Russian Nationalism: anti-East or anti-West?

Russian nationalism and racial extremism seems to be a mini-theme of today’s Moscow Times. First there is an article on the recent report released by the Sova Center on the rise of nationalism and xenophobia. But I have a question why this report is suddenly news. According to Sova’s website, the report came out in September of last year. It hardly qualifies as the news of today as the MT portrays it. Overall their suggestion that nationalism and racism are on the rise is not surprising. How they explain this, however, is a bit curious. According to its authors, Alexander Verkhovsky, Galina Kozhevnikova, Russia has seen a rise not in skinheads becoming better organized, or with the emergence of new groups, or with old groups increasing membership. Nor do they claim that the “radical nationalist propaganda toolbox” has grown or that their propaganda has become more active. Instead, the skinhead movement “expands geographically and grows numerically.” I’m not sure what one is supposed to take from these findings. Is the skinhead movement really growing? It seems that even despite their claims that it’s expanding geographically and numerically it is still hard to measure their real force or influence.

What Verkhovsky and Kozhevnikova do find is a growing apathy or even acceptance to nationalist politics. Their problem is more that when it does rear its ugly and sometimes violent head, no one in Russia does anything about it.

In 2002, after just one incident of Anti-Deza show on TVC – a show based on anti-Semitic myths – it was perceived as a public scandal, and the show was immediately closed. However, in 2004, the TV-3 decimeter channel based in St. Petersburg, but broadcasting also to Moscow and a number of other regions, regularly broadcast Our Strategy show featuring nationalist (including anti-Semitic) messages, and no one seemed to be scandalized. The show hosts are Mikhail Shiryaev (the son of a well-known activist of St. Petersburg Pamyat and himself an activist of the Party for the Holy Russia) and Nikolay Smirnov (a veteran of St. Petersburg Pamyat), and their guest speakers include such radicals as Igor Shafarevich and Andrei Saveliev, and the now respectable leaders of Rodina Party, Dmitry Rogozin and Sergey Baburin. The TV-3 channel otherwise has not shown any nationalist trends: it appears that the top management choose for some reason to ignore the nationalist show. Similarly, wider public ignores it as well. The fact that this highly nationalist show is tolerated is suggestive in and of itself.

There is also a nonchalant attitude to the increase in nationalist and racial violence:

So many beatings happen in this country that they are hardly ever noticed. In case of racially motivated beating police will often refuse to investigate or will conduct a merely formal investigation, and such attacks per se, in the absence of additional circumstances, are not of much interest to most journalists. Therefore, SOVA Center believes that the figure of beatings quoted in the same report (about 200 victims of beating, minus group fights) may be one order less than the real figure.

Main victims of skinhead attacks (or Cossack attacks in the Russian South) are Black Africans, and persons originating from the Caucasus and Asian countries. Statistically, most victims are people from the Caucasus and the post-Soviet Central Asia, but the reason is their greater number in Russian cities, as opposed to Chinese, Indians and other ethnic groups. It is easy to fall victim to skinheads ‘by mistake’ – the attackers determine race by appearance alone. Some victims of racist beatings have been ethnic Slavs who happened to be among persons of other ethnicities. Besides, skinheads often target homeless people regardless of ethnicity: in addition to the 45 documented racist killings, 14 hate killings of homeless people were reported.

Unfortunately the state’s response to these acts of violence has been “passive.”

All of this is contradicted by the second item in MT that deals with Russian nationalism. In an opinion piece, Leonid Ragozin claims that Russian nationalism is “anti-Western since it is nourished by the bitterness that still remains from the defeat in the Cold War.” Huh? If we take the Sova report seriously the majority of victims of nationalist/racial violence are non-Westerns. Sure the skinheads might not be thrilled with the West, but all of their anger seems to take out on Easterners. Ragozin then continues that this anti-Western nationalism has made Russia gravitate to states that defy “American hegemony” i.e. China, Iran, and Uzbekistan. I’ll say it again. Huh?

Then he posits the strangest argument. Ragozin claims that one day nationalism, chauvinism and racism “may be the engine that drives Russia into political modernity.” He claims that since Western countries are so quick to forgive nationalists like Franjo Tudjman and turn a blind eye to the disenfranchisement of Russians in Lativa and Estonia and still allow them EU membership (a law which I recently heard from a EU scholar has been since changed in Estonia and Latvia), Americans and Europeans will find some common ground with Russia’s nationalists, chauvinists, and racists. Perhaps, but it’s his suggestion that is a real kicker.

The West could help Russia become a better country by working with nationalist Russians and gradually transforming their xenophobia into a loathing of the world’s real evils, such as terrorism, poverty and inequality.

One question: How can xenophobia be transformed into loathing for poverty and inequality?