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Wednesday, 11 July 2007


Published in Analytical Articles

By Dmitry Shlapentokh (7/11/2007 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Russia experienced ethnic riots in Kondopoga, Karelia, in 2006 and in Stavropol in the southern part of European Russia in May and early June 2007. Patterns were similar; both centered on clashes between Russians and Chechens. These events begin to form a trend of the type of nationalist movements developing in Russia, which are decidedly different from the Yeltsin era.

Russia experienced ethnic riots in Kondopoga, Karelia, in 2006 and in Stavropol in the southern part of European Russia in May and early June 2007. Patterns were similar; both centered on clashes between Russians and Chechens. These events begin to form a trend of the type of nationalist movements developing in Russia, which are decidedly different from the Yeltsin era. The proliferation of such movements, if it does take place, would hold important consequences for Russian politics and society, particularly for the North Caucasus and adjoining regions.

BACKGROUND:        In Stavropol, an ordinary brawl quickly evolved into a virtual battle involving up to 200-400 people. At the beginning, the police were passive observers; when rioters started to attack them, they fired, mostly in the air. Militia and riot police dispersed the crowd; one person was killed and apparently several dozen were seriously injured. Several days after the brawl, two Russians were killed; according to some reports, their throats were cut. Local Russians attributed the killings to Chechens, and several hundred people assembled on the square in what was described by authorities as a “non-legitimate” (i.e. not approved by the authorities) meeting.

As in Kondopoga, the protestors demanded the protection of ethnic Russians from Chechens, a purge of the local authorities, whom they regarded as bought by Chechens, and the creation of local detachments of ethnic Russians. Despite attempts by the authorities to appease the crowd, they screamed “Long Live Russia!” (Slava Rossii) and some made Nazi-type salutes. Later, some members of the crowd started a rampage in the city, beating people they assumed to be Chechens. Eventually, the authorities restored order.

Some generalization can be made about the Stavropol riot and similar events in other parts of the country. It is true that the violence was localized and the authorities were able to stop it fairly quickly. But popular receptiveness to this pogrom type of violence indicates that the Kondopoga and Stavropol riots cannot be regarded as isolated events. They  represent a new trend that, as acknowledged by well-known Russian journalist Yulia Latynina, could not be found in Yeltsin’s Russia. Paradoxically enough, one could see in these riots a sort of twisted rise of Western modernity with Russian nationalism as its manifestation.

A common assumption among historians of Russian thought is that Russian nationalism emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century with the Slavophiles. This assumption ignores the fact that the idea was an intellectual construct for a few members of the Russian elite. Peasants – the vast majority of the population – had absolutely no notion of Russian nationalism and basically equated being Russian with Orthodoxy. Similarly, for most ethnic Russians in the Soviet period, “Russianness” was dissolved into “Sovietness.” Both groups had allegiances to their relatives, friends, and so on, people with whom they had personal relations. If they had an allegiance outside what Ferdinand Tonnies called “Gemeinschaft” relationships – based on interpersonal connections – it would be to the state, personalized in the Czar or Secretary-General.

The emergence of capitalist modernity, with ideas of private property and law that transcended personal connections, led to the percolation of nationalism into the fabric of daily life. And it seems to be emerging in present-day Russia for the first time since the brief period at the end of the tsarist regime. As in the past, nationalism corresponds with solidarity among groups whose members have similar characteristics but are not personally related to each other. To judge by internet discussions, this can apparently be seen among those who participated in the Stavropol riot.

IMPLICATIONS: Participants in the Stavropol riot demonstrated a high level of national solidarity. The rioters easily enlisted local Russians, not just friends but passersby and taxi drivers; some were even ready to come from other cities. The protesters met and elaborated on the need to create a grassroots Russian party/organization and detachments to protect ethnic Russians, mostly from Chechens. The plans for action and the high level of organization on the basis of common ethnic origin transcend kinship/friendship or even territorial limits: the operational model of a modern Western Gesellschaft civic society which internalized nationalistic discourse. The transformation of Russian radicals’ nationalist model can be seen in their approach to sexual culture.

The skinheads and other Yeltsin era groups who used Nazi attributes were often not much different from plain criminals and shared their sexual culture, centered on immediate gratification and quick change of partners. Those who participated in the Stavropol riots put forward quite a different set of values. In their internet discussions, they explicitly condemned promiscuity.  For example, they attack Russian girls for being excessively concerned with being attractive and sexually promiscuous. They juxtaposed them to Chechen women, who they see as being strict in their sexual mores. The Russian nationalist radicals praise – at least judging by their internet discussions – not sexual promiscuity as would have been the case with similar groups during the Yelstin period, but family values and regarded the procreations as patriotic acts. Indeed, they stated that the decline of the Russian population would lead Russians to perdition. All of these values and actions are quite similar to that of values of members of modern Western society, regardless of their social affiliations.

The Internet forum participants’ nationalism is also enmeshed in a strong social animus  and a desire to act, often in a violent way. From this perspective the new generation of Russian radicals are quite different from the radical nationalists of the Yeltsin era, such as Aleksandr Barkashov, leader of RNE (Russian National Unity), who, despite Nazi-sounding symbols and blasting Jews and the regime for selling Russia to the West, was quite tame in his  activities. In fact, RNE tried to present itself as a party of order and collaborate with law enforcement agencies.

While some of the positions of the participants in the Stavropol and Kondopoga events such as grassroots politics, ethnic solidarity, and a sense of family might be compared with some elements of the modern West, others are more specific to this group. A first is the criminal implications of the penchant of considerable numbers of those who were engaged in events to lapse into pogroms. Their activities are quite similar to those of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century pre-revolutionary Russia, where social-national conflicts were enmeshed in waves of pogrom-type violence and common crime.

Second, and possibly a unique aspect of the Kondopoga and Stavropol events, is the participants’ dislike and in some cases hatred of Moscow, the central government, which is often explicitly defined as non-Russian. Several models emerge. The first holds that Putin is ethnically Russian but under the control of Kadyrov,  the Chechens’ overlord. According to this interpretation, Putin is ready to accept Kadyrov, even as a thug and bandit and Chechen nationalist, because he is fearful of instability and sees Kadyrov as the only force that could bring some order in Chechnya. Another interpretation makes Putin actually submissive to Kadyrov, whose cutthroat retinue dominates Russia. In the last interpretation, Kadyrov and his Chechen thugs actually become rulers of Russia. One contributor to the Internet discussion stated in a semiserious way that pundits should not much discuss Putin’s successor, for it will clearly be  Kadyrov.

CONCLUSIONS: As for other signs of discontent, one should be cautious about the immediate implications of the riots. Like the one in Kondopoga, the revolt in Stavropol did not spread and was put down comparatively easily. Still, it might portend other, more serious conflicts, like the anti-Jewish violence in the second half of the nineteenth century, one of the first manifestations of social conflict and a harbinger of the much more serious shake-up of Russian society several generations later in 1905-1921. The violence could also lead to the emergence or proliferation of terrorist activities committed by ethnic Russians, especially in the provinces. In fact, one contributor to the internet exchanges pointed out that since Moscow and the authorities in control are not actually Russian, Russian people should engage in acts of terrorist violence that would prevent Moscow from gorging on the rest of the country. Finally, ethnic violence would encourage Chechens and other ethnic minorities to be hostile to Russia and engage in turn in terrorist acts.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is an Associate Professor of history at the University of Indiana, South Bend.
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