Unity Day: The Decline of Russia's Far-Right


Signs point to a decline in the prevalence of radical nationalist groups in Russia. What’s behind this developing trend, and is this the beginning of a turning point in society?


 

The Russian government has long been known to tolerate nationalist extremist groups -- both their politics and the acts of violence promoted by their leadership -- as it has appealed to a patriotic sense among ordinary citizens. However, indications, from diminishing participation at far-right demonstrations to a lower frequency of hate crimes committed by individuals subscribing to an ultranationalist ideology, point to a decline in the actions of these groups.

Background

November 4th marked the Day of National Unity in Russia, a holiday established to commemorate the country’s expulsion of Polish forces in the early 1600s and which has been recognized in some form or another for the past 400 years. Under its official name since 2005, Unity Day has attracted far-right nationalist groups of every stripe and color, who have used the opportunity to express various issues of concern in the country, ranging from anti-immigration rhetoric to staking claims to foreign territories held under the Russian empire and the Soviet regime. Although a perennial reminder of the extremist nationalist ideologies prevalent in the country, this year’s event highlighted waning support for, and influence held by, such groups.

A Messy Divorce

The Russian government, traditionally viewed as nominally supportive of the country’s far-right groups, seems to be turning a corner since late 2013, incidentally a period coinciding with the unrest that took hold of neighboring Ukraine. Russia’s decision to involve itself in the ensuing separatist movement bolstered President Putin’s already strong public approval ratings. Perhaps for this reason, Putin realized that his administration no longer needed the support of the far-right, electing to crack down on groups that posed an indirect threat to the government’s brand of nationalism. To be sure, the two sides were never aligned completely, as extremist nationalists were significantly represented in the anti-government protests that took place in 2011-2012. But such a shift of priorities indicates that the government no longer considers necessary the support of this strand of society.

A number of recent incidents have brought this crackdown to light. In October a Moscow court upheld a ban on the far-right organization Russkiye, citing its promotion of ethnic hatred. The decision was understandable given the group’s reputation for inciting violence against racial minorities, but the timing was odd considering that the group had been in existence for several years prior to this point. Moscow authorities extended the house arrest of Alexander Belov, a former leader of Russkiye, in September of this year. Additionally, the leader of the neo-Nazi group BORN, Ilya Goryachev, was imprisoned in July on charges of organizing the murders of judicial officials and ethnic minorities. The government has indeed banned various politically affiliated groups and individuals in years past, but this latest course of events appears to represent a new policy.

Taking a Back Seat

Government actions notwithstanding, there appears to be less willingness to participate in ultranationalist demonstrations as of late. From the perspective of an everyday Russian citizen, one can view the actions taken by the Russian government over the past few years -- from purportedly defending Russian speakers in Ukraine to taking a lead in countering Islamist terrorism in Syria -- as genuine things to take pride in, even signs that the Russian state is becoming a major player in world politics once again. With Putin’s approval rating at record highs, it is reasonable that conversely there would be less participation in demonstrations against the policies of his government.

Even among ultranationalists, for whom the reclaiming of former Soviet territories such as Ukraine has been a traditional calling cry, Russia’s involvement in that country may have dampened their extremist claims, with the government now putting into action many of the objectives that these groups espoused. In that sense, far-right ideologies are either being absorbed into the state’s brand of nationalism or becoming more of a fringe element in society, already against the backdrop of a dividing opinion among such groups on the ongoing Ukrainian conflict. Added to that, Russian patriotism right now may be sufficiently strong that Russians feel less compelled to voice their grievances against the government.

What Lies Ahead

Even still is the possibility that this period of relative calm is due to the fact that thousands of Russian nationalists have crossed the border to join in the fighting in Ukraine, and that trends pertaining to extremist violence and protest activity will return to where they were in previous years when this conflict ends and these individuals return to their home country. Depending on the outcome of the Ukrainian conflict, these fighters could either feel galvanized by military success, or incensed by an outcome that they do not deem as satisfactory. Just as western European countries have expressed concern about nationals returning from action in military zones such as Syria and Iraq, so too might the Russian government see the implications of returning fighters radicalized by taking part in a conflict abroad, though to a much lesser degree.

“We wanted it to go better, but it turned out like always”

All things considered, the factors that have led to this decline in extremist nationalist activity -- government crackdowns and a heightened sense of patriotism stemming from engagement in military conflicts abroad -- are temporary solutions to a deeply engrained issue in Russian society, and neither is going to bring about long-term change. Sustained improvements in the Russian economy combined with initiatives to promote cultural and ethnic tolerance and expand political pluralism could all play a much larger role in reshaping the country’s political and civil society landscape, though none of these developments appear close to coming to fruition.