russians, BORN mostly targeted “race traitors”, or ethnic Russians who confronted their ideology.


Between 2008-10, BORN members killed 10 people, including a human rights lawyer, a journalist, a judge who had sentenced several ultranationalists to jail, and three anti-Nazi activists.

They also killed a Muay Thai world champion and decapitated a Tajik man – placing his head in a government office with a note promising more murders.

BORN and dozens of similar groups mushroomed in the 2000s amid an influx of millions of labour migrants from ex-Soviet Central Asia and Russia’s Muslim Caucasus region, where two wars in Chechnya fuelled unemployment and prompted attacks on Russia’s urban centres.

Racially motivated attacks peaked in 2008, when militant ultra-nationalists killed at least 110 people and left 487 wounded, according to Sova, a Moscow-based hate crimes monitor.

The rankled Kremlin responded by jailing hundreds of neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists from groups with names such as White Wolves, Northern Frontier, or Russian Cleansing, Sova said.

The number of hate crimes plummeted. In the first half of 2015, four people have been killed and 37 wounded, it said.

But despite the pressure, the ultra-nationalists still enlist up to 20,000 people who are busy training in gyms and forests throughout Russia, Sova’s director said.

“There’s less attacks and more military drills,” Alexander Verkhovsky told Al Jazeera.

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Fearing arrests, many ultra-nationalists fled Russia – sometimes preferring to fight in eastern Ukraine on both sides of the conflict. 

“I’m the only remaining leader and I am under investigation” for white supremacist speeches during Russian Marches, the annual get-togethers of ultra-nationalists in Moscow and Russia’s largest cities, nationalist leader Dmitry Demushkin told Al Jazeera.

With a full red beard, short auburn hair, and white shirt with traditional Slavic ornaments, Demushkin looked like a character from a 19th-century Russian novel.

Dmitry Demushkin, leader of the banned ultra-nationalist group Slavic Union [Misha Japaridze/AP]
Dmitry Demushkin, leader of the banned ultra-nationalist group Slavic Union [Misha Japaridze/AP]

But his not-so-distant past reveals another character – he is one of Russia’s first skinheads who had a swastika tattooed on his shoulder, boasted of his skills with knives, and founded Slavic Union, a white supremacist group whose Russian acronym SS intentionally mimicked the one used by the Nazis’ infamous paramilitaries.

A court banned the group in 2010 as extremist, and Demushkin’s latest creature – the movement that failed to register as a political party – was suspended in August.

“The Kremlin has long been preoccupied with borrowing [the nationalist] agenda. And to do that, it needed to destroy the political movement of Russian nationalists that was thousands of men strong,” Demushkin said.

The largest players in the field of official, Kremlin-sanctioned nationalism are the deeply conservative and immensely powerful Russian Orthodox Church, the resurgent “armies” of Cossacks, czarist-era paramilitary forces, and right-wing parties.

The most outspoken nationalist is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a 69-year-old politician with Jewish roots who heads the LDPR party that holds 56 out of 450 seats in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, and who served as a deputy speaker for more than a decade.

The outspoken nationalist ran for president five times campaigning on promises to “return” Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states to Russia, install barbed-wire around Chechnya and Dagestan, Russia’s violence-plagued Muslim provinces, and expel non-Russian labour migrants.

But his pledges and party are widely seen as pseudo-opposition and the Kremlin’s tool to “sterilise nationalist voices”, according to Kolesnikov.

European far-right 

While uprooting domestic far-right groups, the Kremlin cultivates ties with their ideological counterparts in the European Union to promote Moscow’s agenda.  

“Russian influence in the affairs of the far right is a phenomenon seen all over Europe as a key risk for Euro-Atlantic integration at both the national and the Union level,” the Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think-tank, said in 2014. 

In April, representatives of Western far-right political parties, including neo-Nazi groups from Germany, Greece, and the UK, met for a Kremlin-funded conference in St Petersburg, Russia’s former imperial capital and second-largest city.

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During the conference dubbed the International Russian Conservative Forum, they called on their governments to “protect” Christian values – and stop the new “Cold War” against Russia. 

In recent years, the Kremlin has also politicised the idea of the “Russian world”, or a multi-million-strong Russian diaspora in former Soviet republics and throughout the world whose interests Moscow now seeks to represent and protect.

“The Russian man, or so say more inclusively, the man of the Russian world, thinks that there is a certain moral calling,” Putin said in 2014.

He added the Western ideals of individualism and personal success “are not enough for us”, and patriotic self-sacrifice and one’s readiness to “die for the motherland” is what makes Russians themselves. 

Some Russia observers disagree, however.

“In recent years Putin has misappropriated the term ‘Russian world’ and made it a political slogan that almost implies, ‘if you speak Russian you belong in Russia’,” British historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote.

Source: Al Jazeera