Russia has long been host to a revanchist nationalism, both in its establishment political system but also in its opposition movements. In one of its least attractive forms, this nationalism is embodied in the slogan “Russia for Russians,” which is a not too subtle plaint against immigrants and ethnic minorities and championed by, among many others, the outgoing mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin. These sentiments sound frightening, and in context of growing ethnic tensions in places like the Caucasus (examined in depth by The Interpreter) they are worrying to outside observers. Russia! magazine’s Sean Guillory insightfully explains:
Russians’ attitudes toward the migrant reveal the inherent tension in their bifurcated national identity. On the one hand Russian is an ethnic-biological category which vis-a-vis the Central Asian and Caucasian migrant is becoming increasingly racialized. On the other hand, Russian is a civic category rooted in Imperial and Soviet efforts to unify a multiethnic and multicultural society in a common political community. The contradiction lies in that the more the ethnic is given primacy and privilege, the civic is rendered hollow. Given the fragility of Russia’s national identity, it’s no surprise that the increasing flows of migrants produce anxieties and foreboding.
Nationalism is deeply problematic to Western observers who recall the ideological manias that led to the First and Second World Wars and are otherwise inclined to think of white supremacism. A story we’ve been following closely is the recent unrest in Pugachev, where crowds have demanded the expulsion of all ethnic Chechens following a murder in the town of a Russian Tartar by a Chechen (the result of a drunken brawl). Alexey Navalny, the opposition’s candidate for mayor in Moscow and now awaiting the verdict in his politicized embezzlement case, is receiving a fair bit of attention for having signed a draft statement about Pugachev that contains disturbing language. Here is our translation of the most controversial paragraph:
The attempt to equate to “extremism” the lawful protest of native residents against the demonstratively provocative behavior of migrants from other regions, which crudely contradicts local traditions and moral norms, and also the stubborn wish on the part of the authorities to reduce the events to “ordinary” causes, reminds us of the position of an ostrich. The situation converts to the political plane since the main problem of the policies of the Russian authorities consists of a lack of desire to ensure the right of citizens to effective self-defense, and such a right, of course, presupposes a high level of civic self-awareness, which is hardly advantageous to the authorities. That is precisely why many citizens do not believe it is necessary to wait for the reaction of the law-enforcement agencies, but prefer to act on their own.
This has not been certified as the official statement of the Coordinating Council of the Russian Opposition, of which Navalny is a member. It is currently being voted on by the Council and, so far, 25% of members have voted for the bill, 10% have voted against, and the rest haven’t voted. The votes break down as follows:
For the Draft Statement: Konstantin Krylov, Vladimir Tor, Alexey Navalny, Oleg Kashin, Georgy Alburov, Vladislav Naganov, Igor Artyomov, Daniil Konstantinov, Akim Palachev, Lyubov Sobol
Against the Draft Statement: Mikhail Gelfand, Sergei Parkhomenko, Ilya Yashin, Anna Karetnikova
So what does this say about Alexey Navalny and his politics?
One of the earliest treatments of Navalny’s nationalism, which predates his arrival onto the international scene as the de facto leader of the opposition, was a lengthy 2011 profile of him written by Julia Ioffe of The New Yorker. According to Ioffe, Navalny uses nationalism to his advantage by paradoxically rooting his form of liberalism in a belief that is definitively anti-liberal:
Part of Navalny’s appeal is his rejection of Russian liberalism, which he sees as being hopelessly out of touch with a country that is fundamentally conservative. His nationalism is unapologetic and even shocking. In a series of humorous videos on YouTube, he can be seen advocating the repatriation of illegals (while footage scrolls of people of Asian appearance moving swiftly through an airport) and the use of pistols against lawless undesirables. But he is adamant that he’s a pragmatist, not an ideologue. “There’s a huge number of questions that we should be discussing, and not handing over to the nationalists,” he says. Migration, for example, is a major issue in Russia, which has the most immigrants in the world after the U.S. Current estimates range from seven million to twelve million, many of them from the North Caucasus or former Soviet republics like Tajikistan. Most of them are undocumented. This, Navalny argues, keeps migrant laborers in the shadows and without basic rights, and is also a major source of friction. When Moscow exploded in ethnic riots in December, a poll showed that more than sixty per cent of Russians felt suspicious of or irritated by people of non-slavic nationality. “When we make these questions taboo and don’t discuss them, we hand over this extremely important agenda to the radicals,” Navalny says.
Navalny has participated in, and spoke at, the ultra-nationalist Russian March, which, as Ioffe and The Guardian‘s Miriam Elder can attest from first-hand reporting, featured skinhead and neo-Nazis. His willingness to appear on such a platform seems to have been the final act in a long series of disagreements with the liberal Yabloko party, which expelled him in 2007. That same year, Navalny founded NAROD, the Nationalist Russian Liberation Movement, whose manifesto, apart from calling for the expansion of civil freedoms, also called for recognizing separatist regions South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria as Russian territories, and for “stop[ping] the degradation of Russian civilization and creat[ing] conditions for the preservation and development of the Russian people, their culture, language, and historical territory.” (The word preceding “civilization” was “Russkii,” meaning ethnic Russian rather than citizen of the Russian state).
In 2008, Navalny adopted “nationalist-democrat” as his preferred political orientation. Since his rise to international recognition, he’s tended to weigh in less frequently on questions of immigration or the Caucasus, possibly because his political activity and ongoing anti-corruption efforts take center stage. So the CC draft statement is being read as a return to unsavory form by many Russia watchers.
One of the more enlightening aspects of this minor controversy is that it forces Western liberals to reckon with the fact that Russian dissidents do not necessarily embody the West’s idealized conceptions of them. This contradiction dates back to the Soviet era when one well-known figure similarly caused alarm by holding uncomfortable political views. In 1974, New York Times columnist William Safire asked if Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had already won a Nobel Prize but had recently been deported by the Soviet Union for publishing The Gulag Archipelago, wasn’t due for a re-evaluation now that he was on safer ground. “Now that he is out of the Soviet Union… his martyrdom shrewdly denied, cracks will appear in the pedestal we have built for him.” To be sure, Solzhenitsyn’s outlook with a deeply conservative mixture of great Russian chauvinism and Orthodox religiosity, incompatible with any notions of Western-style liberalism. In fact, he had said that the West was in a “state of collapse,” owing to philosophical excesses of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment; that the U.S. government was so weak that eventually American servicemen fighting in Vietnam would have to defend their homeland from foreign invasion. This did a great deal of harm to Solzhenitsyn’s global reputation at the time, and was taken up as evidence of his untrustworthiness, especially by apologists for Moscow or “anti-anti-Communists” who preferred not to “take sides” in the Cold War. Nevertheless, left unchanged was and is Solzhenitsyn’s status as a great writer and a great dissident worthy of admiration for exposing the criminality of Stalinism.
Navalny probably wouldn’t invite such a comparison with himself. But the fact remains that he, too, now faces a lengthy prison sentence for the offense of telling the truth about Russia and for enlightening his countrymen as to what the system of “managed democracy” means in practice.