Unlikely alliance of violence in Russia
By Dmitry Shlapentokh
While most Russian observers regard Muslim militants from the North Caucasus as
the major source of terrorism, a new threat is emerging: Russian extremist
nationalists, who are carrying out an increasing number of attacks.
The most recent was the November 27, 2009, Nevsky express bombing that killed
20 people and injured 100. Russian nationalists claimed responsibility,
although subsequently Chechen militant leader Doku Umarov's Islamists said it
was their work.
Still, the predominant role of Muslim extremists in terrorist
activities does not diminish the potential danger of Russian extremists,
especially if they begin to cooperate with Islamists. Indeed, this process
might already have started.
According to Moskovskii Komsomolets, a popular Russian newspaper, which,
despite its yellowish tint often provides important information, some Russian
extremist groups have contacted Umarov to engage in a common struggle in
defense of "white men" (pure Slavic) and, implicitly, against the regime in
This week, Moscow police arrested 24 protesters following an anti-fascist
gathering of about 1,000 people to commemorate the first anniversary of the
murder of a human-rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, and a journalist,
Anastasia Baburova. The protesters blame the murders on nationalists and have
called for a crackdown on far-right groups, saying that Russia is becoming a
police state. Those arrested - on charges of staging an illegal rally - came
from the main group of protesters. They had been heckled by about 50 men in
balaclavas chanting slogans like "forward with the Russian race", according to
a Reuters report.
This raises the issue of why Russian nationalists, mostly young people, would
be against the administration of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister
Vladimir Putin, who themselves have been under attack for failing to solve a
number of cases involving high-profile critics of the Kremlin over the past few
A brief review of post-Soviet history provides a clue.
The attitude of Russian youth to the post-Soviet regime has experienced several
dramatic changes in the past 20 years. At the dawn of the post-Soviet era in
the early 1990s, most youths sympathized with or were a part of pro-Western
groups. They saw the West as not so much a symbol of political liberty or even
of an orderly market economy, but as an anarchical utopia with little
restraint, not to mention abundant sex and money.
They believed that the end of the restrictive powers of the Soviet regime would
make them rich overnight. As the years passed, though, they came to realize
that the new regime would give to the majority, especially to provincial folk,
nothing but misery, and their resentment grew. Pro-Western sympathy eroded, to
be replaced by Russian nationalism. At this point, youths were not much
different from the majority of Russians.
Putin used these feelings to rise to power, serving as president from 2000 to
2008. Still, the regime, while changing its ideological autocracy, did not
change the social and economic arrangement - the gap between affluent Moscow
and the poor provinces remained. The fascination of the youth with Putin and
the official brand of nationalism declined, and radical nationalism became
increasingly directed against the regime and the Russian state in general.
The representatives of this specific brand of Russian extremism proclaim that
the Russian state (empire) is just a trick to perpetuate the dominance of
minorities. In their view, the imperial Russian state has been historically in
the hands of minorities, and the call for the strengthening of the Russian
state is nothing but a way of strengthening the power of the minorities - from
Jews to Chechens - over helpless Russians.
Russians thus need to liberate themselves from the oppressive Russian state,
which radical nationalists believe should either be shrunk to a small but
ethnically homogeneous "republic of Russia", or be dismembered into autonomous
regions. In any event, all means are acceptable if they lead to Russians'
liberation from Moscow - the ultimate manifestation of Russian oppression and
actually considered a non-Russian city.
In a sense, their logic is similar to that of Russians at the end of the
Mikhail Gorbachev era (1991), when many regarded the Soviet empire as a
liability for ordinary Russian people. Still, the new generation of Russian
youth is different from the opposition to Gorbachev and his successor, Boris
Yeltsin. The most important difference is their acceptance of violence.
There are several reasons for this. First, they were raised in the post-Soviet
era and had no experience of the brutal efficiency of the repression mechanisms
of the totalitarian state. Secondly, they grew up in a milieu of constant
criminal violence, an inescapable aspect of life in post-Soviet Russia. Many of
them participated in the war in Chechnya; and, finally, Chechen terrorism
itself started to influence them.
Violence and anti-establishment feelings had begun to coalesce in the minds of
a considerable number of Russian youth by the beginning of Putin's tenure.
Still, at that time, they attacked mostly the minorities - swarthy-looking
migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia. By the end of Putin's eight-year
tenure, minorities had become increasingly associated with the oppressive elite
- with the state and even the Orthodox Church seen as the major ideological
props of an essentially anti-Russian regime.
This was evident during the ethnic violence in Kondopoga in the Republic of
Karelia in 2006, which started when two ethnic Russians were killed and several
others badly injured by Chechens. Groups of ethnic Russian youths - many
traveling from Moscow - rioted, demanding that the local government forcibly
resettle all people from the Caucasus, especially ethnic Chechens, from the
Those who participated in the riots and who engaged in discussions on the
Internet proclaimed openly that the Moscow regime represented both minorities
and the rich - rolled into one body alien to Russians - and that it should be
destroyed by force. They proposed creating underground organizations and
mustering arms to engage in armed struggle against the regime.
It has been estimated by the Moscow Anti-Fascist Center that more than 40
nationalist extremist groups operate in Russia. According to the Moscow Bureau
of Human Rights, reported racist attacks have risen fourfold in the past five
years, with close to 300 in 2009, which included 122 deaths. Many attacks go
unreported as they involve illegal migrant workers.
As economic woes continue in Russia and avenues for social advancement remain
closed, one can expect the number of attacks to increase. Moreover, in the
process of their ideological evolution, extremist nationalists could see the
Russian state as the ultimate evil and grudgingly accept even their ex-enemies,
jihadis, as at least temporary allies in fighting the common arch enemy. At
that point, ideological differences could be ignored.
This is not to say that Russia is on the brink of a new wave of mass-scale
extremist terror/violence. Indeed, since the Beslan school hostage crisis in
2004 in which at least 334 hostages were killed, including 186 children, no
major terrorist attack has been recorded in Russia.
The Nevsky Express blast, though, for which both jihadis and Russian extremist
nationalists claimed responsibility, is a warning of the possibility of the
most unexpected alliances. And not just in Russia, but the world over.
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of
Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of
East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.