‘State Policy Under Putinism is not Aiming for Russia for Russians – it is About Supporting a Global Superpower’
May 24, 2024
SOVA Center Director Alexander Verkhovsky discusses the nationalist agenda in state policy, signs of the revival of right-wing radicalism as authoritarianism deepens, and the outlook for nationalism in a future democratic Russia.
The original interview in Russian was published in Republic. A shortened version is republished here with their permission.

Who are the Russian nationalists in Russia today? Before, there were names. But today many of them are either dead or have disappeared from the public space after serving time. Has Russian nationalism been crushed?

Russian nationalism as a grassroots political movement no longer exists in Russia today. And it is not even that the theorists and leaders of Russian nationalism, as you said, died or disappeared; it is that there is nothing to be part of and nowhere to do it. In Russia there is no political space for there to be a political movement.

What should a political movement do? Fight for power. But this is out of the question. You can organize some protests on social issues. But even that is impossible. What remains? Make strategic plans on how to build your own version of the “beautiful Russia of the future?”

But even on that count the remaining Russian nationalists are not very strong. And I can understand why. There is no point in fantasizing if you have neither a real audience nor opportunities in the foreseeable future. For example, Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) has an audience – it can inspire people, make films about the 1990s, and it will be widely discussed. But nationalists have nothing like that.
The only thing that remains of Russian nationalism today is vigilantism, i.e., not advocating political goals, but maintaining order as they understand it.
Vigilantes carefully position themselves as a nonpolitical and even Kremlin-loyal movement (see Russia.Post about ultranationalist vigilantes here). Almost all of them support the authorities on the main issue – Ukraine. I do not think that in every case this is how they really feel. But this guarantees a certain amount of security in today’s environment.

Across the existing Russian nationalist groups that at some level support the special operation, there is just one person who went to jail for his views and statements – Igor Strelkov-Girkin. He became too popular, tried to create a new organization and had a huge audience on his Telegram channel. Basically, he did too much to try to break into politics.

The rest are more modest, which is clearly the strategically correct line for them at this stage. This does not mean that when the political situation changes, they will not turn into politicians. They may even turn into something else. In fact, the Movement against Illegal Immigration, active in the 2000s, began in the same way. It declared everyhow that it was not about politics. And today’s vigilantes are doing the same.

Almost in every major city in almost every region there is a small group that is trying to “restore order,” invoking the law and appealing to the authorities. For example, they try to catch migrants without documents or write that in some club people are singing or showing something that they should not.

Are Russian nationalists enemies, friends or fellow travelers of the current political regime? On the one hand, it was this regime that brought Russian nationalism to naught in the 2010s; on the other hand, you mention a kind of vigilantism in which Russian nationalism can continue to smolder, albeit without a claim to power.

First, we need to answer the question: are Putin’s policies nationalistic? Yes, they are. Expanding state borders is right out of the nationalist playbook.

The Putin regime has an ideology, and partly it is nationalistic. That nationalism took shape in 2011-13, largely in opposition to radical, street-fighting nationalists.

The idea was that we do not just have a Russian nation (rossiyskaya natsiya) as a collection of citizens,holders of a Russian passport, but some kind of cultural and political community. This nation has a civilizational core: ethnic Russians (russkiye) and Orthodox Christians. Though, of course, they are surrounded by “little brothers.” We respect them in every possible way, but still, the majority of us are Orthodox and Russian (russkiye).

And the state won the competition for people’s minds.
The street-fighting version that pit ethnic Russians against non-Russians was perceived by the majority of the population as very contentious, while the state’s version was seen as more conducive to stability.
There are 215,000 members in the Russian Community (Russkaya obschina) group on VK. Their typical videos are about targeted fights against illegal parkers, bad drivers and other violators. Source: VK
But here’s the question: if the state won, then why does it need any supporters or fellow travelers from the grassroots? The answer depends on the type of regime.

In 2014-15, against the backdrop of what was happening in Ukraine, there was the Anti-Maidan movement, meant to resist anti-war protests. And what happened to it? It was allowed to rally a bit and then closed down. The Russian state does not need strong support from the grassroots, because that is still an uncontrollable mass.

Our political regime is focused on maintaining security and predictability. Any independent movement, even if it is in support of the regime today, may disagree on something tomorrow [with the authorities].

And this is how things stand to this day. When the special operation began, prowar Russians were not even allowed to hold a rally. They were supposed to go to official events. But you cannot go there with your own symbols and slogans.
So, the state does not accept any initiative from below and partly tolerates fellow travelers – as long as they are not doing their own thing too much.
But there are also opponents of the regime among Russian nationalists. There are those nationalists who chose the side of Kyiv, although even some of those who support the special operation also see themselves as the opposition. There is a paradox: nationalists against nationalism. War is inherently polarizing, and the current one has put the nationalist movement on both sides of the barricades.

In wartime it is almost impossible for political groups to maintain neutrality. There are fellow travelers, the state tolerates them; there are active opponents [of the war], who are either already abroad or anonymous.

Some people believe that we not only have an authoritarian regime, but power is also concentrated in the hands of people from the KGB and the FSB, who are driven not just by a thirst for personal power and enrichment, but also by a certain mentality.

I do not think that there is some kind of ideological Chekism, KGB-ism, that still lives in the minds of the current security officers in the Kremlin. There is a set of prejudices and habits that are characteristic of people from the security services simply due to the specifics of their background. They are prone to conspiracy theories.

When Putin said that the collapse of the USSR was a geopolitical catastrophe, it was most likely a sincere statement. It was an expression of the essence of his political worldview. The state collapsed as a result of some bad experiments. And one of Putin’s strategic tasks is to prevent a repetition of that in Russia.

The Putin we knew in the first two terms of his presidency was then replaced by another [Putin]. The “pre-Medvedev” Putin implemented a strategy of pragmatic authoritarianism; comfort was explicitly said to be the most important value.

But the post-2012-protests Putin, realizing the need to mobilize support for the regime, started talking about spiritual bonds and traditional values that Russia should defend on the world stage. He started talking about Russia as a separate civilization. Instead of communism, traditional values were to be promoted across the world.
This is an entirely ideological message, within which there is also a nationalist element, since issues of cultural identity, state borders and so on are at play.
The 2012 Russian March in Moscow. The sign says: “for the rights and freedom of the Russian people [russkiy narod].” Source: Wiki Commons
Indeed, the state policy under Putinism is not aiming for “Russia for Russians;” it is not about emphasizing the ethnic element. It is about supporting a global superpower. Global influence is seen as part of the state agenda.

At the same time, it is interesting to consider what is happening with the Russian-Orthodox core of Russia as a civilization. That core has been included in official documents since 2011, when, after the infamous, high-profile events at Maneznaya Square, the state became worried and began to come up with an official doctrine.

The question is: are Ukrainians included in this Russian-Orthodox core? They were not before. It was clear that there was Russia with its core. There was the Russian world [russkiy mir] as an external projection, but without the taking of territories, rather in terms of influence. And Ukrainians could live their lives in Ukraine.

Note that Putin himself never said that Ukrainians are Russians. There is no final solution to the question of where the boundaries of this core are.

We are in a kind of transition.

We have only talked about Russian nationalism. But there are nationalisms of other nations in Russia. What is the potential there? How radical are they? Recall the protests in Bashkortostan this winter (see Russia.Post about it here and here).
We live in an authoritarian state. And the main other for all political movements is the political regime. Alliances and conflicts are possible with the rest.
If the situation changes, the main “other” may become different political movements, including different nationalists.

You mentioned Bashkortostan. There, in freer times, the main competition was between Bashkir and Tatar nationalists, surely not Russians. And if it happens that democracy returns, then I think that competition will appear again. Although it is difficult to predict.

Nowadays, in various political circles, mainly on the left, there is the theme of decolonization, and people want to apply it to Russia. But is it practical?

The term “decolonization” has now become a cliche: different people attach different meanings to it. The fact that Russia was formed as an empire is a fact. And to some extent it remains one. Will it completely cease to be one in the future? Who knows.
People who talk about decolonization in relation to Russia often mean something different: the regions should have more rights than the federal center. Just 10 years ago, no one would have termed such political ideas “decolonization.” We would talk about a fair distribution of powers and resources between the center and the regions. If political changes begin in Russia, this theme is likely to become relevant again. But whether nationalists will play any role in it is a big question.

Over the past decade, Putin’s authoritarian regime has suppressed and eliminated almost all political radicalism in the country, not just nationalisms of various kinds. But if there is democracy and freedom, is there no escape from Russian nationalism?

At some point the Russian state decided to tackle street violence by neo-Nazis not because it had nothing better to do – it was no longer possible to tolerate the chaos that was happening.
And by imprisoning several hundred people a year, the authorities achieved their goal: far-right street radicalism was suppressed.
Numbers of people punished for extremist crimes
Data collected by SOVA Center, including sentences considered unlawful
Source: SOVA Center
Red - for violence, Blue - for statements, Gray - for vandalism, Purple - for belonging to illegal groups
But more than ten years have passed, and we see that teenagers with far-right views have emerged who look to street violence.

And another thing: when the state suppressed right-wing radicals, it ultimately could not stop. The Center E that did an excellent job, for which it should be honored and praised, could not just stand by and watch its amount of work reduced. And it started going after people who write intolerant nonsense on VK.

At some point those at the top finally realized: the law enforcement machine is doing nothing useful, it’s time to slow down. All this activity was ordered to stop. And in 2018 the number of cases for all sorts of [radical] statements fell sharply.

But was that experience useful? Nowadays it is used for various antiwar statements, right?

For all sorts of different statements, not just antiwar. And after a few years, the number of cases bounced back. But this is no longer only racist and xenophobic statements. Now it includes, for example, calls for jihad, insults to government officials and other things. According to our estimates, whereas previously the main object of hostility was ethnic groups, in recent years it has become representatives of the state: police officers, judges, military personnel, Putin personally and his entourage.

You mentioned teenagers who today go out into the streets and beat someone up based on their ethnicity. Do you really define them as right-wing radicals?

Recently, our data has started to register the appearance on the streets of young people who clearly consider themselves white racists. They even copy Nazi skinheads from the 1990s, sometimes with heavy boots with white laces, bomber jackets and everything else.

The difference between the 1990s and the 2000s is that today they are harder to catch. The current radicals operate in deep secrecy. The police have caught a couple of groups but are yet unable to keep up with with the sharp uptick in violence that began last spring.

Does nationalism live in the Russian nation [russkiy narod]?

In the historically foreseeable future, nationalism in Russia, of course, will not go away.

Nationalism, in the modern sense of the word, is about 200 years old, and it has no intention of leaving the historical arena yet. Therefore, in the Russia of the future, beautiful or not, the authorities, whoever they may be, will have to think through their policy in relation to this phenomenon.
Moreover, part of a future government may consist of nationalists. And if there is democracy, who is going to stop them from taking part in elections – why are they worse than others?
People with liberal views are saddened by the idea that right-wing radicals could come to power through democratic elections. But we should not assume that for some reason the country is bound to put itself in the hands of hard and angry radicals. Our country shows itself to be more sensible than propagandists think it is. But with democracy and political freedom, nationalists will be there, there is no escaping that.
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