Should We Expect a Rapprochement Between Liberals and Nationalists?
January 20, 2024
SOVA Center Director Alexander Verkhovsky looks at attempts by liberals to build bridges with nationalists and explains why the war in Ukraine makes cooperation almost impossible.
Since the spring of 2022, anti-imperial sentiments have become visibly more popular among the liberal part of the anti-authoritarian Russian opposition (i.e., among activists and authors who do not have clear nationalist, leftist or any other ideological orientations). The most widely supported document of the anti-war opposition states that “the implementation of imperial policies at home and abroad is unacceptable.”

One of the obvious alternatives to the principle of empire is nationalism, including nationalism of the majority. Thus, it stands to reason that in the liberal opposition there could arise – or be revived – interest in a rapprochement in one form or another with some segment of Russian nationalists. Of course, these processes, like any real political processes, are now very difficult inside Russia, but they could well develop in emigration.
Alexei Navalny at a Moscow rally on March 10, 2012. Source: Wiki Commons
Convergence of liberals and nationalists?

We look at two options for positive relations between liberals and Russian nationalists: political coalitions and some form of convergence like a rapprochement or even merging.

We can say right away that one form of convergence is evident: the inclusion of nationalist activists (hereinafter, nationalists mean Russian nationalists) into liberal organizations and projects. But this process began much earlier and is attributable not so much to the war as to the decline of the far-right movement and forced emigration.

For example, Garry Kasparov’s Free Russia Forum involves at least one prominent nationalist, Daniil Konstantinov, though he is not acting in that role. However, the same thing had been observed previously inside Russia in Alexei Navalny’s movement. These nationalists can be seen as “latent,” not because someone is covering up their participation, but rather because their nationalist agenda is not visible or even active. Thus, if there is convergence here, it is rather potential, as with any infiltration.

The situation with coalition building is much worse. Mostly, of course, because there is almost no one to build them with:
“Liberals and the large majority of still-active nationalists disagreed on the war, and while the war is going on, it is difficult to imagine a coalition transcending that disagreement.
Meanwhile, the general steady decline of the nationalist movement since the mid-2010s has made the nationalist anti-war minority a very small one.

There is also a negative experience that has not yet been forgotten by either side. At the beginning of the protests in the winter of 2011-12, almost all nationalist political leaders joined the liberals, hoping that such an alliance would attract new supporters. They were generally well received by liberal leaders, since before that winter it was the Russian March that marked the largest opposition event in the country for several years running.

But both sides miscalculated: 80-90% of the participants in the Russian March disregarded the alliance with the liberals (and leftists), and generally the share of supporters of nationalist ideas at protest rallies was usually just around several percent. So, the liberals gained nothing, and the nationalist leaders lost a lot. In addition, the nationalists turned out to be strange allies, capable of using violence against their “comrades” during rallies.
A Russian volunteer fighting on the Ukrainian side. Source: VK
It is more advantageous to compete than to ally

There has been no visible progress since then. In Ilya Ponomarev’s Congress of People’s Deputies, where everyone was invited, the nationalists had a very limited part. The most famous former far-right member of the “congress,” Alexei Baranovsky, acts as a “latent nationalist,” while the most open one, Vasily Kryukov, was eventually expelled for uncooperative behavior.

The only group of nationalists that was able to attract the attention of potential liberal allies was the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK; see Russia.Post about it here), a small unit of the Ukrainian armed forces formed by famous Russian neo-Nazis who left for Ukraine long ago and consisting mainly of like-minded people.

The RDK in its manifesto unusually combines a fascist pathos with a willingness to grant independence to Russia’s ethnic minorities when they live together in one area. But most importantly, with its forays into Russian territory in the spring of 2023, the RDK managed to force liberals to talk about it, while other, also small, pro-Ukraine Russian ultra-right groups, whether in Russia or in exile, simply go unnoticed by liberals.

Some considered support for the RDK acceptable, arguing that allies should not be turned away (this includes Garry Kasparov, “cultural entrepreneur” Marat Gelman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s partner Leonid Nevzlin, lawyer and blogger Mark Feigin, etc.), while others believed that such allies are a big problem, both morally and practically (like Navalny’s main representative Leonid Volkov, writer Viktor Shenderovich, etc.). But the majority did not even have time to speak out, the discussion died out so quickly. Its short duration is itself telling.

It is not just the unattractiveness of the RDK as a partner. Forging a coalition with ideological opponents is far from always necessary or desirable, even in the face of a stronger enemy. A coalition is designed to improve the chances of success, either tactically or strategically. It can be advantageous in a rebellion or in elections (even then, it depends on the electoral system), but, for example, combining two disparate rallies into one does not always increase its total size and can also produce the opposite result.
Moreover, in a situation where success is still out of reach for the foreseeable future, it is often strategically more advantageous for political forces to compete rather than ally.
Members of the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK). Source: Wiki Commons
The only project still ongoing that involves a coalition of liberals and nationalists is Ilya Ponomarev’s “congress.” A variety of groups are represented there (however, the project has rather narrowed since its inception), though liberals certainly dominate the leadership. Besides the aforementioned Baranovsky, the far-right is represented there by Maximilian (Caesar) Andronnikov, the frontman of the Freedom of Russia Legion, a small armed unit of Russian citizens within the Ukrainian army associated with Ponomarev. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the head of the Congress of People’s Deputies secretariat is the politician Olga Kurnosova, who, during the 2012 protests, became known precisely for setting up cooperation between liberals and nationalists in St Petersburg.

Perhaps the path of convergence could be more promising, though I have in mind not the abovementioned “latent nationalists,” but the possibility of forming ideologically mixed structures. In the early 2010s, the then-emerging national democratic movement hinted at such a possibility, and Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Milov (at that time the leader of the small national democratic party Democratic Choice and now Navalny’s ally) at that time acted as a bridge between national democrats (natsdem') and the liberal opposition.

War in Donbas and ideological split

It is difficult to say how events would have played out further if not for the outbreak of the war in Donbas, in which almost all natsdems took a “pro-Donetsk” position, and almost all liberals took a “pro-Kyiv” position. Twenty twenty-two made this choice even tougher, so convergence with the liberals is now possible only for the “pro-Kyiv” segment of the natsdems, and the question of whether there are any of them in any significant quantity has acquired fundamental importance.

Notable political organizations have not followed and are not following the path of convergence. Navalny, the leader of the largest opposition movement, last tried to at least explore this path when he organized an open debate in 2017 with the main “hero” of the Donbas irredentists, Igor Strelkov: at that time, each side called themselves nationalist and accused the other of the “wrong nationalism.”

There have been no such attempts since then. Of the remaining figures of the pre-war years, there is only Ilya Lazarenko, a prominent 1990s Nazi who later became a national democrat before joining the Free Peoples of Post-Russia Forum, an association that supports dividing up Russia.

The only problem is that Lazarenko represents there an organization and publication that have not existed for a long time, as well as “Zalesye” (the name of one of the supposed independent state in a post-Russia future) – basically the entire Volga-Oka region of Russia. No one inside the country can be found at all. For example, the relatively popular anonymous Telegram channel Natsdem, despite the name, protests mainly not against authoritarianism, but against the war and migrants, with most activity directed toward the latter.

New “national democrats”

The only active group that can truly be called a convergence project was born out of the war: the Civic Council (CC), a small émigré organization based in Poland. The CC, created in the fall of 2022 by activist Anastasia Shultz-Sergeeva and North Caucasus researcher Denis Sokolov, offers practical assistance to Russians who want to fight for Ukraine.

Initially, the CC sent volunteers, including non-nationalists, to the RDK. In its manifesto, the CC assumes that Russia, after defeat in the war and the fall of the current regime, will be divided into several states as large territorial ethnic groups exercise the right to self-determination (though they may alternatively decide to remain part of the Federation).

In fact, the CC includes activists of various stripes, including separatists from different regions, including Chechnya.
The leaders of the Civic Council themselves, who were not previously Russian nationalists, now write that ethnic nationalism is the necessary basis for a civic nation.
Ildar Dadin, previously a democratic activist who switched units to join the so-called Siberian Battalion fighting for Ukraine. Source: Wiki Commons
They call for supporting even such radical ethnic nationalists as the leaders of the RDK. General civic identity, in contrast to ethnic identity, is also rejected by the CC as “slavish.”

After the RDK gained notoriety, it severed relations with the CC in June 2023. Following this, the CC continued to recruit fighters, only now to the so-called Siberian Battalion under the command of a former Russian officer and one of the founders of the organization Assembly of the Free Sakha (Sobraniye Svobodnykh Sakha). Some non-nationalist RDK fighters moved to this battalion, including the famous democratic activist Ildar Dadin. However, the CC did not change its ideological choice, still favoring a typical national democratic platform.

Today, the convergence seems to be represented by “latent nationalists” – individual, nationalist-minded activists who are scattered throughout the emigrant community (though not only) and not organized in any way, as well as the small Civic Council organization. Thus, though there is sometimes talk in the liberal mainstream about convergence, literally no steps in that direction have been taken.


The topic of attitudes about nationalism remains marginal for the liberal mainstream. For example, even traces of its discussion could not be found on the top liberal Telegram channels. All issues related to nationalism are left out of the main documents of large forums, like Kasparov’s or the Declaration of Russia’s Democratic Forces signed in Berlin.

But this does not mean that it will always be like this. It is likely that the topic of relations between liberal and nationalist movements will reemerge. For example, it is worth paying attention to how and where the rhetoric of anti-imperialism and decolonization is developing in the liberal opposition, or taking a closer look at the mentioned individual national democrats, the number of whom is difficult to even estimate. Finally, we can ponder how the dynamics of political relations will change when such a serious dividing factor as the war loses its relevance. Perhaps, however, that is too poorly visible a prospect to be discussed seriously at this point.
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