The countering Western propaganda and claims that Muslim
The Kremlin has actively promoted nationalism as its prime agenda. For instance, the
Russian Academy of Sciences’ International Relations Department has established an annual
forum to train hundreds of experts on Russian national unity. The attendees are then meant to
promote conservative Russian values among regional and municipal offices and businesses,
spreading the ideology at the grassroots level. Also interesting is the effort of Kremlin to drive the
educational system towards conservative values. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russian
high schools have taught a required course called “We Are Together,” which explains why Crimea
was “reunified” with Russia.
Similar thing has happened in the media sphere where a number of right-wing TV programs
and films are being regularly broadcasted. Several Russian media outlets have increased the
broadcasts of conservative Soviet-era shows and movies. Specific instance comes from January
2016 when the patriotic-religious channel Tsargrad TV began to broadcast full-time, which is now
Russia’s fastest-growing station. Tsargrad TV promotes the principles of the Orthodox faith, calls
for a full intervention in Ukraine, offers tips on countering Western propaganda and claims that
Muslim migrants in Russia are Islamic State recruiters.
The resurgence in the number of monuments and statues being erected and the significant
media attention those ceremonies received is another interesting example of the Kremlin endorsed
nationalism. From the erection of the monument of Josef Stalin in Surgut in January 2016, and
first statue of Ivan the Terrible in Oryol in October 2016 to the foundation ceremony of the 17-
meter high monument of Vladimir the Great outside the Kremlin’s gates in November 2016,
unveiled by Putin and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I. All these actions to create a rhetoric of
Nationalism has been endorsed by the Kremlin and propagated to the masses by the government
held tools of information dissemination.
The problem a double-edged sword of Nationalism carries is the difficulty in defining the
scope of it and extent to which you exercise control on the spread of it till it takes the shape of
ultra-conservatism. In the Russian nationalism also, these activities have remained confined to the
classroom and public square. They expanded to policing and security as well, a source of serious
concern for the Kremlin. A group of young activists wearing military uniforms and presenting
themselves as “Officers of Russia: Executive Youth Wing” formed a human chain in Moscow to
prevent an exhibition of photographs by Jock Sturges in September 2016. In December this year,
a similar ultra-conservative group entered Oktyabr Theatre to stop the screening of the movie
“Bullet’s Flight” by director Beata Bubenets. The movie is based on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
The leader of the South East Radical Block (SERB) movement, Igor Beketov, was reportedly
among three members of the group detained by police over the incident.
Another form which the Ultra-conservatism can take is reflected by the group which calls
itself the Eurasian Youth Union (ESM), and reportedly backed by Dugin, who is on the U.S.
sanctions list for inciting rebellion in eastern Ukraine. The ESM claims it has established training
camps across Russia as part of the Kremlin’s patriotic push. The group’s stated goal is to train
Russian volunteers to fight in eastern Ukraine and to resist potential NATO attacks. It is unclear
how many of these camps actually exist, since estimates range from dozens to hundreds.
Regardless, many within the ESM are highly critical of Putin and say he is not aggressive enough
in Ukraine or against NATO. Dugin has argued that the ESM should not be led or ruled by the
Kremlin and that its ideology is more important than state loyalty. Other fringe and anarchist
groups have attended the ESM’s training courses as well, many of which are openly opposed to
Putin and his administration. The Kremlin’s push towards nationalism has eventually landed
Kremlin in an uncomfortable position due to varied perception of what Kremlin meant by
Russia’s far-right comprises of the ultra-conservative Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Alexander
Bastrykin, Sergei Glazyev and Alexander Dugin, among others. Some of these names are much
more than just nationalists. But, other hard liners have become popular in recent times too. Though
all of them vary in their intensity and agendas, having a common voice for agendas around an
aggressive foreign policy to safeguard interests of the Russian diaspora, a crackdown on Muslims
and a rooting out of competing ideologies such as communism, liberalism and fascism.
The demand for an aggressive foreign policy have translated into open voices for an allout
intervention in Ukrainian. Zhirinovsky, Bastrykin, Dugin and several others have publicly
criticized Putin for holding back in Ukraine. Most also want Russia to take a firmer military line
against NATO and the United States. Moreover, many favor isolationism as a means of protecting
Russia from Western threats.
The ultra-conservative’s demand to crack down on Russia’s growing Muslim population is
not a new idea, though it has recently gained widespread support by the large majority of the
Russian population. The Kremlin also treats this with a heavy hand, especially in the Caucasus.
The heavy-handed security presence in the predominantly Muslim area is an outgrowth of two
separatist wars in nearby Chechnya in the mid-1990s that spread an Islamic insurgency throughout
the North Caucasus region of Russia. The culture of violence has fostered a generation of hardened
fighters, which combined with the continuing crackdown by police and other security forces, has
made areas like Komsomolskoye a fertile recruiting ground for the Islamic State. Magomed
Magomedov, deputy editor-in-chief of Dagestan’s respected weekly Chernovik, said “the
authorities’ systematic repression of the ultra-conservative Salafi Islam community is pushing its
members to the margins of society. Few efforts are made by Russian authorities to stop young men
from leaving. Many in Dagestan see the intimidating security presence as not only fueling the
exodus but also serving to rid the region of men by encouraging them to flee.”
All of these developments have given the Kremlin something to think about in the recent times.
Kremlin has embraced and promoted conservative ideology, but it has acted swiftly against a large
number of ultra-conservative groups. Ilya Goryachev, 33, guilty of illegal arms possession,
masterminding five killings, and organizing a brutal neo-Nazi gang that hatched plans to create a
“Fourth Reich” in Russia is one such example. Goryachev was found guilty of founding the neoNazi
group BORN, or the Military Organization of Russian Nationalists. Unlike other neo-Nazi
gangs that hunted down dark-skinned non-Russians, BORN mostly targeted “race traitors”, or
ethnic Russians who confronted their ideology. Racially motivated attacks peaked in 2008, when
militant ultra-nationalists killed at least 110 people and left 487 wounded, according to SOVA, a
Moscow-based hate crimes monitor. The number of hate crimes plummeted. In the first half of
2015, four people had been killed and 37 wounded, it said. This is amidst the big state crackdown
on Ultra-Conservatives involving extreme violence. Alexander Verkhovsky, Director at SOVA
said “But despite the pressure, the ultra-nationalists still enlist up to 20,000 people who are busy
training in gyms and forests throughout Russia, There’s less attacks and more military drills”.
Yet amid this crackdown, Kremlin has also sought to forge its own state nationalism – and
used elements of the ultra-nationalist agenda in its increasingly anti-Western, neo-conservative
and isolationist ideology that the Kremlin started to forge after the annexation of Crimea. Putin
indeed inside the Kremlin would be striving hard to balance the equation between the liberals and
the conservatives to modify Russia’s foreign and domestic policy stance. He would be aware of
being left behind if the ultra-conservative rhetoric went far ahead of his position, but he is also
aware of the consequences of acting too aggressively. The rise of extreme views will make it more
difficult for Putin to develop a strategy for unifying Russia and those gaps in unity will only widen
in the face of negative economic changes, foreign policy failure and demographic change, factors
that have already fueled the Kremlin’s fears of instability. Being aware of the problems caused by
certain Conservative movements, Kremlin will take harsh actions to control the environment
providing stability. But the Kremlin is not yet ready to completely give up its position to use
nationalism as a tool in its overall political inventory. Instead, it will try balance the act, curbing
the most extreme activities while continuing to rely on and support far-right groups which fall into
Kremlin’s scope to prop up its base of support.