MOSCOW –- On Russia’s annual Day of National Unity holiday, more than 5,000 young nationalistic protesters took to the streets of the nation’s capital, denouncing President Vladimir Putin and demanding his ouster.
Brandishing imperial Russian black, yellow and white flags, and wearing Cossack uniforms including black boots, hoods and masks, they marched peacefully for four miles along the embankment of the Moscow River on a gray afternoon before rallying in front of Gorky Park.
In contrast to many previous liberal opposition rallies, the march was allowed by the Moscow government and police stood aside, ignoring the crowd’s numerous chants that were filled with ethnic hatred. Police didn’t display clubs and shields and didn’t provoke demonstrators the way they had done at numerous past rallies.
Yet the attitude of the authorities failed to prevent the crowd from also chanting that Putin was “an enemy whose place is in prison” for ignoring the interests of the Russian nation and allowing migrants to work and live in Russia. One demonstrator near the front of the march carried a poster that read: “Putin is better than Hitler?”
In recent years, the Kremlin has continued to court Russian nationalists despite a significant transformation in their agenda, said Andrei Piontkovsky, a senior researcher of the System Analysis Institute, a Moscow-based think tank.
“Putin’s idea of suiting Russian nationalism with his ongoing effort to restore the might of the Russian empire and to advance beyond the Caucasus and even claiming break-away republics of Georgia no longer plays well with this new breed of Russian nationalists,” Piontkovsky said in an interview. “They don’t want to expand Russia, they don’t want to hear about its greater Eurasian status -- Putin’s favorite game. They want to get rid of the troublesome North Caucasus and its inhabitants they refuse to acknowledge as Russian citizens.”
Piontkovsky noted that the Kremlin had miscalculated in being soft with the right-wing nationalists in hopes of using them to its advantage against the liberal opposition.
The nationalists have instead sided with Putin’s sworn enemies as five of their leaders entered the recently formed Coordinating Council uniting opposition forces from the extreme left to the extreme right.
It is not clear how and when the liberals would part company with the nationalists, Piontkovsky said, but for the time being they are ready to work together against the Kremlin -- a point the Sunday rally in downtown Moscow proved quite clearly.
Alexander Belov, a leader of Russkiye, a nationalist movement, called for unity with liberals in his speech at the rally.
“He who sits in the Kremlin is an enemy!” he shouted as the crowd went on chanting the last word. “We shouldn’t shun and not cooperate with other opposition forces because only together we can get rid of Putin.”
“He will be drinking the blood of our people until we throw him out,” Belov shouted to massive applause.
The rest of the speeches and slogans included racist and xenophobic sentiments, including anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic statements.
As the crowd was chanting “No mosques on the Russian soil!” a bystander asked one demonstrator where Russian Muslims should go to pray.
“They should go back home and pray there,” was the blunt response of nationalist activist Dmitry Maslennikov, 28.
“But if they are Russian citizens what should they do?” insisted the bystander.
“They should be sorry,” Maslennikov replied to cut the discussion. “I know one thing: Jews, Muslims, masons and the government are our enemies!”
-- Sergei L. Loiko
Photo: Russian nationalists march in downtown Moscow. Credit: Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times