The Hubris of the Populist Race Card

Alexander Zaitchik and Mark Ames tackle the rise of skinhead violence in Russia in the latest issue of the Nation. As they point out, what was a trademark of Islamists–i.e. the beheading video–has now been adopted by Russian skins. In addition to the video, they note other signs of an escalation in skinhead violence. Namely the attack on anti-nuclear activists in Angarsk which left one antifa activist dead.

For sure there are numerous other examples of far right violence one could mention. And it seems that the Russian state is beginning to have enough. Earlier this month, a St. Petersburg court sentenced seven teens for killing an antiracist activist. The anti-extremism law seems to be applied more and more to the far right. This is despite the fact that today Russian authorities confiscated the computers from the Tolerance Support Foundation in Nizhny Novgorod under the auspices of the extremism law. If targeting NGOs doesn’t reveal the law’s wide political application, the Wall Street Journal reports that Valery Panyushkin, a correspondent for the business daily Vedomosti, was briefly detained by police. Police didn’t allow him to board a train until he “signed a statement that he wasn’t a member of any extremist organization.” And of course there is the case, again in St. Petersburg, of Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst and member of Yabloko, having his recent book “Unloved Country” deemed extremist. If all that wasn’t enough, there is the strange story in the yesterday’s Moscow Times about PyotrGagarin. Gagarin, a 71 year old pensioner, has been charged with “extremism” for comments he made about Orel Governor Igor Stroyevduring a protest against rising utility costs. If convicted, Gagarin could get three years in the slammer. When thinking about the Russian extremist law, then, one should keep in mind that it works well against both the right and the left. Extremism is always deemed to exist on the margins, and therefore the law is also a means to carve out an acceptable political center.

But I digress. The flexibility, to say the least, of the Russian extremism law shouldn’t elicit any surprise.

The important question in regard to skinhead violence is asZaitchik and Ames say, “whether the rise in skinhead violence is a strictly organic phenomenon or whether it is being manipulated or even encouraged from above.” On this they write:

Russia is holding parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections next March, and with President Vladimir Putin preparing to step down, the battle among various clan elites is turning increasingly nasty. The website isn’t alone in suggesting that the FSB (formerly the KGB) may have had a hand in the beheading video with the aim of destabilizing the political situation, which presumably would empower the siloviki, or security services, who form one of the two most powerful clan elites. Alternatively, the Kremlin could be trying to discredit extremist nationalists beyond its power, in order to draw voters closer to the Kremlin’s brand of somewhat more staid nationalism.

Such plots aren’t that farfetched. Going back to Yeltsin’s and even Gorbachev’s time, neo-Nazi organizations like Pamyat and Russian National Unity have been manipulated by (and in some cases invented by) Russian security organs to serve as convenient bogeymen who scare both the West and the local population into supporting the government in power.

It is true, the Kremlin and its supporters have willfully played the “populist race card” to raise their political capital. And also as the authors point out, while the Kremlin has dealt this card, they are also looking to control it. A dangerous game indeed and not one without a certain measure of hubris. Unleashing populist forces tends to open up a space where those below outrun and often go beyond the desired actions and rhetorics of those above.

And this is why I think that stating the rise in skinhead violence as simply manufactured from above is a misnomer. Displacing skinhead violence onto some kind of ever scheming, omnipotent Kremlin elides the fact that it is clear racism has a growing constituency in Russia. Thankfully, Ames andZaitchik seem to understand this. They qualify the above with:

And yet the skinhead problem is not a manufactured phenomenon. Nationalism and xenophobia have a deep and broad appeal, particularly to the three-fourths of the country that hasn’t yet entered the emerging middle class. Over the past few decades, Communism and Western-style liberalism have been thoroughly discredited, first by the collapse of the Soviet Union and then with the collapse of the Russian economy by the end of the 1990s. Christianity has never recovered from the Bolshevik Revolution. All of this, put into the context of social, economic, cultural and geopolitical decline, has helped foster growing ultranationalism, including neo-Nazism–which seems strange in a country that lost 27 million people to the Nazis.

Since Putin came to power in 2000, Russia has experienced an unexpectedly rapid yet uneven revival, and his government’s overt patriotism, as well as its ambivalent attitude toward Western liberalism, reflect and enable the growing appeal of ultranationalism.

Thus, contrary to as some would have it, the rise in ultranationalism seems to be connected to the political/ideological vacuum caused by communism’s collapse and the pains of neoliberal economic policies. If this is the case, then were are not seeing the end to such racial violence. We are only seeing the beginning.