Russian Nationalism and Xenophobia in March 2020

​The following is our monthly review of instances of xenophobia and radical nationalism, along with any government countermeasures, for March 2020.

In March 2020, SOVA Center became aware of a minimum four victims of hate-motivated attacks, in Moscow and St. Petersburg. According to our data, for this year so far in total, that makes no fewer than 10 individuals targeted with hate- or ideologically-motivated violence, in incidents that took place in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Additionally, three individuals received serious threats that they would be killed.

This month we learned of an incident of desecration of a Russian Orthodox church: a 29-year-old resident of Voronezh drew swastikas on tombstones near the Cathedral of the Prophet Samuel on Karl Marx Street. This year in total, we have recorded three incidents of xenophobic vandalism.

The spread of COVID-19 has brought a wave of insulting and racist commentary directed at Chinese people and natives of Central Asia to social media. Fortunately, however, this abuse was limited to verbal attacks, with no direct physical violence.

Russian nationalists also drew attention to the epidemic. The Nation and Freedom Committee (KNS) accused President Vladimir Putin of being behind the spread of what it has referred to as the "Chinese infection," and in January had already been calling for closure of Russia's border with China. Meanwhile the National-Conservative Movement (NKD) supported the quarantine and called on all Russian Orthodox to observe it, and to pray. While at first the National-Democratic Party (NDP) reacted positively to President Putin's call for Russians to stay home, it later condemned him for calling on citizens to impose a self-isolation regime. The Great Russia party decided that COVID-19 is a global "provocation," organized by China and put to use by President Putin. The Russian Imperial Movement (RID) announced that China needed the virus, in order to "cool down the overheated economy." Only the leaders of the Youth Vanguard of Russian Socialists (MARS) were able to find a bright side to COVID-19, noting that it had cut open “the abscess of this world of megapolises and global capitalism” and that national identity and collectivism would lead to salvation.

On March 17, on Suvorovskaya Square in Moscow, the United Organizing Committee held a protest against amendments to the Russian Constitution. In addition to communists and socialists, a few nationalist organizations also showed up. Because the action was not approved by the city government, the roughly 50 activists gathered on Suvorovskaya with flags, but without any AV equipment.

Nationalists also participated in protests against the constitutional reform led by liberals: at the very least, one KNS activist was present at the daily pickets in Moscow against amendments to the constitution and the "nullification" of President Putin's previous presidential terms. Meanwhile, in Syktyvkar, a local coalition known as Public Assembly of the Komi Republic led pickets in that city. Further, in Sevastopol, the Sevastopol Initiative movement held a picket on March 1 in support of Putin’s "Russian amendments."

For the month of March, we are not aware of any convictions handed down in cases of hate-motivated violence. Since the beginning of the year 2020 in total, SOVA Center is aware of one conviction for racist violence when the court established the hate motive; this was in St. Petersburg. There have been no such convictions on the basis of vandalism.

Xenophobic statements were the source of 7 rulings in respect of 10 individuals, in 7 regions of Russia in March 2020. Two of these convictions were delivered under Article 205.2 of the Criminal Code (justification of terrorism) for calls to join two organizations banned as terrorist, Jabhat al-Nusra (the sentence was issued against an inmate at a prison colony) and on the basis of ISIS propaganda.

The other 8 individuals convicted were charged under Article 280 of the Criminal Code (public calls to extremist activity).

These rulings were handed down against:

- members of the Tomsk Region neo-Nazi group Vesna Crew, who posted video clips showing the defendants undertaking "acts of vandalism in respect of property of individuals of a non-Slavic appearance," as well as attacks on "individuals and representatives of certain social groups, including with the use of improvised weapons";

- "a citizen of the Soviet Union" (i.e. member of the same-titled community that denies the collapse of the Soviet Union and insists on implementing Soviet laws and resisting the current authorities) who had published a "decree" with a call to unite all supporters of the reconstruction of the USSR and the RSFSR, “including via violent methods, including execution”;

- citizens campaigning for radical Islam or for racist violence.

Unfortunately, SOVA Center has been unable to review the materials in question, and so is not in a position to determine the legality of the abovementioned sentences.

This year so far, no fewer than 11 convictions, against 14 individuals in 10 regions of the country, have been handed down on the basis of racist and other types of propaganda.

The Federal List of Extremist Materials was updated twice (on March 10 and 23) to account for entries 5010-5017: three anti-Semitic publications (two articles and one book), video clips of speeches delivered by Third Reich leaders in the German language, and a video clip featuring propaganda from the Ukrainian Tornado Battalion.

No fewer than four individuals were sanctioned under Article 20.3.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (incitement to national hatred), corresponding to Part 1 of Article 282 of the Criminal Code. All of them were fined for posting xenophobic statements directed against, variously, natives of the Central Asian countries, ethnic Russians and Chinese (in connection with COVID-19).

Seven individuals were fined in March under Article 20.29 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (manufacture and distribution of banned materials), including for sharing songs with titles such as "Russian Bear – Death to Wogs" and "My Struggle."

Nine individuals were sanctioned under Article 20.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (propaganda and public demonstration of Nazi symbols and symbols of banned organizations). One of them, a prisoner in a colony, was fined for exposing his tattoos with SS symbols. The others were sanctioned on the basis of publication on social media of swastikas, the Third Reich flag, symbols from the SS Panzer Division "Totenkopf" and other Nazi symbols.

Our data in respect of criminal and administrative cases is reported without accounting for court decisions that we consider to be arbitrary. Further, our data, especially in respect of the Code of Administrative Offenses, is substantially incomplete.