From, July 31, 2023, Condensed text:

Editors’ NoteLike any authoritarian regime, to control society the Russian authorities have to maintain an atmosphere of hatred for external and internal enemies, usually imaginary ones. To this end, they leverage the rhetoric of Russian nationalists, which has emboldened the latter after long years of marginal existence. At some point, imaginary enemies become real, while the allies who were used to fight them get out of hand. Aleksandr Verkhovsky, head of the Sova Center for Information and Analysis (which studies xenophobia and nationalism), tells whether the ultraright movement in Russia is raising its head, whether nationalists should expect repressions following the arrest of [former defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk people’s republic] Igor Girkin, also known as Strelkov [see Vol. 75, No. 29‑30, pp. 7‑10], and whether the liberal camp has a future in the country. . . .

* * *

QuestionSova’s recent study on public activity by Russia’s ultraright says that by bringing official political rhetoric close to nationalist ideology, the state has given the ultraright the green light to step up their activity. Right now, they are emerging from a long crisis after the movement has been harshly persecuted for years. You also write that the authorities have let the genie out of the bottle, and that it will be very difficult to put it back in. Is the nationalist movement in Russia on the rise?

Answer. – Nationalism is a political movement, not some abstract phenomenon. It is always diverse. It is not just one organization that can be developed or suppressed. Forms [and] groups at the forefront are constantly changing, and this is precisely what is happening now. Overall, people and groups that were under serious pressure in previous years have not regained their positions yet: They have remained on the periphery as before. I think it is very important to note that they did not end up on the periphery because of persecution. The Russian nationalist movement ended up in a deep crisis not because it was under pressure – a lot [of movements] were under pressure – but because in the early 2010s, it faced an internal crisis that it failed to overcome. And the pressure was just the last straw.

Q. – Are you saying that nationalists had limited public support?

A. – It’s not just that they had limited public support – they had the insurmountable problem of gaining that public support in the first place. The entire nationalist movement as it evolved in the 2000s was tied too tightly to its neo-Nazi roots. In such a form, it could not count on mass support. All attempts to somehow emerge from this marginal status have failed.

For example, their attempts to participate in mass protests in 2012 did not bring new people into their ranks but alienated old ones, because “true Nazis” cannot go to public rallies with leftists. Then there was the [2014] uprising in Ukraine on Kiev’s Independence Square [see Vol. 66, No. 8, pp. 3‑9], [Russia’s annexation of] the Crimea [see Vol. 66, No. 12, pp. 3‑11] and the [war in Ukraine’s] Donetsk Basin, which resulted in a split within the nationalist movement that actually finished it off very quickly. This split has not been healed yet, and the problems that led to a decline in their activity have not gone away. Roughly speaking, if they set out to win mass support, they will have to start from scratch.

So they are trying to start from scratch, but this is difficult. For instance, they are trying to play on the issue of conservative moral values, but the state is also actively involved in this, and nationalists have to somehow stand out against this backdrop, which is not easy. And the further events progress, the harder it will be.

As far as the war [in Ukraine] is concerned, it is also not very clear how they could raise their profile. If the state is conducting a large-scale military campaign, what action can you take in this arena that would be more radical than that? What is your mission as a nationalist? You can be for or against, but in any case, you take a reactive stance, which scores you no political points. As for fighting against migrants, this is still a win-win for nationalists, as before, because even if government officials attack immigrants from time to time, talking about “ghettos,” “ethnic crime” and so on, only a few do so sporadically. And if you constantly act in this area, you apparently can take the lead, which is in fact what we recently witnessed in Moscow’s Kotelniki1. . . .

1[Reference to a town just outside Moscow where, in response to complaints from local residents about the flow of migrants, police rounded up hundreds of guest workers from Central Asia and raided a makeshift mosque, using physical force and prompting a backlash against Muslims. – Trans.]

Q. – Clearly, it was the war in Ukraine that gave Russia’s ultraright this chance. It became necessary both for propaganda and for direct participation in the war. However, now it is unhappy about how the state is waging this war. Is Strelkov’s arrest an attempt to put the genie back in the bottle? Is it still possible to do that?

A. – Frankly, I don’t think that the people who made the decision to arrest Strelkov believed that they could put the genie back into the bottle in one fell swoop – that is simply unrealistic. It seems to me that there is another way of looking at it. As we know, there are at least two kinds of Russian nationalists. One generally supports the Russian authorities in the military conflict with Ukraine (albeit with various degrees of criticism), while the other, on the contrary, supports the Kiev government. Roughly speaking, everything is clear with the latter: They can only exist under intense or less intense pressure, but in a war situation, of course, [the pressure is] more intense.

Q. – But they are outside Russia, aren’t they?

A. – Some of them are in Russia. After all, just recently, a group of fighters were detained on charges – albeit somewhat far-fetched – of plotting an assassination attempt on [editor in chief of state-controlled television channel RT] Margarita Simonyan and [pro-Kremlin political talk show host] Vladimir Solovyov. In and of itself, this sounds a little strange, but on the other hand, these groups are real – these guys are not imaginary. In other words, there are Russian nationalists who are opposed to the Russian authorities in earnest. Needless to say, some of them are abroad, but some are over here. We cannot estimate how many – probably not many, for understandable reasons. The state has no doubt as to what to do about them, and in wartime, it is quite clear what will happen to them.

As for those who support the authorities, an interesting picture has emerged. They have not been subject to any persecution for a year and a half. They could slam the authorities as much as they liked and get away with it. Strelkov is a good case in point. The only important condition was that there be no street rallies. They could get together at some conferences; they could form the Club of Angry Patriots and vent their anger indoors, but not out on the street. This important restriction was necessary to prevent them from getting the broader public involved in their activities.

Q. – But Strelkov and some of his associates have quite a large following on social media: There are hundreds of thousands of subscribers.

A. – Experience has shown more than once that in and of itself, campaigning on the Internet does not have a significant political impact. It is an interesting question why nothing has been done about them for a year and a half, but that’s how it is. And then all of a sudden, Kvachkov2 had an administrative report filed against him – no big deal by today’s standards, of course, but still, it was a harbinger of sorts. At the time, Strelkov said that he would be next. He may not have meant that he would actually be arrested, but that’s what ended up happening.

2(In 2005, Vladimir Kvachkov was arrested and charged for the attempted assassination of [politician and businessman] Anatoly Chubais, was acquitted, but then was [arrested again and put] in prison for plotting a coup. – Ed. [see Vol. 57, No. 11, pp. 6‑8, and Vol. 62, No. 51‑52, pp. 16‑17, respectively. – Trans.])

I do not think that the people who are doing this – i.e., arresting Strelkov or filing an administrative report against Kvachkov – believe that [they can make] everything standing in their way disappear and [make] these angry patriots vanish. However, they sent the ultrapatriotic camp a signal that the authorities’ patience is running out, and that the critical loyalty that Strelkov demonstrated should stay within its critical bounds. Where these bounds are is, as always, unknown: This will become clear as we go along. In other words, the state is trying to reestablish control over this sector.

This turn could hypothetically be connected to [Yevgeny] Prigozhin’s quasi-mutiny [see Vol. 75, No. 26, pp. 3‑9, and pp. 10‑17]. After all, it was hardly an accident that Strelkov was arrested right after [the mutiny]. Second, by an amazing coincidence, these two nationalist leaders, Kvachkov and Strelkov, who spoke out the most harshly against Prigozhin, have fallen out of favor, while nothing is happening to others. I don’t know what to make of this, but this is what we are seeing. . . .

Q. – Have [the authorities] not managed to eradicate [jailed opposition leader Aleksei] Navalny’s movement, his liberal opposition?

A. – They have managed, in the sense that for all intents and purposes, Navalny’s movement does not exist in Russia as it did before. But this does not mean it doesn’t exist at all. He still has his followers in Russia. For instance, the Vesna [Spring] movement has also been banned and labeled extremist, but this does not mean that all of its participants have disappeared. In other words, liberal or leftist opposition movements exist and will continue to exist. It is impossible to eradicate the entire sector. That would require mass repressions, but there haven’t been any, and it doesn’t look like any are in the works. . . .

Q. – Right now, political analysts and other experts are talking a lot about the possibility of the liberal and “patriotic” camps uniting against the Kremlin. We saw that [former Yukos CEO Mikhail] Khodorkovsky and Navalny have condemned Strelkov’s arrest for what he thinks and says. And in recent months, both Strelkov and even Prigozhin have made complimentary remarks about Navalny. Is this an attempt to take a step toward such a rapprochement? Is such an alignment actually possible, or is it a pipe dream?

A. – No, it is not a pipe dream – it is quite a realistic prospect. I don’t know about all-out unification – it doesn’t work that way. It is simply impossible for everyone to instantly agree with everyone else: While some are coming to terms about joining ranks, others will make a break with them or with still others. However, generally speaking, there is no reason why people who hold different and sometimes even opposite views shouldn’t form temporary political alliances. Objectively, this is what always happens if it seems to them that such an alliance holds some promise.

For example, “smart voting”3 had a clearly stated goal – namely, “to rattle United Russia’s cage as much as possible,” but the idea was to introduce an element of instability into the current political regime. To that end, it was proposed to vote for Communists, [or] for anybody except United Russia members. There was much discussion about whether these tactics were reasonable. However, the goal was spelled out, [and] corresponding means were chosen. Can this be repeated? Of course, it can. . . .

3[“Smart voting” is a tactic proposed by Aleksei Navalny of supporting contenders most likely to defeat the respective United Russia candidate. – Trans.]

As for the remarks about Navalny, why should they not be complimentary? What could that add up to politically? In reality, it is impossible to forge a political alliance with a person who is in a [maximum-security] special regime [prison]. In this sense, praising him is a nice gesture that incurs no obligations. But when it comes to [Navalny’s close associate] Leonid Volkov, the rhetoric instantly changes, and in any case, the negotiating partner would be Volkov, not Navalny. . . .

The people who overthrew the monarchy in Russia just over a century ago had the opportunity to do so. There was a situation that made that possible. The present situation does not make it possible to change the political regime. It makes sense for opposing sides to unite if they can make a decisive breakthrough as a result – staging an uprising or winning elections and building an incredible coalition. Right now, neither is possible. Let’s imagine that they unite today, sign a nice declaration, and nothing else happens. Furthermore, a lot of people will say no, we certainly don’t like this alliance and we are dissociating ourselves from you. In other words, no alliance will materialize again.

When there is no realistic prospect of gaining anything from forming an alliance, it does not happen. In a situation where the opposition movement is weak, it is prone to fragmentation, since each group hopes it will be better off by some point in the future when something becomes possible. For now, they all have such an incentive: It is a preliminary stage where it is necessary to score as many points as possible compared to their rivals. However, if a really promising situation arises over problems on the battlefield

[in Ukraine]

or for any other reason, people will begin to discuss some genuine coalition projects.

Q. – In your opinion, which idea – liberal or nationalist – will prove to be more in demand in [Russian] society? When these two forces start vying for power after [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, will Russian citizens want [more] rights and freedoms?

A. – I do not think that this moment is near. It is far away, so a lot will change by the time it arrives. Pollsters say that most people support the current political regime simply because they do not see a good alternative to it. Their reasoning is not based on any ideological orientation – liberal or authoritarian or nationalist or imperialist (of course, there are certain stereotypes in their minds, but they are not necessarily so important). However, if in some future situation of uncertainty, people realize that there is indeed a choice about the future, [and] if they suddenly see that choice, then they will become ideologically oriented. I do not think citizens know or have a way of knowing what they would want at that moment until it comes. Right now, they have no choice whatsoever, and so far it is impossible to understand what [this choice] will look like when it comes.

Q. – Are the authorities interested in maintaining the sense of a lack of choice in society for as long as possible?

A. – Of course they are, like any authoritarian regime. In fact, [the authorities] have been successfully doing so for many years. After all, the authorities’ main message is not only that Putin is absolutely wonderful and couldn’t be better, but also that there is no alternative. This phrase “If not Putin, then who?” is not only personal, since it personally identifies the leader. It is an assertion that there is no alternative, [and] that all alternatives are pure fantasies: Some are dragging us back to the accursed 1990s, others to the Soviet Union, and still others to days of yore. All of this, of course, is no good, because we rejected all of that in the past. In other words, the historical choice has already been made. This sounds quite convincing. However, if at a certain point, many citizens realize that there is some other way forward, then the situation will change. Exactly what way forward they will see is another question. . . .

Q. – Are the authorities interested in inciting and maintaining hatred toward Ukrainians? Has TV propaganda moved [this hatred] to the everyday level?

A. – The propaganda of hatred that clearly exists on TV is directed not against Ukrainians as an ethnic community, but against Ukraine as a state, as a concept of such a state. However, there are very many ethnic Ukrainians living in Russia, and the [Russian] government has no reason to make enemies of them, and it is not. Similarly, when people talk about “malicious Ukrainians,” they do not mean all ethnic Ukrainians but hypothetically speaking, only “bad,” “anti-Russia” Ukrainians. In other words, even if the [Russian] state is playing on some ethnic sentiments, these are not related to Ukrainians. Still, there is clearly an ethnic side effect from propaganda.

Q. – Incidentally, this effect is the worst for refugees from southeastern Ukraine who have been used for propaganda and justification of the “special operation,” purportedly to protect the “Russian world.” Within Russia, they are treated with suspicion and seen as potential saboteurs.

A. – So far, it is difficult to say how widespread these sentiments are, but naturally, any group of refugees is always seen as a problem. We can talk about our hospitality and readiness to help all we like, but when a really large group of people arrives at\\in some large residential area, part of the [local] population takes a negative view of that. In a certain sense, this is unavoidable.

When people evacuated from the Donetsk Basin in 2014-2015 and arrived not even in [Russian] border regions, but somewhere in Siberia, there were invariably some local enthusiasts who demanded that they be immediately deported, since those refugees obtained social benefits purportedly at the expense of [local residents]. However, inciting ethnic hatred in our country, especially toward Ukrainians, is a bad idea for any government. This is why the [Russian] authorities always suppress the incitement of this kind of hatred. Still, no matter how hard the authorities try to explain that there are good Ukrainians and bad Ukrainians, people do not understand how to differentiate between them. . . .

Q. – Generally speaking, would it be possible to say that some mass discontent is brewing among migrant workers who have arrived in Russia from the south? I visited some migration centers in Moscow and Moscow Province in 2021, when migrants were a hotly debated issue, and saw that crowds of migrants there were not treated decently, to put it mildly. Employees at an agency providing [intake] services behaved like prison guards toward visitors, lining them up and forbidding them from talking to journalists. It became clear from conversations with migrants that they were deeply depressed by such humiliating treatment.

A. – So far, migrant workers probably do not look like an explosive mix to the authorities – largely because the authorities are taking quite effective measures to prevent them from organizing themselves. Nor are migrants spoiling for a political fight. It is very difficult to engage in political activity within this milieu: After all, any persons who start saying something that they shouldn’t can be quickly expelled for any violation. Everyone is aware of this. It may not go on forever, since there are too many migrants in Russia, [and] at some point political self-organization will coalesce. So far, we are seeing only some local protests, as well as, of course, tons of criminal offenses, which are unavoidable.

Q. – We are clear on nationalists, but how can people who advocate democratic, liberal values survive in Russia? How can they go on and not disappear?

A. – Right now, our country is moving in a direction that is less and less tolerant toward people with liberal views. However, it has long been moving in this direction. We are currently going through an acute phase of this movement, but it will pass [and] change to something different. I certainly cannot say how it will change – maybe for the worse and maybe for the better, but in any case, it will be no better for people with liberal views. If there is a pivot of sorts that makes the political or nonpolitical self-organization of such people more viable [and] less subject to repression, it will certainly move forward. And then something will change. It is unclear what that future around the bend will look like, so it is unclear how to prepare for it. It may not even be possible to prepare for it, but only to live until that moment.

Q. – The politicized part of Russian society is waiting for a period of turbulence and a window of political opportunity ahead of the upcoming 2024 presidential election. What do you expect from this event?

A. – Frankly, I do not expect any turbulence in connection with the election. It can only be related to the course of military operations in Ukraine or – hypothetically speaking – to a new Prigozhin of sorts, or to an intraelite conflict that might turn out to be more dramatic than the previous one. [But it can] hardly [be related] to elections right now or any time soon. If turbulence occurs, then one of two things will happen: It will either quickly fizzle out, as in the Prigozhin case, or it will not. In the latter scenario, a new situation will arise, which will at best create a competitive political environment – not necessarily a democratic one: It may be competition between some autocratic clans. In this situation – if it arises, of course – everyone will reorient themselves.