Xenophobia on Unity Day

Nationalist groups have seized upon a patriotic holiday, staging “Russian Marches” across the country. On November 4th, the National Day of Unity, thousands took to the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, and a number of other major cities. They were carrying signs and placards, among them: “We are Russians, and God is with us,” “Glory to Russia,” and “Tolerance is AIDS.” Participants were plainly seen signaling the fascist salute to speakers. No significant arrests or disturbances were reported.

President Vladimir Putin initiated the National Day of Unity in 2005 to replace a nearby holiday, the November 7th celebration of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The nascent holiday has its origins back in 1612. During a time of social strife, a volunteer army banded together to unite Russia and push Polish-Lithuanian invaders out of Moscow.

While the holiday was intended to rouse the national spirit and use patriotism to bring Russians together, it has been used by far-right nationalist and Orthodox groups to promote their own agendas. Critics of the Kremlin have motioned that the Government has done too little in response to rising levels of xenophobia and hate crimes. According to the Sova rights group, over 50 people have been killed, and over 400 injured in racially motivated attacks in 2007 alone.

Opposition political groups staged counter-demonstrations, and spoke out against the nationalists. In Moscow, liberal political parties including Yabloko and the United Civil Front joined other organizations in a meeting titled “Against fascism and xenophobia.” Yabloko’s leader, Grigoriy Yavlinsky, noted that “racism, nationalism, xenophobia, hatred of people different from you, and antisemitism are growing in Russia like a cancerous tumor.” He continued that inter-ethnic peace was possible only in a country with an unshakable constitution, where everyone is responsible before the law.

Iskander Gayar, president of the Fund for the Development of Muslim Peoples, stated that “Russia is a bridge between Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and other cultures and religions.” He also chastised the mass-media for portraying all Muslims as terrorists.

Garry Kasparov, the leader of the United Civil Front, said that the current authorities are playing the nationalist card for their own benefit. He noted that groups like the “Movement Against Illegal Immigration,” which sponsors rallies and riots against immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus, are useful to the Kremlin, “because the authorities use the threat of fascism as justification for a war on the opposition.” “Only a Russia without Putin will be a Russia without fascism,” he continued.