Thursday, July 17, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Ukrainian Events Have Deeply Split Russian Nationalists

Paul Goble


            Staunton, July 17 – Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Ukraine appears to have united most Russians, but it has introduced or at least highlighted a deep split among Russian nationalists, some of whom support his actions and others very much oppose, to the point that people calling themselves “Russian nationalists” are now on both sides of the barricades.


            “The community of Russian nationalists never has manifested ideological and organizational unity,” journalist Vladimir Titov says in a essay, but Ukrainian events, first, the Maidan, and now, Russian intervention, have divided it into two hostile “camps” (


            Indeed, he says, “a certain number of Russian nationalists are currently fighting on the side [of the Moscow-backed secessionists] while other Russian nationalists are fighting on the other side, in the ranks of Ukrainian volunteer battalions.”


            On the one hand, such divisions are not really new, the journalist says. During the Russian Civil War, Russian nationalists found themselves equally split. But on the other, this division is one that few really expected in this case and that even fewer have devoted much attention to.


            Titov provides a survey of various Russian nationalist leaders and groups and their positions on the Maidan, Crimea and Russian intervention in southeastern Ukraine. His most useful comments, however, concern what has motivated those who call themselves Russian nationalists to take one side or the other.


            Those Russian nationalists who support Ukraine are doing so either because they are inspired by the popular activism of fellow Slavs or because they are opposed to the Kremlin for a variety of reasons and are convinced that Vladimir Putin by his imperialist behavior is hurting Russians in the first instance.


            Such people, Titov continues, do not see the Russians as a nation having gained anything from the annexation of Crimea or the continuing intervention in eastern Ukraine. Taxes haven’t been cut, prices haven’t been reined in, and “the ethnic policy of the Russian state which the nationalists have criticized so much in recent years has remained unchanged.”


             In short,the journalist says, such Russian nationalists see no reason to be swept along by the patriotic euphoria because all the old problems of Russia – corruption, official arbitrariness, ethnic crime, and technological degradation – are still present and may even be getting worse as the Ukrainian crisis proceeds.


            With regard to their most immediate concerns, such Russian nationalists complain that Moscow has not repealed “anti-extremist” legislation which is used against them. It has not released Russian nationalists from prison. It continues to bring charges against them and to refuse to register Russian nationalist parties.


Moreover, he says, many Russian nationalists have concluded that Putin’s policies in Ukraine are not expanding the “Russian world” but having exactly the opposite effect, alienating Ukrainians forever and making Kyiv’s exit from the CIS and its membership in the EU and NATO “only a question of time.”


Russian nationalists who support Putin’s policies in Ukraine are sometimes motivated by narrowly selfish intersts. They want access to the media, registration for their parties, employment, or even forgiveness for past sins.  But that is not the real reason for their position. That is to be found in most cases, Titov says, in what he calls “banal xenophobia.”


Indeed, he suggests, the support Putin is getting has much less to do with genuine nationalism than with xenophobia and with an irrational fear of or hatred for Ukrainians and any outsiders. Until recently, it had been dangerous for those calling themselves Russian nationalists to indulge in this, especially against Jews or Central Asians.


But since February, “a new era has begun in Russia, the era of permitted xenophobia,” Titov continues.  The highest authorities have not only allowed but pushed Russians to “publicly hate Ukraine, Ukrainians and everything Ukrainian.”  That has given “Russian xenophobes” the chance at long last to indulge their feelings.


It is still true that Russians can get in trouble for attacking Jews or Blacks, but they now can, thanks to Putin, shout all they want about that “’nigger’ Obama or that ‘kike Kolomoysky.” At the same time, however, these very same people have changed their attitude toward Chechens and other North Caucasians. They now see people like Ramzan Kadyrov as their allies.


All that shows, Titov says, is that there is only “a single step from xenophobe to tolerast.”


Among some Russian nationalists who support Putin are those who “sincerely and honestly believe” in the Russian spring and even more in “the transformation of Putin” into “an ingatherer of the lands and a Russian national leader.”  They believe that he has finally woken up to the sufferings of Russians abroad and at home.


“Alas,” Titov says, many of those in this camp are not so much Russians as good Soviets who deify the ruler and cannot imagine how one could “protest against God.” What is certain is that they haven’t noticed the contradiction between Putin’s defense of Russians abroad and his failure to defend Russians at home. “But logic is powerless against faith.”


This pattern does not show as some might say that Russian nationalism as a political trend does not exist. “It clearly ‘exists,’ but the number of its supporters is much fewer than it seems and its influence is insignificant,” Titov concludes.  One can only hope that some day it will emerge as “normal European political nationalism.”


But that day will not be hastened, he says, whatever some nationalists or people in power believe, by carefully orchestrated carnavals, “five-minute hates,” or unlimited subordination to a Tsar.


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