The mean streets of Russian nationalism; Who are Russia’s real nationalists? And why are they rioting?

Biryulyovo Riots file photo

(Moscow News – – Anna Arutunyan, Natalia Antonova – October 31, 2013) In the past, Maria, a sales manager, never attended the nationalist Russian March, an annual rally commemorating Russia’s Day of National Unity. This time, less than a month after taking part in a violent nationalist protest in southern Moscow’s Biryulyovo district, is different. “I’m ready to go,” Maria told The Moscow News.

Experts fear that recent events may swell the numbers attending the Russian March – not so much with political activists, but average residents who don’t have a political channel to voice their discontent. City Hall has authorized the Russian March for a record number of 30,000 demonstrators this year, to take place in the eastern Moscow Lyublino district, according to organizer Dmitry Dyomushkin, head of the nationalist Russkiye movement.

“It’s very alarming, what’s going to happen [in Moscow] on Nov. 4,” Maria Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center, told The Moscow News. “This year, with Biryulyovo in the background, we can expect more people to show up.”

While nationalist politicians have jumped on the Biryulyovo bandwagon, experts say the origin of the unrest lies with the discontented and apolitical working-class residents such as Maria – who mostly agrees with the nationalists, but is not politically active and has never heard of Dyomushkin.

The violence in Biryulyovo broke out after an ethnic Russian, Yegor Shcherbakov, was stabbed to death on Oct. 10. Shcherbakov’s girlfriend told the police that he was murdered for trying to shield her from harassment. The alleged killer, Azeri national Orkhan Zeinalov, is in custody awaiting trial.

The following weekend, over 1,000 locals, including Maria, took to the streets in protest. Riots broke out and protesters stormed a vegetable warehouse where undocumented migrants were said to work. Nearly 400 people were detained for rioting and over 20 hospitalized.

Maria says she is not racist, but claims that experiences working at the vegetable warehouse in 2012 changed her attitudes about foreigners, convincing her that they are dangerous.

Clash of cultures within Russia?

Although the government’s crackdown has largely targeted illegal migrants from Central Asian republics, ethnic Russians complain not just about foreigners, but Russian citizens from the North Caucasus. Such attitudes appear prevalent among those who live in working-class neighborhoods with a mix of ethnicities.

Maria considers her Chechen neighbors dangerous, but cannot cite a specific instance of them openly threatening her. “Maybe it’s prejudice, but either way, we are afraid [of them],” she said.

Dmitry, a Muscovite and ethnic Russian who lives in eastern Moscow, believes that Muslim foreigners in particular are “conditioned by society back home to see [Russian] women as prey,” citing specific instances of harassment against his sister as an example.

According to Dmitry, who asked that his last name not be used, such social conditioning, alongside other cultural differences and the generally poor quality of life in many Moscow neighborhoods, makes rioting inevitable.

“I think that something like Biryulyovo would have happened with or without [the nationalists],” Dmitry said. “When people are driven to desperation, these things happen.”

“Nationalist movements tend to follow, rather than lead, in times of nationalist unrest,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies (CPT). “What is interesting about the current Russian March is whether it will be able to absorb the kind of social discontent that erupted in Biryulyovo.”

Conflicts arising from alleged sexual harassment by those perceived as non-Russian fall into a pattern that has repeated across Russia recently.

In the town of Pugachyov this summer, rioting broke out after a Russian was stabbed to death by a Chechen teenager in a fight over a girl. A similar brawl led to rioting in the northern town of Kondopoga in 2006.

Some experts also believe that such violence points to the government’s inability to reconcile a profound culture clash within the country.

“Problems with migration are not unique to Russia, but the real problem lies elsewhere. It’s in the fact that in parts of the country, specifically the North Caucasus, people live with a completely different culture,” the Carnegie Center’s Lipman, said. “There are no common values that unite Russian [citizens].”

Scattered and divided

Surveys show that ideologically, nationalism per se has a relatively small following. According to a poll conducted by the Levada Center in August 2013 among 1,601 respondents, just 9 percent said they espoused nationalist views, compared to 34 percent who favored socialism.

Instead, the source of discontent is failure to get along with people of a different ethnicity. When the Levada Center asked Muscovites about the problems that concerned them the most, 55 percent named migrants from Central Asian republics and the North Caucasus.

Politically, Russian nationalists are represented by one party in parliament, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Firebrand politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky is its longtime head. The LDPR is widely seen as playing into a Kremlin policy to absorb nationalist sentiment into a party that, while critical, is still loyal to the government.

Non-mainstream nationalist movements, like the Movement Against Illegal Immigration and the more radical Slavyansky Soyuz (Slavic Union), are not strong or united enough to pose either a political alternative or a threat, according to experts.

“I understand that the nationalist movement has leaders, but I don’t even think I can name one,” Moscow resident Dmitry said. “I think a lot of people mistrust them because… there’s just no sincerity, nobody trusts anyone else, [which is] part and parcel of our f****d-up political system.”

“In Russia, we’re still talking about disparate groups that are not very successful at uniting with each other,” Lipman said of Russia’s nationalist groups, pointing to the Kremlin as a major factor that is preventing the nationalists from unifying. According to the CPT’s Stanovaya, meanwhile, average Russians tend to distrust outright radical groups.

While in Europe parties have provided an institutionalized channel for nationalist sentiment, that isn’t happening in Russia, where the government is co-opting and pre-empting that sentiment, Lipman said. When the anger builds up, “we get a situation like Biryulyovo,” she said.