On November 4, a few hundred people gathered for the annual ultranationalist “Russian march” in Moscow. With chants like “Glory to Russia” and “Freedom for political prisoners”, the demonstrators tried to march through the Lyublino neighbourhood of Moscow, before the police dispersed the crowd, arresting dozens.
But this year’s march was a far cry from what it used to be in the late 2000s and early 2010s when thousands of people would join well-organised columns replete with banners, flags and drummers.
Today, most of the leaders of the ultranationalist groups that used to organise the march are either in jail or in self-imposed exile. Their supporters consider them to be politically persecuted and complain about increasing state repression.
Although the Kremlin has been accused of supporting conservative and far-right political groups in Europe, at home it seems to be becoming increasingly intolerant towards groups that propagate ideas similar to their Western counterparts.
In the past few years, and especially since the conflict in Ukraine erupted in 2014, the Russian authorities have cracked down on nationalist groups under the guise of criminal investigations or accusations of extremism under the infamous “anti-extremism” Law 282.
In the early 2000s, Russian President Vladimir Putin was finishing his first presidential term when two colour revolutions struck nearby – the first in Georgia in 2003 and the second in Ukraine in 2004. Large crowds in Tbilisi and Kiev demanded democratic change and major political reforms. The possibility of a colour revolution erupting in Russia seemed too real.
It was then that the Kremlin looked to the right. Russian observers would later identify this strategy of employing nationalist forces as “controlled nationalism”.
“Controlled nationalism is about using nationalists in some [political] games. In some cases, [the authorities] would support nationalists in order to keep the regime alive, to fight the threat of a colour revolution,” says Anton Shekhovtsov, visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Austria.
“They thought that if they supported those ultranationalist movements, they would decrease the opportunity of nationalists becoming a force that would destabilise the regime,” he explains.
In early 2005, in response to the colour revolutions, the International Eurasian movement, headed by Alexander Dugin, a right-wing political scientist and ideologue (whom Western journalists eventually nicknamed “Putin’s Rasputin”) createda youth wing, the Eurasian Youth Union (ESM). Its aim was to whip up nationalist sentiment and mobilise young people against anti-government attitudes.
That same year, the Russian authorities decided to finally do away with the November 7 official holiday celebrating the October Revolution. They moved the allocated day off to November 4 – the day Moscow was liberated from the Poles in 1612, an official holiday in tsarist Russia until 1917.
The authorities named the new holiday “National Unity Day”, but there wasn’t much public enthusiasm for it and most Russians didn’t even know its history. So when the ESM requested to hold a right-wing march on that day, the local authorities readily obliged.
Other ultranationalist organisations and skinhead groups joined the ESM and the turnout that year surprised many: Some 3,000 people marched, chanting “Glory to Russia” and “Russians forward”, as young men made Nazi salutes in front of TV cameras.
In the years that followed, the ESM was pushed out of the organising committee of the march for being too pro-Kremlin and two other groups took the lead: the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) and the Slavic Union (SS). The DPNI was led by Alexander Potkin, who changed his name to Belov (“bely” in Russian means white) and the SS was headed by Dmitry Dyomushkin. Both men are now in jail.
“Belov was my assistant in the Duma. He became an opportunist and has ended up in jail,” says Andrei Savelev, founder and leader of the “Great Russia” nationalist movement, who was elected to the Duma in 2003. At around the same time, Dyomushkin was an assistant to another member of the Duma during that period, Nikolay Kuryanovich from the pro-Kremlin ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.
“Аll these years Dyomushkin was surprisingly untouchable. He was doing things for which others would go to jail. For four to five years, the justice system did not touch him,” says Savelev.
According to him, Dyomushkin and Belov were coopted by the Russian authorities. He says this was why he withdrew his organisation from the Russian march.
Ivan Beletsky, a close associate of Dyomushkin who took over organising the march in 2016, rejects the idea of cooptation and claims that “Great Russia” is a pro-government group. He says that the authorities tried but failed to take control of the Russian march in the late 2000s and were compelled to permit it in order to “cool down popular agitation”.
“The Russian march is a protest march: against the government, against corruption, and for a change of power,” he says, speaking to Al Jazeera via Skype from a location outside of Russia that he refused to disclose.
In July 2011, Dyomushkin and Belov caused a stir within the ultranationalist movement for going to Chechnya and meeting with its president, Ramazan Kadyrov, a Kremlin loyalist, despite their anti-Chechen and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Dyomushkin subsequently went to Grozny a number of times.
In August 2011, DPNI was banned by the Russian government (the SS had been banned a year earlier). Nevertheless, the government allowed the Russian march to take place. On November 4, more than 10,000 nationalists, joined by opposition politicians like Alexei Navalny, marched in Lyublino with banners reading “Stop feeding Caucasus”. Over the years, the central government has been perceived as being quite generous in its budget allocation to the Chechen Republic in the North Caucasus and has been criticised by both nationalists and liberals for it.
In 2012, ultranationalist organisations participating in the Russian march backed anti-government protests. The merger between regular opposition and nationalists worried the government and the Federal Security Service (FSB) considered it a potentially “revolutionary situation”, says Beletsky.
The events of 2014 in Ukraine caught the ultranationalist groups in Russia by surprise. On one hand, the Kremlin was employing strong nationalist rhetoric claiming Crimea was “rightfully” Russian and that ethnic Russians living in Ukraine had to be protected; on the other, fellow Ukrainian far-right groups were supporting the Maidan and opposing the annexation.
“In 2014, the Kremlin demanded full loyalty from all Russian nationalists,” says Shekhovtsov. “Some of them declined to become loyal to the Kremlin.”
The result was a “schism” in the nationalist movement with one camp supporting the annexation of Crimea and the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and the other opposing both and supporting the Ukrainian central government.
“We right-wing nationalists – we consider [the breakaway regions in Eastern Ukraine] Putin’s machinations. We stood up against this and we suffered fierce repressions,” says Beletsky.
On November 4, 2014, there were two events in Moscow that claimed to be the Russian march – one supporting the annexation of Crimea and the other rejecting it. In the following months, one by one leaders of ultranationalist groups supporting the latter were arrested on various charges.
In 2015, Belov was arrested and a year later convicted on charges of money laundering related to a Kazakh bank and spreading extremism among Russian-speaking Kazakh citizens. He was sentenced to seven and a half years in jail.
In 2016, Dyomushkin was arrested for posting a photo of a previous Russian march in which a banner saying “Russian power in Russia” was visible. He was accused of spreading “extremism” and handed two and a half years in prison. A previous court case against him on similar charges dating from 2011 ended in early 2014 without a sentence due to an expiration of the statute of limitations.
According to his lawyer, Dmitry Baharev, who also used to be a member of the SS, the case against him is politically motivated.
“Usually for pictures, they give suspended sentences, but Dyomushkin got prison,” he says. “In my opinion, this is connected with the events in Ukraine.”
Another close associate of Dyomushkin and Belov and a frequent Russian march attendee, Georgy Borovikov, а leader of the banned National Patriotic Front “Memory” was arrested and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison in 2014 for robbery and torture.
Other far-right leaders managed to escape before being arrested. Beletsky says he fled the country fearing arrest as he was questioned multiple times and briefly detained this year after organising nationalists to join Navalny for an anti-government protest in March.
Yury Gorsky, also an organiser of the Russian march and former member of various ultranationalist groups, was charged with spreading extremism and is currently in Lithuania. Igor Artyomov, the former leader of the banned Russian All-National Union, which also used to participate in the march, received political asylum in the US.
Prominent ultranationalist vlogger Vyacheslav Maltsev, who at some point was associated with “Great Russia” and also attended Russian marches, fled from Russia after being briefly detained and is currently in hiding in a European country. Maltsev called for a “revolution” on November 5. Many of his supporters had previously been or were subsequently arrested.
Human rights groups have been divided over whether or not to consider the detention and imprisonment of ultranationalists to be political prosecution. Human rights organisation “Memorial” considers that in the case of Belov, there are “signs of political motivation”.
“All of these big nationalist leaders are guilty, not necessarily of what they accuse them of, but there is a lot of other things they did. The authorities have not undertaken to sort out these things because it is too difficult or long, so they stuck on them whatever they could,” says Natalya Yudina, a researcher at “Sova Centre” which focuses on extremism and violations of human rights in Russia. She says that the centre does not consider Belov a political prisoner and that members of the organisations which he and Dyomushkin led committed violent attacks in the past.
While the Kremlin was cracking down on the far right at home, in the West, it was seeking its support.
According to Shekhovtsov, the Kremlin launched efforts to establish relations with ultranationalist groups in Europe as early as 2008.
“[In 2008,] many in the Russian elite circles believed that Russia may have won the war with Georgia in military terms but it failed to win the information war and convince the West or the international community that Russia’s actions were justified,” he says.
Russian national and international media sought to feature Western commentators sympathetic to Russia’s actions in Georgia, but could not find any in the mainstream; the ones that would openly express support were mostly on the far right, explains Shekhovtsov.
In the following years, the Kremlin invested a lot of effort into nourishing ties with far-right groups and parties in the West. The Russian authorities would organise ultranationalist conferences, back media initiatives, and establish formal agreements with far-right parties.
Currently, the ruling United Russia party has established cooperation agreements with the Northern League in Italy and the Freedom Party in Austria. In 2014, the National Front in France borrowed nearly $13m in Russian bank loans.
Various other ultranationalist groups in the EU are said to have ties to Russia: from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) to Ataka Party in Bulgaria.
Shekhovtsov, who wrote a book on the subject, points out that Russian efforts to court Europe’s far right have not rendered major victories, such as the suspension of sanctions against Moscow in place since the annexation of Crimea. But the growing strength of far-right groups has had a destabilising effect across Europe.
In Germany, the AfD, which hardly managed to clear the five percent threshold in the 2013 elections, this year won 12.6 percent and is the third-largest party in the Bundestag after the September elections. Some commentators have attributed that success to Russian backing.
At home, the Kremlin preempted such a scenario.
“[Today] the anti-Putin far-right movement is extremely small. You cannot compare this to any other period of time in Russia [since 1991] where you would have such a weak [ultranationalist] movement,” says Shekhovtsov.
According to him, some ultranationalist groups have already changed strategy to accommodate the regime. At the same time, since 2014, a number of “patriotic” and ultra-Orthodox organisations have emerged which have also been accused of attacks, but not on minorities or migrants; their victims have mostly been opposition activists, like Navalny, and liberals.
“The classical Russian nationalism, in its ethnic form, is a thing of the past. There are new movements that are appearing now, which are connected with the Kremlin ideologically,” says Yudina. “The main thing for them is patriotism, the praise of our state, and adopting conservative, Orthodox values.”
Yudina says that in recent years hate attacks on minorities and migrants have decreased tenfold – from a few hundred in the late 2000s to a few dozen in 2016. Yet attacks on the LGBT community have persisted, as the new “patriotic” and ultra-Orthodox groups consider them “freaks”.
“All this scares me. This it seems to me will be the future. Aggressive Orthodox organisations will be getting stronger,” she says.
Editor’s note: The article has been updated to correct typos in the years of the two colour revolutions – Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004).
Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter: @mkpetkova