‘Russia for Russians’

Peter Pomerantsev

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.


  • 5 November 2013 at 12:22pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    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's not so much a paradox as a dynamic - the difficulties it causes can all be externalised. In other words, if you can't get the land and the ethnic purity, you can always take the land and then work on the purity.

    Pan-Serb nationalism in the late 80s was characterised by a similar combination of ideas - all Serbs should live in one state and no Serb should be ruled by non-Serbs. Reconciling both demands with the realities of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia was problematic, to put it mildly. Again, they wanted the land and the ethnic purity - but if purity had to give they'd settle for ethnic dominance. Going further back, the Nazis both 'rescued' ethnic Germans from occupied lands in the East and annexed parts of those lands to the Reich, with a view to settling them with ethnic Germans - in theory you could have been rescued and then sent back to your old home, albeit with new neighbours. (No broader parallel between Milosevic's Yugoslavia and Hitler's Germany is intended. Other comparisons are available.)

  • 5 November 2013 at 5:50pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    The teens chanted ‘Jump if you’re not a churka’

    They do that in Italy too - Salta chi non è X, for whatever disfavoured X (at Berlusconi's rallies it used to be "Salta chi non è comunista"). I suppose the closest English equivalent would be to get people to stand up - "Last one on their feet's a...".

    • 6 November 2013 at 12:13pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Phil Edwards
      Given the obvious link between Russian nationalist movements and football hooligan groups I'd imagine that 'jump if you're not a churka' comes from a football chant. So the English equivalent would be 'stand up if you X.' E.g. stand up if you love City.

      Continental fans tend to 'jump' rather than stand. For instance at Lille OSC, 'qui ne saute pas n'est pas Lillois' (anyone who doesn't jump isn't a Lillois), or among the left wing Rayo Vallecano ultras, 'anyone who doesn't jump is a fascist.'