Every Nov. 4, Russian nationalists march to mark Unity Day. But while in previous years they came out to protest migrant workers from Central Asia and the North Caucasus, on Friday they picked another enemy: Vladimir Putin. A month before Russia’s parliamentary elections, about 10,000 people from nationalist and ultra-nationalist groups staged a well-organized rally in Moscow’s outskirts demanding a change in leadership at the Kremlin.
Friday’s march, one of the largest anti-Putin protests yet, identified the prime minister and his party, United Russia, as “the most hated enemy of the Russian people,” as one of the movement’s leaders, Alexander Belov, said.
Some of the marchers wore balaclavas, while others hid their faces beneath medical masks. Lines of nationalists from Russian Image, a group suspected by human rights activists of murdering non-Russian nationals and now calling for a push against Putin, chanted, “Arm yourselves! Don’t tolerate them!”
“Who are we?” a nationalist leader in black yelled into a loudspeaker. “We are Russians!” the crowd responded.“Who do we hate?” the leader yelled. “We hate the Caucasus! We hate Putin! Yes to Russia without Putin!”
Signs that the Kremlin is losing control of the nationalist movement emerged last December, when a spontaneous protest of about 5,000 teenagers yelling, “Heil Hitler!” and raising their fists in fascist salutes took place outside the Kremlin wall. The organizers were sent to jail; dozens of ethnic murder cases were investigated, sending radical ultra-nationalists to prison for life; and for months, any time a rally was rumored, trucks full of police patrolled the area. The tough measures didn’t help. The movement was gaining strength, popularizing the slogan “Russia for Russians” even among loyal opposition parties in the Russian State Duma.
As the nationalist political agenda grew less patriotic and more anti-Putin, the authorities made a few attempts to cancel Friday’s march entirely, but ended up allowing it. In order to minimize the number of attendees, they forbade the nationalists from marching along the central Leninsky Prospect, pushing it further outside the city to the Lyublino region.
“If we had forbidden the protest, it would have been much bigger and much more dangerous,” said Gennady Gudkov, deputy chairman of the Duma security committee. “No police, no army could have handled a crowd of 30,000 angry boys.”
After several days of negotiations with the presidential administration, prosecutors, Federal Security Bureau, and municipal authorities, the nationalists received official permits for every banner and slogan they could march with, including: “Enough with the party of crooks and thieves!” (referring to United Russia),“Gaddafi is killed, who is next?” and, “We demand that the Russian nationalist party be let into the Duma!”
As a river of shouting and chanting masked marchers in black streamed along the avenue, some older pedestrians cheered them. “Out with the Jews from the Kremlin!” called an older woman in a sharp voice. “Come on, boys, do something! We are sick of Putin’s puppets,” yelled an older man.
Military vehicles full of soldiers and police lined the street on both sides. “I am so happy that I immigrated and took my two sons away from here, before it got so ugly,” said Slava Zelenin, a Russian journalist living in Canada and visiting Moscow for the first time in six years.
With Putin promising to stay in power for another decade, thousands of young Russians have told opinion polls they want to emigrate. Many of those who are staying are joining “the only real opposition power ready to fight with dictatorship,” said Dmitry Fiaktistov, the leader of the Moscow Defense League.
On Friday, members of the Duma’s Fair Russia and LDPR parties walked shoulder-to-shoulder with nationalist leaders once convicted of inciting ethnic hatred and carried a long banner: “Let’s give Russia back to the Russian people.” Protesters demanded that the Kremlin change the constitution to say a Russian nation forms the Russian state—removing a specific reference to a multi-ethnic country—and give nationalists the right to participate in elections: “If they give us freedom, we will be the second-largest political party after Putin’s United Russia. If they do not, there will be another Tahrir in Moscow,” said Russian nationalist leader Dmitry Demushkin.