Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
The previous issue is here, and see also our Russia This Week stories Ultranationalists Angry over âCapitulationâ of Minsk Agreement, âAnti-Maidanâ Launched by Nationalists, Cossacks, Veterans, Bikers, The Guild War â How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists? and special features Former Russian Intelligence Officers Behind Boisto âTrack IIâ Talks â and Now the Flawed Minsk Agreement and Johnsonâs Russia List Spreads Invented Story About Germany Preparing Sanctions Against Kiev
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The Anti-Maidan march on Saturday, February 21, attracted 35,000 people by official police count, and 50,000 or more by the estimates of the right-wing and nationalist forces that organized it, consisting of Afghan war vets, bikers, Cossacks — and avid state TV-watchers.
But observers found that the numbers were low given the “rent-a-crowd” feel to the event subsidized and managed by the government, and some of the most notorious rabble-rousers such as Col. Igor Strelkov, hero of the war in the Donbass, and Aleksandr Dugin, an ultranationalist scholar, were missing from the action.
The turnout was larger than any event that the more liberal
opposition has organized in the last year but not as large as the
anti-Putin rallies at their peak in 2011-2012. These numbers did not seem to overly
scare the independent Russian press, and analysts said that they were facing a significant increase in fascism in Russia because they found
that the large numbers were due to four factors:
being paid as much as 300 rubles (about $5) to attend — there were
multiple reports of ads recruiting marchers and reporters posing as
Anti-Maidan supporters and getting payment offers. One journalist, Natalya
Zotova from Novaya Gazeta, said she witnessed 200 people gather at a pre-arranged location at the House of Trade Unions to meet a woman with a sign “Yelena-TV” to collect their payments as advertised on massovki.ru, a site to recruit people to mass public events. The woman handed out chits which people could then come back to redeem for their money after the march was over.
2. State budget organizations sent out letters to leaders to get their membership to turn out. This was not made a requirement to keep one’s job, but it was strongly urged. In this letter from the Trade Union of Education and Science Workers of Moscow, Northeast Administrative District for example, published by Yodnews.ru, directors are urged to turn out six people per association.
3. Local government officials were also told to get people to turn out — although again, this was not done as a mandatory request but strongly advised.
4. Mass government organizations like Mothers of Russia and the All-Russian National Front were urged to turn out their members in orderly fashion rather than trusting to ultranationalist groups to fill the ranks.
So even when the state’s might was put behind such an event, it did not turn out 100,000 or 200,000, but 35,000. To be sure, it was cold outside.
When such “rent-a-crowds” are produced through the levers of the state especially with financial compensation, the feeling is that the sentiment then isn’t very deep and the crowds do not represent a political force.
A feeling for that reality was provided by an interesting film made by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russia Service.
The videographer asks people why they have come to the march, or why they are carrying anti-American signs, and at a certain point in the conversation they become confused and can’t really explain what America has to do with Ukraine.
Some middle-aged women from the Mothers of Russia organization are interviewed and recite a disinformation perennial from the Soviet era:
When the journalist presses them for information on how they know this, a woman replies that she read it “on the Internet” or it was “on TV” and that the Russian Embassy in Washington discovered this plot and then broadcast it.
But not all of the women interviewed are so gullible and brainwashed; one woman says quite frankly that she doesn’t think Russia has any business interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs and she’s not sure Putin is doing the right thing.
Yet she is at that march because of the key propaganda themes the Russians state media has been able to burn in, at an event timed right before the annual celebration of February 23, now called “Fatherland Defenders’ Day,” which was “Red Army Day” in the Soviet period.
o The events in Ukraine are like World War II when Russians and other Soviet citizens had to fight fascism. The parallels were consciously made with the slogan for the march, “Never Forget, Never Forgive,” which is the headline of a famous column in October 1941 in the newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), as Ivan Davydov of Slon recalled.
o Maidan is a violent revolution that brought instability and destruction, poverty and homelessness, and cannot be allowed to be repeated in Russia.
o Opposition leaders like Boris Nemtsov and Alexey Navalny want a Maidan in Russia, and must be stopped — their faces were on a number of negative posters.
Among the main speakers was Vika Tsyganova, a popular nationalist singer who consciously dressed in a red kerchief, as did other women, to invoke the famous 1941 Soviet poster “The Motherland Calls” recruiting people to the war.
In her TV spots calling people to the march, Tsyganova sounded sweet and patriotic, with no negatives — going to the Anti-Maidan march was something to do for your country.
But by the time she spoke from the stage at the actual event, she was hysterically shrieking (4:00), comparing the street clashes and fire at the Odessa Trade Union Building in which 40 people died, with the deliberate massacre in the Khatyn Forest by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators in which 147 people were murdered. Tsyganova shouted that her own “personal friends” were in the Odessa building.
From Kamchatka to Odessa
From the Azov Sea
From Kurile to Transdnistria
From Donetsk to the Kremlin
From Nadym to Crimea
From Slavyansk to Norilsk
From Lugansk to the Kremlin
From Alaska to the Kremlin
A bizarre cameo appearance is made at the end by a ghoulish Pavel Gubarev, the “people’s governor of Donetsk, who says “For Russia, from Kamchatka to Odessa!” Not “for Novorossiya.”
Indeed, what was interesting about this highly managed Anti-Maidan event is who wasn’t there:
1. Col. Igor Strelkov, Pavel Gubarev, Aleksandr Boroday or any of the other “Novorossiya” characters. Indeed, these people have not appeared at the “Russian March” or other events. A story periodically circulated that Strelkov had hanged himself in Rostov was injected into social media throughout the day, but was not substantiated.
2. The ultranationalist figures like the Eurasianist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, Sergei Kurginyan of Essence of Time, Aleksandr Prokhanov, editor of Den’ and other extremists mainly of the leftist national-socialist type. They were not selected as speakers on the platform.
3. Any Russian Orthodox priests or civic groups — the ROC contingent once described as part of the Anti-Maidan movement last September ultimately was dropped, possibly because the church leaders preferred not to be involved with a negative propaganda movement, but to engage in their own positive religious messaging — although they are quite capable of weaving in hatred of the West, gays, and liberals as needed.
4. Any figures associated with anti-migrant movements or xenophobic and racist sentiment against Caucasians and Central Asians
Thus, the nationalist movement that the state had whipped up for its own purposes to keep Putin in power, sometimes even supporting ultranationalists indirectly through movements like Nashi is now being re-purporsed and channeled into nationalist and patriotic sentiment. The hatred is now directed at America, NATO and “Ukrainian fascists” with which Russia is at war, but is not so extreme to allow the anti-migrant, anti-Semitic and anti-gay motifs on display to surface — at least for this occasion.
Putin’s propaganda direction now is aimed primarily at providing an outlet for the incitement of hatred of Ukrainians on TV and blaming the West for sanctions producing economic shortages.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick