Ultranationalist Violence in Russia Trending Up
May 2, 2024
  • Natalia Yudina
    Sova Research Center
Based on data collected by the SOVA Research Center, researcher Natalia Yudina looks at radical nationalism in Russia in recent years, in particular how it has been affected by anti-migrant policies and official rhetoric, the war in Ukraine and the recent terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall.
Radical Russian nationalism has been fueled by white racism since the early 2000s. Radical nationalists channeled their hatred toward “ethnic outsiders,” identified primarily by their appearance. In Russia, these outsiders were mostly labor migrants, usually from Central Asia. Thus, the theme of fighting migration inevitably became commonplace for Russian nationalists. The racist component of that effort was always obvious, and rhetorically they included not only foreigners (migrants from Central Asia), but also Russian citizens from the North Caucasus. However, as early as the latter half of the 2000s the focus of racist violence shifted from “Caucasians” to “Asians,” and in recent years the Caucasus has faded in the rhetoric of the far right.

After 2014, due to the crisis within the far-right movement, the theme of fighting migration somewhat lost relevance, but starting in 2019 it has been making a comeback in the public discourse. Major political events, such as the full-scale war with Ukraine or the terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall, have undoubtedly influenced the dynamics of anti-migrant activity by the far right, although not always in obvious ways.

Vigilantism and propaganda

In 2021, the official discourse in Russia changed quite unexpectedly: in the summer and autumn an anti-migrant campaign unfolded in state media, as reflected in statements by pro-government politicians and public figures. Actively discussed were such (supposed) issues as the threat of “ethnic crime,” excessive numbers of migrants and the harm they do to the labor market.

The reason for this campaign remains unclear, especially considering that the number of foreigners in Russia had declined significantly due to pandemic-related entry restrictions. In addition, in many cases the media wrote about threats emanating not only from migrants, but also from Russian citizens – for example, from Dagestanis or from foreigners who had long ago taken Russian citizenship – which only showed the racist underpinnings of the campaign.

This campaign lit a fire under Russian nationalists. On their internet platforms, descriptions of criminal clashes between locals and foreigners increasingly appeared, as well as other examples of illegal (or seemingly illegal) activities of foreigners, which nationalists diligently searched for on the internet and used to call for action against “Caucasians” [kavkaztsi], etc.

Sometimes the incidents described in the far-right segment of the internet did not have an obvious criminal component, for example, noise made in the evening or the decision by the real estate classifieds site CIAN to prohibit discriminatory listings in which apartments would be advertised for rent “only to Slavs” or “only to citizens of the Russian Federation.”
Speaking in December 2023 at a meeting of the clergy of the Moscow (city) diocese, Patriarch Kirill noted threats posed by “culturally foreign migrants.". Source: VK
The anti-migrant campaign briefly took a pause after the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, when both state propagandists and the far right, like the rest of the country, turned their attention entirely to Ukraine. But by the end of the spring of 2022, a return to anti-migrant content had become visible on the platforms of the far right.

The official political rhetoric circled back not much later, and since the autumn of 2022 anti-migrant rhetoric has only picked up. In October 2023, the head of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, called for a swift response to any crime committed by migrants. Patriarch Kirill, meanwhile, discussed the need to completely reverse Russia’s migration policy. And Duma deputies Mikhail Matveev from the KPRF, Alexei Zhuravlev from Rodina, and LDPR chief Leonid Slutsky proposed more and more laws aimed at tightening the rules for migrants in the country.
Anti-migrant rhetoric from politicians and pro-government public figures naturally fits into the struggle for traditional values. Militarism and aggressive language are now shared by the current political regime and most ultranationalists.
“Gangs of uninvited guests threaten every Russian individually and all Russians collectively. It would not be an exaggeration to say that before our eyes a threat to the Russian State itself has emerged,” wrote Konstantin Malofeev.

The most active organizations in the fight against migrants were two recently established networks of nationalists: Russian Community (Russkaya obshchina; established in 2020) and Northern Man (Severnyi chelovek; established in the summer of 2022). Both support the Kremlin’s policies, including the special operation in Ukraine, both call themselves nonpolitical organizations, declaring that they do not intend to compete for political power, and both advocate conservative morality and Orthodox values. Yet the focus of their activity is fighting migration.

Since the beginning of 2023, the vigilante activity of these and other nationalists has expanded, as they have taken on the functions of supporting the police as volunteers and sometimes even replacing them. In the summer and fall of 2023, several dozen cases were recorded in which the far right took part in anti-migrant police raids, went to the scenes of incidents involving foreigners and detained people without the participation of law enforcement, at least initially.

Since the beginning of 2024, the SOVA Center has recorded 136 cases of such vigilantism. In Kaluga Region, for example, Russian Community participated in police checks of migrants at construction sites and restaurants, collaborated with the Directorate for Traffic Safety in cracking down on illegal taxis, and in Ryazan and Yekaterinburg, as well as Krasnodar Region, even patrolled the streets.
Far-right violence

The anti-migrant campaign has encouraged some Russian nationalists prone to “direct action.” In 2021, the level of xenophobic violence against “ethnic outsiders” went up for the first time after seven years of almost continuous decline. In 2022, the number of such attacks, according to SOVA Center data, decreased dramatically – perhaps because attention was shifted to events in Ukraine, as mentioned above. It is also possible that some radical nationalists left the country.

Last year, however, these far-right attacks again increased, picking up from the spring of 2023. According to SOVA Center data, 121 people suffered from ideologically motivated xenophobic violence (not counting many minor episodes), with three of them dying (hereinafter the 2023 data is given for the year ending April 15, 2024). This represents the biggest year-on-year increase in all the years of SOVA Center monitoring: in 2022 there were 29 (reported) victims, while the 2021 figure was 73.

The level of such violence has thus returned to that of 2015 and even exceeded it (the highest levels of xenophobic violence were recorded at the turn of the 2000s and 2010s, but such figures are unlikely to be seen). A possible reason for the dramatic increase is the inevitable rise in aggression across society amid the war and the top-down anti-migrant campaign that was restarted in the last months of 2022, while perhaps a new generation of far-right teenagers has grown up, on whom the fear of repression in response to street violence that was in place for a decade no longer works.

“Of the 121 attacks recorded in the calendar year 2023 more than half were specifically ethnically motivated.

The other victims were alternative youth, political opponents (anti-fascists, anarchists and communists), LGBT+ people and those who, in the eyes of their attackers, lead a wrong lifestyle (e.g., homeless, drunk and drug users). Religiously motivated attacks are relatively rare in Russia. Muslims as a religious group are a constant target of hostility on far-right internet platforms, though they are rarely victims of attacks based on their religion. That said, in 2023 there were several attacks and public threats made against women wearing Muslim headdress.

Much of the current violence is carried out by autonomous nationalist groups. Judging by the videos and photographs published on Telegram channels, as well as data on arrests, most of the attackers are teenagers copying the aesthetics of Nazi skinheads of the early 2000s.

At this point, most of the activity of these new autonomous groups is not very radical. There are almost no murders, for example. These young neo-Nazis spray gas canisters in the faces of victims, puncture tires, break windows, damage goods at kiosks and the like – note that these types of acts were not included in the statistics provided above.
However, judging by the experience of the 2000s, as the number of acts increases and the perpetrators mature, the level of cruelty will inevitably rise. And that is already visible in group beatings.

It cannot be said that law enforcement officials are not reacting at all to these acts of violence. In 2023, some participants in attacks spread on far-right Telegram channels were detained. For example, in December 2023 cases were opened in St Petersburg against 16-year-old vocational school students detained on suspicion of at least five attacks on janitors from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Nevertheless, the authorities are clearly not keeping up with the jump in xenophobic violence perpetrated by these groups.

In 2024, the rise in racist violence by young autonomous neo-Nazi continued. As of April 15, 2024, the SOVA Center recorded 46 attacks motivated by hatred since the beginning of the year. The dynamics suggest that this year the number of such crimes will exceed the figure for 2023, although the year-on-year growth will be smaller than in 2023 versus 2022.
A roundup of migrants following the terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall. Source: YouTube
Reaction of Russian nationalists to Crocus City Hall terrorist attack

The reason for the latest surge in the activity of all nationalist groups was the terrorist attack committed on March 22, 2024, at Crocus City Hall in Moscow. Just over the weekend after the terrorist attack, we counted 324 posts on nationalist Telegram channels designed to incite hatred toward the “migrant enemy,” with a particular emphasis on the brutality of criminal incidents perpetrated by “Asians.”

From March 4 to March 22 there were 460 such posts, while from March 23 to April 14 as many as 882 posts were published. In particular, the calls from the far right demanding that the government take action against foreigners have grown louder. At the same time, police raids on migrants have sharply increased (see Russia.Post on that here).

The far right actively spread scenes of torture from the arrest of suspected Crocus City Hall terrorists. The brutal practice of mutilation and dismemberment has long existed and is welcomed by the far right. For example, in June 2021 in Leningrad Region, a citizen of Uzbekistan was attacked, his ear cut off, doused with gasoline and set on fire.
Three days after Crocus, Evgeny (Topaz) Rasskazov, a neo-Nazi and former member of the ultra-right group Rusich, published a video on his Telegram channel where a piece of the ear of one of the detainees is cut off, as well as a photograph of one of the officials who detained the men, who was dressed in camouflage with a black sun patch, popular among neo-Nazis. A little later, Topaz announced an auction for a bloody knife that was said to have been used to cut off the ear.

Another far-right activist, the leader of Male State, Vladislav Pozdnyakov, not only published photographs and videos with scenes of brutal torture of the alleged terrorists on his popular Telegram channel (with more than 565,000 subscribers), but also explicitly expressed approval of them, saying that they created “a very good media effect...” Pozdnyakov presented some of the videos as exclusive.

On March 25, an unequivocal call for racist attacks appeared in the NS/WP Telegram channel: “to make the most of the situation and replace everyday xenophobia in people’s heads with conscious racial hatred...”
This call for revenge, illustrated with a video of scenes from the Crocus tragedy, spread across many neo-Nazi Telegram channels.
After the terrorist attack, an anti-migrant statement was made by representatives of the Imperial Legion (the armed wing of the Russian Imperial Movement), some members of which are fighting in Ukraine on the Russian side. The Legion called on the “Russian [russkiye] people” to unite, “to stop creating an economic basis for migration: we must buy from Russians, hire Russians... use the services of Russians,” and, most importantly, to arm themselves to fight back against the “dominance” of migrants.
Members of the so-called Espanyol detachment, made up of soccer hooligans – also fighting in Ukraine – recorded an appeal straight from the battlefield, demanding to “immediately tighten migration policy and punish those responsible for bringing terrorists into Russia.”

Nine days after the terrorist attack, the Movement of Nationalists (which, unlike the groups listed above, is against the special operation in Ukraine) called for putting up anti-migrant posters “Islamist migrants shot more than 140 unarmed Russians. Stop bringing in migrants!” or pay for advertising space for such posters. Such posters actually went up on March 30-31 in six of Russia’s regions.

In the week following the attack, there were at least four serious ethnically motivated attacks that were explicitly labeled as revenge. In addition, from March 23 to March 31, far-right Telegram channels reported at least 25 lesser street attacks using gas canisters against people of “non-Slavic appearance,” including two girls in hijabs; of these attacks, six were called “revenge for Crocus.”

Other acts of revenge included puncturing the tires of cars with license plates from Chechnya, Dagestan and Central Asian countries. On March 23, an unknown person spray-painted the gates of a mosque in the city of Shchelkovo, Moscow Region. And on March 24, a video appeared in one far-right channel with a young man throwing a bag with a pig’s head onto the territory of a mosque during prayer.

This increase in violence occurred precisely in the last week of March, meaning it might have been attributable not only to the terrorist attack – in most Russian schools this is spring break, and such attacks are usually committed by teenagers, often still in school. Quite often school breaks are accompanied by an increase in violence. In total, the number of acts of far-right violence in March almost doubled compared to February. According to SOVA Center data, vigilante activity on the part of the far right rose twofold after the terrorist attack.

Anti-migrant activity – the bread and butter of the far right – has been on the rise since 2021. From that time, excluding a pause of about six months in 2022, it has been fueled by a state-sponsored anti-migrant campaign. This campaign provides hope to political nationalists that if the theme of the “migrant threat” is integrated into official rhetoric, they will be able – if politics returns in the future – to attempt to do what the Movement against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) failed to do in the early 2000s – to create a legal national-populist party.
The convergence of the official political rhetoric with nationalist ideology is perceived by nationalists as an unofficial green light for vigilante initiatives.
Relatively moderate nationalists maintain and even stress their loyalty to the authorities.

The terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall worsened existing problems. More moderate nationalists, focused on vigilantism and inciting hostility toward migrants, redoubled their efforts. The activity of their more radical brethren, who are bent on violence and vandalism, also picked up considerably. This trend has not translated into serious acts of violence – at least not yet. But radical nationalists have begun to agitate more actively on their Telegram channels.

The federal authorities have yet to make significant policy decisions regarding migrants, but the official rhetoric and law enforcement practices more than resonate with the activity of the far right.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy