Staunton, November 9 – Russia has relatively few active skinheads (150) and neo-Nazi groups (150) for a country of its size, a Russian Internet editor says, but Moscow’s failure to address ethnic issues has created a situation in which polls suggest “every second Russian is a skinhead at heart,” thus providing implicit support for the nationalists of the radical right.
In a comment posted on the Osobaya bukhva site today, Viktor Tsvetkov notes that the Russian Federation is not the only country having problems with tolerance and multi-culturalism or the integration of ethnically and religious distinct immigrant groups into the broader society (www.specletter.com/politika/2010-11-09/kazhdyi-vtoroi-rossijanin-v-dushe-skinhed.html).
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent suggestion that multi-culturalism “isn’t working,” that Germans are attached to Christian values,” and that “those who do not accept them have no place here” had particular resonance in Russia because of the large number of Muslims both indigenous and immigrant there.
In Europe, “after World War II, nationalism was banned from big politics for a long time, but now,” Tsvetkov points out, “formerly taboo slogans are being taken up” again and without the shame or restraint of every times. Europeans still say they “love” or “tolerate” all people just as they did, but increasingly they are demanding that immigrants do all the adapting.
It would be strange if Russia did not face a similar challenge. “The roots of the conflict are very similar: the clash of various cultures and mutual lack of understanding on the background of economic problems.” And it would be equally strange if Russians did not react in many of the same ways Europeans are, the Osobaya bukhva editor says.
But there is an important difference. Russia has never been a mono-ethnic country, and many of the minorities that so many ethnic Russians are now angry about are indigenous nations rather than immigrants. Moreover, Russian attitudes appear to be leading the country into an absolute “dead end” given the failure of the powers that be to address it adequately.
Tsvetskov points to the ethnic clashes in the military unit near Perm and the shooting of a North Caucasian dancing in the middle of the night in Stavropol to show that officials clearly don’t know what to do. In the first case, they tried to suppress information about it, and in the second, they ignored the multiple factors at work.
This “short-sightedness and indifference” is obvious to everyone, the editor continued. “Doesn’t the Defense Ministry know that where people from the Caucasus republics assemble in a group, they will begin to live as their parents taught them and not as their father-commanders ordered?” And doesn’t the Stavropol militia recognize the way in which dancing in the middle of the night could affect people?
As Tsvetkov notes, Galina Kozhevnikova, the deputy head of the SOVA information-analytic center which tracks ethnic and religious affairs, points out that while the number of skinheads and radical groups is small, “more than half of Russians support neo-Nazi ideas” when it comes to dealing with minorities.
Thus, she continued, “this is a question not of the number of little groups but of the number of people who share neo-nazi views and support xenophobia as a whole because the neo-Nazis in the absence of such attitudes could not exist; they need to operate on the silent support of society” at large.”
Given that environment, Tsvetkov says, “can anyone be surprised by the appearance of demands of our citizens to create ‘an ethnic Russian republic’?” Or at the collection of signature in support of separating out Stavropol kray from the North Caucasus Federal District? “all this is based not on a heightened sense of national self-consciousness but on simple fear.”
Economists and demographers say that Russia needs more immigrants, but Tsvetkov says, there are no visible efforts by the government now to socialize the arrivals and help them fit in, a task especially difficult when Russians don’t want to consider them as people even though they want to hear them cite Pushkin from memory.
“The arguments of those who continue to support the idea of ‘Russia as a family of peoples’ are becoming ever fewer. Anger and lack of understanding, in contrast, are becoming ever greater and greater.” As a result, people are asking “what unites all of us besides state borders?”
And ever more often, Tsvetkov says, “one can hear the response: ‘Nothing.’”
Some Russians are trying to do something about this, but it is unclear whether they can succeed and reverse the current trend. Last week in Sochi, the Multi-National Russia Youth Forum came up with the idea that it is necessary to adopt and apply an “ethical code for multi-national Russia.”
Such a document, the editor continued, would declare Russian society to be “a single social community consisting of representatives of various ethnoses and start out from a recognition of the unqualified right of the individual to freedom of choice of his own ethnic and religious identities.”
Putting that in simpler terms, Tsvetkov says, “it is being suggested that we identify ourselves first of all as citizens of the Russian Federation and then as Russians (Tatars, Buryats and so on), Orthodox (Muslims, Buddhists, and so on)” – a proposal that he suggested represented “a noble undertaking.”
But there are good reasons to think such calls face an uphill battle. “Artificial constructs of citizenship by their significance do not compare with natural forms of identity including nationality and religion” – something that the collapse of the USSR highlighted for all in the post-Soviet region.
“Of course,” Tsvetkov continues, “it is possible to recall the Western model of the supremacy of law over all cultural distinctions and contradictions. However after the acknowledgement of Merkel and the French cleansings of the Roma, this experience too does not look so convincing.”
Keeping things together by force is always a possibility but that approach entails serious costs. Thus, “the method of convincing people remains.” But that is a hard task, especially if the powers that be prefer to ignore what is going on and “every other Russian” sympathizes with those who would oppress religious and ethnic minorities.
Tsetkov’s article is only one of the cries from the heart following the November 4 National Unity Day demonstrations conducted across the Russian Federation by ultra-nationalists, skinheads, and neo-Nazis, some of whom carried Nazi slogans like “Arbeit Macht Frei” (blog.humanrightsfirst.org/2010/11/charged-week-in-russia-skinheads.html).
And while these protests too were relatively small given the size of the country, they are disturbing because they underscore the point Tsvetkov makes: The active extremists are not all that numerous, but the share of the population that sympathizes with at least some of their messages is much larger and seems certain to play a role in Russia’s future.