Oddly, a good piece in Newsweek…

…on the G8 meeting.

Interesting though poorly entitled. Stuff like this sounds very, very plausible:

Since Putin came to power, authorities have quietly but firmly turned the screws on the free thinkers for which the city [St. Petersburg] was once famous. In recent weeks, police have been going around with lists of known political activists, like 24-year-old Kirill Strakhov, a supporter of the liberal Yabloko Party, knocking on their doors and suggesting they leave town. “The list must be very short,” jokes Strakhov. “There aren’t many of us activists left now.”

This is far more than a G8 cleanup. Kirill Miller, an avant-garde artist who used to be one of the most prominent political activists in St. Petersburg, found out the hard way that times had changed. He organized a demonstration in 2003 against plans to turn St. Petersburg’s zoo into an entertainment complex. The day after the protest, Miller says, men in black outfits and sunglasses grabbed him off the street, told him they were from the “special services” and drove him to a deserted suburban lot. There, the kidnappers cut off Miller’s famous shoulder-length hair and beard with a knife. “They told me: ‘There’s a new order in Russia. Go and tell your friends to be quiet’,” Miller says. He complied and now obediently sticks to art.

Yet Newsweek gets it wrong when it comes to “ultranationalism,” by which it clearly means racism or ethnocentric nationalism.

In St. Petersburg a new public holiday celebrating People’s Unity Day last November was marred by ugly ultranationalist marches. And, warns Yuli Rybakov, a former Duma deputy and head of St. Petersburg’s antifascism committee, authorities are turning a blind eye to a nasty rise in hate crimes. In the first six months of this year alone, six racist murders were recorded.

Valentina Uzunova, a senior sociology researcher at the local branch of the Academy of Sciences, estimates that there are several dozen extreme nationalist organizations in St. Petersburg, as well as 50 extremist Internet sites and two local radio programs. “Nationalists are the ones who now enjoy freedom of speech,” says Uzunova, who blames, in part, Putin’s new rhetoric of national pride for the wave of extremism. “Putin’s policies are a good climate for these ideas to grow.”

All this raises an obvious question: why are the authorities so apparently paranoid about young liberal activists, but blasé about skinheads? One reason, explains Markov, is that for all Putin’s popularity, the Kremlin still has a lingering fear of an Orange Revolution in Russia. Ultranationalists are anti-foreigner, not antigovernment, and present no threat to the regime. Grass-roots youth movements, on the other hand, or pro-democracy NGOs, are another matter.

I have serious doubts that it’s racial crimes that are on the rise, rather than crimes classified as such. Putin’s new rhetoric of national pride is profoundly imperial — which means multiethnic — while skinheads care about purity of blood so much that those who know enough geography would love to see Russia shrink to a small but monoethnic country.

“Ultranationalists are anti-foreigner, not antigovernment, and present no threat to the regime. Grass-roots youth movements, on the other hand, or pro-democracy NGOs, are another matter.” Skinheads are as grassroot as they come, and being bitterly opposed to immigration, ethnonationalists are thus opposed to Putin’s regime. The more extreme these groups get, the more likely they are to be Germanophilic (even to the point of lamenting the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany) and stress their European ancestry as well as affinity with the white race in general. It might be that the quasi-Nazis are the most pro-Western group in Russian politics, only the West they worship is not the West of 2006.

The Russian media are in fact quite eager to report on iniquities ascribed to “Nazis” and “fascists” and the supposedly harsh methods that Putin is using against them, while keeping mum about Putin’s treatment of the less extremist opposition. Those skinheads are the opposition that Putin loves to keep crushing — a grassroot movement whose suppression pleases the West — yet he needs them to rise again and again, or he’ll have no one to trounce.

Of course there’s a social dimension to this: some prospectless urban youngsters join Putin’s youth movements, some choose to fight for the “purity of the Russian race.” The former want to climb up the social ladder, the latter could be pure idealists. Go figure.


  1. ALEXEI: You are describing a Russian population that, once again, is going to sit idly by while their government rounds up the last voices of dissent and returns them to a regime which has repeatedly failed and brought disaster to Russia. You’ve even written that “skinheads are as grassroots as they come” and that you “have serious doubts that it’s racial crimes that are on the rise” implying that Russia is a fundamentally racist society where race violence has always been pandemic and is simply now seeing more of the light of day.

    Don’t you have any comment on what this says about the Russian people and their future?

  2. I would not overestimate the extent of the problem. Recall that all Western societies were terribly racist by today’s standards during most of their existence, including some of the greatest periods in their history. For one, America started tackling racial discrimination aggressively only in the 1960s, having by that time enjoyed a century of freedom and development. The spread of racist attitudes, sometimes vicious, among the European Americans of that era, is well-documented. It’s mostly gone now. This is why I would not worry too much about racism in Russia at this stage unless the violence gets out of control.

  3. alex,
    what’s ‘out of control’ for you? care to elaborate? is the killing of a 10 year old tajik girl ‘out of control’ enough for you? or should there be more before you deign to classify it as such? or maybe the burtal slaying of an african student in broad daylight in russia’s cultural capital would be a symptom that the situation is ‘out of control’ now? how many african students, tajik girls, north caucasian folk singers have to be killed for you to ponder the prolbem? just curious. one would have thought that just one would be enough. but i guess not. go figure :-((((

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