A walk with a Russian nationalist

© RIA Novosti . Mikhail Fomichev / Go to the mediabankRussian nationalists make Nazi-style salutes during a rally in central Moscow
Russian nationalists make Nazi-style salutes during a rally in central Moscow - Sputnik International
As inter-ethnic tensions continue to simmer ahead of Russia's parliamentary elections, RIA Novosti takes a journey into the country's nationalist underground.

As inter-ethnic tensions continue to simmer ahead of Russia's parliamentary elections, RIA Novosti takes a journey into the country's nationalist underground.

"I don't want to talk about Anders Breivik," the leader of Russia's outlawed Slavyansky Soyuz nationalist movement says as we walk through the back-streets and courtyards of central Moscow.

"Everyone asks me about him," Dmitry Dyomushkin, a veteran of Russia's ultra-right scene, complains. "Some German journalists came to see me recently and that was all they talked about." He spits out one of the Russian language's more expressive swearwords to show he has no interest in continuing the topic.

Dyomushkin, who seeks a Slavic purity for Moscow and other Russian cities outside the volatile, mainly Muslim North Caucasus, may be reluctant to discuss Breivik's "wake-up call" to what he saw as the dangers of multiculturalism, but there were others in Russia who openly celebrated his actions. A number of social network fan pages were set up in the Norwegian gunman's honor, with one of them calling him a "hero of the white race."

Such sentiments came as no surprise to anyone who has observed the rise in racial tensions across Russia, whose sprawling territory is home to dozens of ethnic groups. The Interior Ministry says race-hate crimes have grown six-fold since 1995. Last year, 37 people of "non-Slavic appearance" were murdered by extremists across Russia.

But Dyomushkin, the holder of degrees in economics and psychology from a prestigious Moscow university, is scornful of such violence. "I don't see any sense at all in young guys sticking knives into street-sweepers and ruining both their own lives and the lives of their victims...I've got nothing to do with that kind of nationalism," he says.

While there were flare-ups of racial tensions in the Soviet Union, the authorities managed - on the whole - to keep the lid on inter-ethnic hostilities. But the chaos accompanying the collapse of the world's first socialist state saw a rapid deterioration in relations between Russia's many peoples - in particular between ethnic Russians and residents of North Caucasus republics. As federal forces engaged in the indiscriminate destruction of Chechnya, North Caucasus criminal gangs made their brutal mark on Moscow and other big cities. The consequences for inter-ethnic ties were predictable.

His speech an odd mixture of Russian street slang and erudite political discourse, Dyomushkin, 32, is clearly no common thug. Yet while his movement may justify its use of Nazi imagery (the group's swastika is "an ancient Russian symbol") and Dyomushkin condemn violence in no uncertain terms, Slavyansky Soyuz members have been jailed for race-hate murders. Two of them, teenagers Artur Ryno and Pavel Skachevsky, were jailed for the brutal killings of over 20 migrants in 2009.

But to many ethnic Russians, nationalist groups such as Slavyansky Soyuz are a counterforce to mass internal labor migration from impoverished former Soviet republics such as Tajikistan and the perceived inability - or reluctance - of the authorities to guarantee the rule of law and order. Tensions between ethnic Russians and youths from North Caucasus republics like Chechnya and Dagestan are another major source of friction.

Anger over the police's handling of the investigation into the killing of ethnic Russian football fan Yegor Sviridov by a group of youths from the North Caucasus saw some 5,000 nationalists and football hooligans riot outside the Kremlin walls last December. President Dmitry Medvedev called the disorder a threat to "the very stability of the state" and appealed for inter-ethnic calm.

Although Dyomushkin sees the December riots as a "boiling point" and "the first act" in a nationalist "uprising," he also suggests the disorder was an inevitable reaction to the police's failures in dealing with previous attacks on ethnic Russians.

"It is regrettable that it took thousands of people clashing with riot police in the center of Moscow to encourage the authorities to start investigating an ordinary criminal case," he says. "It's very sad to live in such a country."

While Russia's tiny pro-West, liberal opposition is marginalized and enjoys little grassroots backing, far-right movements can boast much wider support, some of which - according to analysts and nationalist sources - comes from within the security services.

Russia's hawkish NATO envoy, Dmitry Rogozin, brought nationalist sentiments into mainstream politics earlier this month when he said at a political forum also attended by Medvedev that North Caucasus internal migrants were guilty of "a violation of Russian cultural norms."

"Some peoples in Russia are more equal than others, and the Russian people are now in the position of a discriminated majority," he went on. "Immigration of huge numbers of unqualified workers has created immense pressures on our cities...Multiculturalism has not led to integration of minorities but to the creation of a fifth column."

Rogozin, who has been predicted to make a return to domestic politics ahead of December's parliamentary polls, made headlines across Russia in 2005 with an advert for his Rodina (Motherland) party that featured the slogan "Let's clean Moscow of rubbish" and depicted him scolding a group of Caucasus migrants for littering the streets. But he has always denied the clip was racist and dismisses suggestions that "rubbish" was code for migrants.

"The only people who saw xenophobia in that were xenophobes," he tells RIA Novosti. He also denies that both the advertisement and his party - whose slogan was "Moscow for Muscovites" - gave a boost to the far-right movement in Russia and legitimized nationalist views.

He is adamant though that the "Russian Question" is the most crucial issue in the country today. "The well-being of the entire nation depends on the well-being of ethnic Russians," he says.

But Dyomushkin is, surprisingly, unimpressed by Rogozin, and says that his predicted return from NATO headquarters in Brussels is simply a ploy to placate the some 50% or so of Russians who regularly admit in opinion polls to harboring xenophobic feelings.

"Rogozin didn't make any amazing discovery," Dyomushkin said. "It was just that he was allowed to say it. But we've been saying all this for the last 15 years...Only right now we have to say it in the back-streets." "For nationalists, Rogozin is not a leader...he's just some official."

Dyomushkin also has no love for the policies of Russia's ruling tandem of Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and accuses them of failing to maintain inter-ethnic peace and doing nothing to stop the demographic crisis among "his people."

"My nation is dying," he says, and the figures would appear to back him up. Preliminary results from last year's census show Russia's population has fallen from just over 145 million to 142.9 million since 2002. Alcohol abuse, a health system largely unfit for purpose and low birth rates among ethnic Russians have all contributed to the crisis.

There is, however, one figure in Russian politics whose politics Dyomushkin admires: Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Dyomushkin visited the mainly Muslim southern republic in July, along with Alexander Belov, the leader of the outlawed ultra-right Movement against Illegal Immigration (DPNI).

Kadyrov - a former militant fighter who switched sides to back Moscow between the two Chechen wars - is accused of presiding over widespread human rights abuses. Russia's biggest rights group, Memorial, has also accused him of being "responsible" for the 2009 killing of prominent rights campaigner Natalia Estemirova, who headed the organization's Grozny office.

Dyomushkin waves these concerns aside, saying Kadyrov is "ideal" for the Chechens and "an awful lot more effective" than Putin or Medvedev. "No one else would have been able stop the violence in Chechnya," he says. "Yes, he uses authoritarian methods, yes, he abuses human rights - but it works, doesn't it?"

Dyomushkin also praises Kadyrov's "ban on alcohol and prostitution," as well as his crackdown on corruption, something he suggests no other provincial leader has "had the guts to do." He likewise expresses his admiration for Kadyrov's succesful attempts to boost population numbers in Chechnya.

But while he admits that there is much about Kadyrov's Chechnya that he "as a person with a European mentality" finds unattractive, Dyomushkin also suggests that mainstream Russia needs a similar figure to steer it out of its current turmoil.

Alexei, too, yearns for a "stronger hand" that will give ethnic Russians like himself precedence over immigrant populations. I meet him outside Russia's Supreme Court, where Belov's anti-immigration DPNI movement has just been denied legal status.

"There are lots of illegal migrants in Moscow, right?" he says. "If you ask me, I think they should be put in reception centers and then sent packing. They have no roots here." Like Dyomushkin, Alexei also has little love for Russia's rulers. "Putin fought two wars against the Chechens and today he smiles at meetings with North Caucasus leaders," he says.

Shortly after I spoke with Alexei, a Russian student was killed with a single blow during a scuffle outside a Moscow nightclub. His suspected killer, Dagestan-born martial arts champion Rasul Mirzayev, said he attacked Ivan Agafonov because the 19-year-old insulted his girlfriend. Mirzayev, who faces up to 15 years in jail for manslaughter, was bailed for 5 million rubles ($159,000) but was promptly returned to jail following an appeal from prosecutors. The case has enflamed - again - nationalist passions, and security sources quoted by Russian media said the sportsman had been denied bail due to fears of a repeat of last year's riots.

Dyomushkin won't be drawn though on the consequences of a "not guilty" decision for Mirzayev or the suspects in the trial of the death of football fan Sviridov.

"Hey, guys, let's have some cleverer questions," he says, clearly annoyed. "The answer is obvious, yeah?"

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