Staunton, September 22 – As Sherlock Holmes reminded everyone, the key to understanding often lies not in specifying what has occurred but rather in what has not happened. Yekaterina Schulmann applies this insight to the current state of Russian nationalism, a trend that hasn’t “barked” in the wake of Crimea despite widespread expectations that it would.
In a comment for Moscow’s “New Times,” the Russian commentator argues that “the situation of the nationalist movement is mysterious” because it hasn’t been able to take off despite almost all the advantages it currently appears to have given the kind of propaganda that the official media have been conducting (newtimes.ru/articles/detail/101938/).
The Russian authorities have cracked down on Russian nationalist groups as hard and in much the same ways they have come down on liberal ones: making it difficult for them to register, searching their offices, and bringing charges of extremism against the leaders and followers of their organizations.
The immediate explanation for this is obvious, Schulmann says: “an authoritarian regime, built on civic passivity (and not on mobilization as a totalitarian one is) is equally hostile to independent political activity on any front,” regardless of whether that activity is nominally pro-government.
But there are deeper reasons involved as well, she points out. “The nationalist movement in Russia from the times of Pamyat finds itself in strange symbiotic relations with the special services and higher political management which protect the nationalists,” although “from time to time” cracking the whip to show who is in charge of whom.
“The most radical example of these anti-natural ties,” Schulmann suggests, “is the story of BORN [the Militant Organization of Russian Nationalists], but there are other similar cases” involving contract murders and the like.
Moreover, as she notes, the links between the Russian nationalists and the regime work against the interests of the former. Whatever “illusions” they have about those in power, Russian nationalists have to face the fact that these ties not only require the regime to lash out against them periodically but also “deprive the movement as a whole of any chance at legalization.”
Only by securing legalization and thus the right to act in “the open political space” can the Russian nationalists escape from under the regime and have “a chance for real political influence, rather than living with eternal expectations that today or tomorrow, Ivan Ivanovich will be called to save Russia.”
Why then do the Russian nationalists agree to be “sheep for the shearing” by the authorities? The answer possibly is that there is less demand for the ideas of ethnic Russian nationalism in Russia than many of those arguing for it think and that the nationalists are being used to build up Putin’s image as the only one who can stop Russian fascism.
“If the Ukrainian events really had raised up the ballyhooed nationalist wave, it would have brought to the surface some new actors; and no level of control by the authorities would have interfered,” Schulmann continues. But that didn’t happen, and the ultimate reason it didn’t points to an even deeper explanation.
That lies with “the common distortion of our political space, its closed nature, its lack of freedom and the absence of competition,” she says. “In the interests of stability of the political system and societal security, [it would be far better if there appeared] legal nationalist parties along with freedom of political competition as a whole.”
“Everything that is driven into the underground tends to be radicalized,” Schulmann points out, and “the best medicine against extremism is legalization and open political participation,” rather than the suppression of one or another group in the name of preventing just that outcome.