The State is Trying to Restore Control Over the “Ultrapatriotic” Camp
August 8, 2023
Aleхander Verkhovsky explains how the Russian ultraright is faring amid the war, how government policy is changing toward them and also what problems the government’s anti-Ukraine propaganda is running into.
The original interview in Russian was published in Republic. A shortened version with some changes has been approved by the author and republished here with Republic's permission.

In the latest research by the SOVA Center, about a pickup in ultra-right public activity in Russia in the first half of 2023, you write that the authorities have let the genie out of the bottle, and it will be difficult to get it back in. What is the reason for the rising nationalist movement in Russia?

Nationalism is not just a single organization that can grow or be crushed. The forms, the groups that are at the forefront are constantly changing, and this is exactly what is happening now. The people and groups that were under serious pressure in previous years remain on the periphery. I would point out, and this is very important, that they end up on the periphery not because of persecution. The Russian nationalist movement found itself in a deep crisis, not because it was under pressure – many people were under pressure – but because it had an internal crisis in the early 2010s that it could not cope with. And this pressure simply completed the process.

You mean that the nationalists had little public support?

It was not only that they had little public support – they had an unsolvable problem of how to get public support. The entire nationalist movement, as it emerged in the 2000s, was too deeply rooted in neo-Nazism. In this form, it could not count on mass support. All their efforts to somehow get out of this marginal position failed.

For example, efforts by nationalists to participate in the mass protests of 2012 did not attract new people to their ranks, but rather alienated old ones, because “real Nazis” cannot go to rallies with leftists. Then the Maidan began in Kyiv, followed by Crimea and Donbas, and there was a split on this issue in the nationalist movement, which, as it were, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. This split has not yet been overcome, and the problems that led to the decline in their activity have not gone anywhere. Basically, if they want to acquire mass support, they will have to start all over again.

Currently, they are trying to play on the theme of conservative moral values, but the state is also actively pushing this theme, and nationalists need to somehow stand out, which is not easy. And the further on, the harder it becomes.

With the war it is also not very clear how they can stand out.
If the state is leading a big war campaign, then what is your mission as a nationalist? You can support it or be against it, but in either case you are taking a reactive position, and this is not a winning formula.
“Russian March”, a nationalist demonstration. Moscow, 2019. Such right-wing street activism is no longer permitted, but at least until very recently, ultranationalists could get away with organizing conferences and even criticizing the authorities. Source: Wiki Commons
But fighting migrants, as in the past, is still a winning theme for nationalists, because even though some state people from time to time gang up against migrants, talking about “ghettos,” “ethnic crime” and so on, they do so sporadically and there are only a few of them. And if you are constantly active in this area, then you can be seen to have seized the initiative, which, in fact, we observed in July in Kotelniki, near Moscow, where the police staged a raid in a Muslim prayer house.

The initiative there was on the side of small nationalist organizations, the most active being the so-called Russian Community (Russkaia Obshchina), and law enforcement appeared only later. For everyone who was somehow involved in or at least followed that story, the initiators and winners are nationalist activists. This gives them some hope, but big successes are still very far away.

Clearly, the war with Ukraine has given the far right a chance. They turned out to be needed both for propaganda and to actually fight. Is it possible to put the genie of nationalism back in the bottle?

There are basically two types of Russian nationalists: those who generally (albeit with varying degrees of criticism) support the Russian government in the armed conflict with Ukraine, and others who support the Kyiv government. With the latter, everything is pretty clear: they can only be under more or less pressure, though amid the war, of course, they are under more.

Are they outside of Russia?

Some are in Russia – just recently a group of fighters was detained on charges of a planned, though a little fantastic-sounding, assassination attempt on Margarita Simonyan, and earlier on Vladimir Solovyov. It sounds a little strange, though on the other hand, the groups are real, these guys are not made up. There are Russian nationalists who are absolutely and seriously opposed to the Russian authorities. Some of them, of course, are abroad, but some are here. We cannot estimate how many – probably not many, for obvious reasons. And amid the war it is quite clear that the state has no qualms about how to deal with them.

But an interesting picture has been observed with the nationalists who support the authorities. For a year and a half, they were not subjected to any persecution. They could, like the very Strelkov, revile the authorities as much as they wanted, and they got away with it. The only, important condition was that there should be no street rallies. You can gather at conferences, you can found the Angry Patriots Club, but you cannot be active on the street. This important restriction was necessary so that they could not involve the wider public in their activities.

But still, Strelkov and some of his associates have a rather large audience on social networks, hundreds of thousands of subscribers.

Experience has shown that agitating on the internet by itself cannot give rise to any significant political phenomenon. An interesting question is why nothing was done with them for a year and a half. But now Strelkov was picked up and arrested. I think
“People who are doing this are thus giving the ultra-patriot camp a signal that the authorities’ patience is starting to dry up.
Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch and prominent member of the pro-Kremlin conservative elite, supports a variety of nationalist organizations and initiatives. Source: Wiki Commons
And criticism of the authorities, like Strelkov’s, should be kept within limits. What these limits are, as always, is unknown – it will be figured out along the way. The state is trying to restore control in this area.
This pivot can hypothetically be linked to Prigozhin's quasi-rebellion. After all, it was hardly by chance that Strelkov was arrested almost right after him.

The repressive machine, as you know, never stops. Will they gradually come for everyone?

I think that our government long ago made the conclusion for themselves that it is impossible to eradicate any sector of the opposition. You can keep it under more or less pressure, but it is impossible to completely eradicate it, because new people just appear. What degree of pressure will be chosen for the near future, I, of course, do not venture to predict, but seemingly it is more than before.

The current scale of repression is very large, of course, but it is designed precisely to suppress, not completely eradicate. There are still many different ultra-right organizations in Russia. Those of them that are most loyal to the Kremlin, who look to Malofeev, are probably in the least vulnerable position. But then again, it is never clear how everything will turn out and who it will be deemed necessary to rein in.
In my view, groups that are trying to position themselves as “non-political” have a chance to grow, by reproducing the strategy of the early Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), which claimed that it was not a political movement or opposition at all, but was exclusively focused on “the threat of migration.”

Currently, we have Russian Community and Northern Man (Severnyi chelovek), which are gradually acquiring supporters and branches in different cities. Meanwhile, the media writes almost nothing about them, as they are not talking about the war. And because they are not in the spotlight, they can grow. For now, a reasonable strategy is to try to grow as much as possible, while they are allowed to, as they say. Perhaps they hope that maybe later, if something happens, there will be political destabilization, and they can try to participate in a real competitive struggle, democratically or not, depending on how things go.
Today, Russians nationalists have successful grassroots, activist initiatives, but how much they will be able to convert them into political organizations is not clear.
There are, for example, Malofeev and his comrades who are quite capable of political maneuvering. But keep in mind that as long as the current political regime exists, the most important element for everyone is the relationship with this regime. Malofeev clearly determined for himself that he will obey, and he has demonstrated this more than once. Something as yet unimaginable must happen for him to change his orientation.

Now, there is no situation where it would be possible to change the political regime. And every group, not only nationalists, hopes that it will come out in the best shape when something becomes possible. At this point, they all have an idea that now is a preliminary stage where they need to score as many points as possible relative to their competitors.

But if a really advantageous situation arises, because of problems at the front or for whatever reason, people will start discussing real coalition projects, their broadness varying.

But I do not think that this moment is anywhere close.

Most people, sociologists tell us, support the existing political regime simply because they see no good alternative to it. There is nothing ideological in their reasoning – neither liberal, nor authoritarian, nor nationalist, nor imperialist, nothing (there are some cliches in their heads, of course, but they might not be so significant).

But if, in some future situation of uncertainty, people realize that there really is some choice about the future, if the choice suddenly becomes visible to them, then ideological filters will appear. I think that
“Citizens do not know and cannot know what they will want at that moment until it appears. No choice is offered them today, and how the choice will look when it arrives is impossible to understand now.
Is it in the interests of the authorities today to maintain within society the feeling that there is no choice for as long as possible?

It goes without saying, like in any authoritarian regime. In fact, this has been successful and has been going on for many years. After all, the main message of the authorities is not only that Putin is absolutely wonderful and could not be better, but that there is no alternative. This phrase “If not Putin, then who?” is not only personal, with the leader personally mentioned. This is a statement that there is no alternative. That all alternatives are some kind of nonsense, some call us back to the damned 90s, others to the Soviet Union, and all this, of course, is no good, because we rejected all this in the past – in other words, de facto the historical choice has already been made. Sounds pretty convincing. But if at some point many Russians feel that there is some other way forward, then the situation will change. Another question is exactly what way forward they will see.

Are the authorities now interested in inciting and supporting hatred toward Ukrainians? Has it made its way from TV propaganda into the everyday?

The propaganda of hatred that clearly exists on TV is directed not against Ukrainians as an ethnic community, but against Ukraine as a state, against the idea of its existence as a state. But
“There are a lot of ethnic Ukrainians living in Russia, and the government has no reason to make enemies out of them, it is not doing that.
When people talk about sinister “Ukrainians,” they also do not mean all ethnic Ukrainians, they mean some, hypothetically speaking, “bad,” “anti-Russia” Ukrainians. But clearly there is still an “ethnic” side effect from all this propaganda.

But inciting ethnic hatred in our country is a bad idea for any regime, and toward Ukrainians even more so. Therefore, the authorities always suppress the incitement of ethnic hatred. But no matter how the authorities explain that there are good Ukrainians and bad ones, people do not understand how to distinguish between them.

The question is how to deal with the issue of migrants. On the one hand, labor migrants are economically needed. On the other hand, they irritate a significant part of the host population, so it seems to be right to go after them a bit and thereby score points. But how to maintain a balance is not clear. And therefore, for all the years that we have been observing this, there has been no coherent government line regarding migrants. Different officials and speakers say different things.

Will there be a turning point? I do not expect one, but who knows. Because from time to time, this issue escalates for no apparent reason, as it did in 2013 and 2021. War then drowned out everything else, but now we see that in the media and in the statements of various officials, the threat from migrants is again being stressed more and more, though nothing special has happened. Is there any political benefit from this for the authorities? In my view, no, but nevertheless it is still happening. It seems that due to the uncertainty over a strategy on the issue of migrants, something remains “loose” in the system, and it is shaking all the time.
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