Sergey was a blind football hooligan. I got to know him when I was researching a TV show about people overcoming tough challenges. He supported Dynamo Moscow. Every weekend he would take his place in the stands among the hardcore fans behind the goal. He didn’t listen to a radio as most blind supporters do. He told me he could feel what was going on during the game with an ‘inner football vision’. Dynamo Moscow supporters are famous for being among the most racist and neo-nationalist and Sergey was no exception:
I can hear those churki in the street. I can hear their filthy language in the metro. My yard used to be full of the sound of Russian… When I hear those churki I just come up and take a swing. Just like that.
I saw him in a fight once, swinging wide and wildly. But when he connected it was powerful. (Churka, literally ‘block of wood’, is an offensive term for someone from the Caucasus or Central Asia.)
Sergey had the old tsarist imperial flag hanging on his wall, the white-gold-black tricolour that nationalists have taken as their banner. ‘I believe Russia is a great empire that other powers want to tear away parts from. We need to restore our power, retake our lost lands,’ he would say. Then in the same breath: ‘I want a Russia for Russians, all these churki from the Caucasus and Central Asia need to go home.’ This has always been the paradox of the new Russian nationalism: on the one hand wanting to conquer all regions around, on the other wanting an ethnically pure great power. It never made sense.
The new nationalism was long considered a fringe movement. But then in 2010 a Spartak Moscow supporter was killed by a North Caucasus gang member. Ten thousand hooligans stormed Manezhnaya Square opposite the Kremlin, chanting ‘Russia for Russians’, ‘Moscow for Muscovites’ and beating up anyone who didn’t ‘look Russian’. Putin laid flowers at the grave of the dead supporter. In the Moscow mayoral elections two months ago, every candidate – ‘liberal’, ‘communist’, ‘Kremlin’ – included harsh anti-migration measures and rhetoric in their campaigns.
An annual ‘Russian March’ has been held every 4 November since 2005. According to the Levada-Centre a quarter of Russians support the march. Between eight and thirty thousand nationalists gathered in suburban Moscow yesterday, depending on whether you believe police or the organisers’ figures. As well as the neo-Nazis, hooligans and angry young men, there were plenty of schoolchildren, some of them as young as 10, and there were many girls. They carried icons and banners claiming everything from ‘Serbia and Russia are brothers’ to ‘A real Russian is a sober Russian’. The religious monarchists told the National Bolsheviks they had no right to be there. The teens chanted ‘Jump if you’re not a churka’ and jumped around as if dancing to drum and bass.
There are also an increasing number of so-called ‘intellectual nationalists’. Some of them believe that ‘ethnic Russians need to liberate themselves from Russia.’ After the break-up of the USSR, republics such as Georgia or Lithuania were liberated to become nation-states. National republics inside Russia, such as Tatarstan and Chechnya, have special status and enjoy special privileges. The only people not to have received their own state, the argument goes, are Russians, who are now enslaved by a corrupt Kremlin which works with the national republics to crush ethnic Russians and deny them basic rights. Other nationalists think that Russia needs to get rid of the ‘Muslim’ republics in the North Caucasus and Tatarstan – 11 per cent of Russian citizens are Muslim; the figure is set to grow to 30 per cent by 2030 – and reintegrate Ukraine, Belarus and Northern Kazakhstan: they say this will make Russia more ‘democratic’ and ‘progressive’. Still others want to see a restored Orthodox tsar single-handedly ruling over the whole of Eurasia.
They all have different ideas about what ‘Russians’ are. As well as hazy notions about ‘Russian blood’, there’s the linguistic and cultural definition, a broad Russian ‘story’ starting from Kievan Rus and spreading through Ivan the Terrible and Pushkin, only to be cut off by the Communists. Kiev is always key to this story, and everyone from Putin to Alexey Navalny believes Ukraine should be part of Russia. Recent moves by the Kremlin to bully and blackmail Ukraine into not signing an Association Agreement with the EU (set for 29 November) are not only about Russia fighting for influence in its ‘near abroad’, but about the validity of the Russian national story. There is no Russia without Kiev.
Ukrainian nationalists take a rather different view. As a writer in Kiev told me recently:
Ever since Moscow incorporated Kiev in the 16th century we’ve been their connection to Europe. Religious humanist philosophy, Latin, scholastic education, universities all came to Muscovy from Kiev. Now that we’re free and are returning to our rightful place in Europe, Moscow is reverting to where it was before we joined them: barons who beat their serf-like population, dominated by a growing political Islam. Just like in the period of Tatar-Mongol domination. That’s the essence of Russia.