Transformation of the Russian Nationalist Movement: 2013-2016
The first six months of 2016 saw continued restructuring in the ultra-right wing of Russia's political spectrum, started in the spring of 2014 when the conflict in Ukraine entered its hot phase. A split in nationalist ranks over the events in the neighboring country and Russia's role in them, a dramatic increase in criminal cases against right-wing leaders, and a changing political situation – together, they had an earthquake effect which substantially changed the ultra-right landscape.
For a better overview of the radical changes observed over the years, we will compare the configuration of nationalist organizations and groups in late 2013 and today.
In 2013, the central place in the ultra-right wing was held by a broad coalition of oppositional nationalist movements – members of "the Russians" (“Russkie”) Association, which acted as the successor to the banned Movement Against Illegal Immigration (Dvizhenie protiv nelegalnoi immigratsii, DPNI) to organize or initiate most major public actions, joined by autonomous right-wing radicals and smaller nationalist groups. The coalition involved organization of various types, including those close to the neo-Nazi, such as Dmitry Dyomushkin's Slavic Force (Slavianskaia sila), Vladimir Ratnikov's Memory (Pamiat') – a splinter of the Russian Liberation Front (Russkii front osvobozhdeniia, RFO), and Dmitry Bobrov's National Social Initiative (Natsional-sotsialisticheskaia initsiativa, NSI); those slightly more moderate, such as the ex-DPNI; monarchist Orthodox, like Stanislav Vorobyov's Russian Imperial Movement (Russkoie imperskoe dvizhenie, RID), traditionalist Orthodox, like Igor Artyomov's Russian National Union (Russkii obshchenatsional’nyi soiuz, RONS), and Semyon Pikhtelev's National Democrats. On many occasions, Konstantin Krylov's National Democratic Party (NDP) acted as the coalition's ally.
In Moscow, the sole competitor of “the Russians” was the recently established and much smaller Russian Action Coalition (Russkaia koalitsiia deistviia, RKD), which opposed the Association by refusing to collaborate with the liberal and left-wing opposition in the broader protest movement. The RKD was joined by the ex-DPNI's ideological twin Andrei Saveliev's Great Russia (Velikaia Rossiia), Alexander Amelin's Russian Renaissance (Russkoie Vozrozhdeniie), and the national-Stalinist People's Militia in the Name of Minin and Pozharsky (Narodnoe opolcheniie imeni Minina i Pozharskogo, NOMP) led by Yuri Yekishev. The new coalition, together with Kirill Barabash's leftist-nationalist Initiative Group of the Referendum “For Responsible Power” (Initsiativnaia gruppa provedeniia referenduma “Za otvetstvennuiu vlast’,” IGPR “ZOV”– also Stalinist), Svetlana Peunova's Will (Volya) party, and a few smaller ultra-right groups started organizing alternative rallies and marches to compete with “the Russians.”
In St. Petersburg, the situation was somewhat different. All major ultra-right movements and groups active at the time engaged in more or less successful collaboration around key events, such as the Russian March. While acting each under their own names, member organizations of “the Russians” Association, just like in Moscow, formed the core of the local right-wing movement. They included “the Russians in St. Petersburg” led by Dina Garina, two separate organizations of the Slavic Union, and the NSI, RID and National Democrats mentioned above. Similarly to Moscow, the NDP's branch in St. Petersburg always acted as their ally. (Perhaps the Russian Sweeps' leader Nikolai Bondarik was the only trouble-maker.)
There were two basic aspects shared by the above movements in the two Russian capitals: an anti-migrant agenda and unambiguous opposition to the current system. The same positions were shared by all prominent regional nationalist organizations.
There were, of course, a few active oppositional groups outside the coalitions described above. Most notably, these included left-wing nationalists, such as the Other Russia (Drugaia Rossiia) and much less noticeable People’s Will (Narodnaya volya).
Nationalists loyal to the regime stood somewhat apart from the rest. As of end-2013, they were much less noticeable than oppositional groups, yet already gaining momentum compared to the previous, less active period.
In 2013, the Motherland (Rodina) party was central to this side of the political spectrum and already trying to squeeze out those not loyal to regime; for example, the Motherland party was the only organization to obtain permission for holding the Russian March in St. Petersburg. Notably, the event was renamed the Imperial March (Imperskii marsh), and since then, the traditional Russian March has not been held in the city. Other regular organizers of similar marches in past years, i.e. the ultra-right movements described above, perceived the Motherland party as a pro-Kremlin spoiler.
Loyal nationalists of the time also included Nikolai Starikov's recently registered Great Fatherland party (Velikoe otechestvo, PVO), Yevgeny Fyodorov's National-Liberation Movement (National’no-osvoboditelnoe dvizhenie, NOD) which was relatively inactive in 2013, nationalist faction of the Communist Party, which mostly kept a low profile, and to some extent the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) with their traditional tendency towards nationalist discourse. Standing somewhat apart was a peculiar type of Orthodox-nationalist organizations, of which the People's Council (Narodnyi sobor) was the only one noticeable.
Loyal nationalists are much less focused on anti-immigrant agenda and thus tend to be oppositional either to a moderate degree or not at all. It is also noteworthy that in most cases, loyal nationalists are likely to hold positive attitudes towards the Soviet past, which is rare among those outside the loyal nationalist ranks.
Somewhere between the loyal and oppositional nationalists in 2013 was the Russian All-People’s Union (Rossiiskii obshchenarodnyi soiuz, ROS) led by Sergei Baburin and Ivan Mironov: the former was ideologically close to the Motherland and Communist parties, and the latter to the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (back in 2012, ROS and “the Russians” co-organized the Russian March in Moscow).
Yet the core of radical nationalist activists remained outside political organizations (whether loyal or not). Such "autonomous" nationalists, consistent supporters of the neo-Nazi ideology, sometimes form small organizations and groups likely to engage in violence, but in recent years they have not been represented in the political arena, except for Maxim Martsinkevich's Restrukt! movement which only partially filled that function in 2013. Various ultra-right groups compete for the attention of such "autonomous" nationalists, as well as for the attention of ordinary people with xenophobic views who sometimes attend nationalist events.
In addition to rallies and marches, all sorts of social and sports initiatives are commonly used to involve radical activists in political life. In 2013, raids were at the peak of popularity – in particular, raids to search for places where illegal migrants live and work, to detect hypothetical pedophiles and drug dealers, etc. Oppositional nationalist groups, mainly those in "the Russians" Association, were the ones most engaged in the raiding activity, but they were not only ones – for example, the raiding campaigns by Nikolai Bondarik's Russian Sweeps (Russkie zachistki) were quite popular, and Andrei Saveliev's Great Russia (Velikaya Rossiya) also made a few raiding attempts. To our knowledge, the Motherland party was the only loyal nationalist movement to engage in raiding. Those nationalist organizations which focused primarily and exclusively on raids enjoyed the highest publicity. These included, on one hand, the neo-Nazi Restrukt!, and on the other hand, Alexey Khudyakov's Shield of Moscow (Shchit Moskvy) and Igor Mangushev’s Light Russia (Svetlaya Rus’), both focused on "anti-immigrant" raids but without an oppositional agenda whatsoever.
By mid-2016, the ultra-right's oppositional wing had gone through major restructuring. Now they do not have a single organization or coalition which could claim to be the "talking head" of nationalism, a role previously filled by "the Russians."
Organizations which have supported the "Russian Spring" dominate the field; most of them are clearly trending towards a merger with loyal nationalists. While organizations in this segment collaborate from time to time, describing them as allies would be premature.
On one hand, supporters of the "Russian Spring" include the Russian National Front, which remains more or less oppositional and brings together the Great Russia, IGPR "ZOV", a few Orthodox fundamentalist movements, such as RID, Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers (Soiuz pravoslavnykh khorugvenostsev), Black Hundred, and others. We would like to remind that this coalition was formed around supporting the Novorossiya project and opposition to "the Russians" denounced for being "Banderite." The NOMP, renamed People's Militia of Russia (Narodnoe opolchenie Rossii, NOR) after the ban, has been the RNF's permanent ally.
On the other hand, this playing field is now shared by organizations which cannot be described as oppositional, such as Mikhail Ochkin's National Conservative Movement (Natsional-konservativnoe dvizhenie) and smaller groups sharing a similar ideology, such as Aleksei Zhivov's Right Patriots (Pravye patrioty) and "Dostoevsky" discussion club. They effectively support the official political discourse, but tend to be more conservative regarding certain social issues and more radical regarding migration. They obviously gravitate towards "fitting into the system," yet without sufficient reciprocity so far.
Positioned somewhere in-between the RNF and nearly-loyal supporters of Novorossiya is Igor Strelkov's recently formed All-Russian National Movement (Obshcherusskoe natsional'noe dvizhenie, OND), declaratively oppositional, yet apparently adapting their public activity to stay relevant to the official political discourse. The Other Russia is, in fact, competing with Strelkov and his supporters for the same political niche: since the end of the active phase of the war in Donbass, the Other Russia Party has somewhat stepped up its criticism of government and come under law enforcement pressure in some instances.
So far, all of these organizations and coalitions have remained relatively passive and cannot boast a large number of followers, while their rally activity is increasingly replaced by smaller backstage events, such as roundtables, lectures, conferences, etc.
In Moscow, these groups' key competitors are the ideologically fragmented splinters of "the Russians" Association, such as the national-socialist Black Bloc (Chernyi blok), Citadel project, and Unappeasable League (Neprimirimaia liga); more moderate Dmitry Dyomushkin's supporters and Vladimir Basmanov's Nation and Freedom Committee (Komitet "Natsiia i svoboda," KNS), apparently competing between themselves; and Denis Romanov-Russky's Free Russia (Svobodnaia Rossiia) and Alexander Samokhin's Honor and Freedom (Chest' i svoboda), both ideologically similar to National Democrats. All of them continue to be openly oppositional, but less active in pushing the anti-migrant agenda for fear of prosecution. They are usually denied permission to hold public events and have to find their own ways to survive. Some, like the KNS, Free Russia and Honor and Freedom, try to cooperate with the liberal opposition, while the rest focus on recruiting autonomous ultra-right activists and conducting raids, training, outings, etc. The Russian Joint National Alliance (Russkii ob’edinennyi natsional’nyi soiuz, RONA) and, partly, Vladimir Istarkhov's Russian Right Party collaborate, more or less regularly, with "the Russians" splinter groups. Similarly to the KNS, both of these small organizations participate in broader oppositional events.
In St. Petersburg, the RNF and OND supporters of the “Russian Spring” hardly have any competition left due to law enforcement pressure. "The Russians of St. Petersburg," the Slavic Force – North-West (Slavianskaia sila – Severo-Zapad), the NSI, and the formerly active N. Bondark have virtually stopped their activities. The National Democrats have suspended activities due to disagreements regarding the events in Ukraine. A small group of the Slavic Force may be the only remaining group which does not support Novorossiya and is prepared to engage in public actions.
In contrast, loyal nationalist parties have substantially grown and become more active in recent years (particularly the NOD and PVO), but launched fewer campaigns and actions with explicitly xenophobic agendas. The NOD and its close associate SERB are known mostly for their violent attacks against the liberal opposition. The Motherland party, which back in 2015 appeared to be set out actively to recruit supporters of the ultra-right ideology by setting up a new loyalist youth wing, “The Motherland Tigers” (TIGRy Rodiny), has been winding down both the xenophobic propaganda and the Tigers' activities, focusing instead on social issues. At the moment, the Motherland, NOD and nationalist parts of the Communist Party and LDPR, engage less in ethno-nationalist rhetoric and are more focused on a patriotic agenda and foreign policy-related actions.
The ROS, which used to occupy a middle position between loyal and oppositional nationalists, appears to be unable to choose which side to take and has almost completely stopped its activities.
The life of most autonomous ultra-right activists who do not belong to any particular political movements has changed dramatically in recent years. Following the dissolution of Restrukt! which had officially supported the “Russian Spring” (although quite a lot of people in the movement did not share the Novorossiya enthusiasm and some even volunteered in Azov Battalion), and the emigration of nearly all pro-Ukrainian activists from the Misanthropic Division and WotanJugend to Ukraine, the movement of autonomous nationalist was virtually decapitated. Although some of their groups continue to show signs of life, generally this segment has been winding down its activity, including violent acts. As can be seen from the recent public events, many autonomous nationalists have lost their motivation for attending rallies and marches. The most recent Russian March barely attracted one-sixths of its former core activists. Another failure was the most recent Russian May Day, which many activists refused to attend, fearing police attention and reluctant to participate in multiple fragmented processions.
Grassroots ultra-right activists are now much less willing to participate in raids, except for projects with a sobriety agenda. Most leaders of major anti-immigrant raiding projects have been prosecuted, while low-level activists have moved on (e.g., to the war in Donbass).
The above developments have resulted in further radicalization of the already radical autonomous activists, who once again are pushing for the White Revolution and direct action.
Another tactics of involving autonomous activists in political movement has recently reemerged, namely setting up clubs and groups offering combat training. These structures have been highly popular with grassroots activists since the onset of the active phase of the conflict in Ukraine. Actors involved in this activity include S. Vorobyov's RID, E. Bobrov, D. Dyomushkin and activists from former raiding projects, such as Guestbusters (currently promoting their self-defense courses) and the Light Russia, cofounders of the E.N.O.T.Corp. group. Militarization of the autonomous ultra-right environment has been going on for nearly two and a half years. This process appears all the more dangerous because some of the currently involved activists have participated in the Ukrainian confrontation (on either side of the conflict) and have real combat experience; most of the Russian combatants have since come home from the Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic (DNR/LNR).