12.01.23 Review

An Imperialist War But Not a Nationalist one: the Russian right has grown their audience, but their agenda is now indistinguishable from that of the government.

Since the beginning of the war, Russian nationalist movements have been divided into two camps: a small minority opposed to the war and a majority which demonstrates support for military action, writes the SOVA Center in their review of right and far-right movements in Russia. The former, like many other oppositional movements, quickly disappeared from the media space, with some even being subject to repression from authorities. The latter were granted the opportunity to greatly increase their audience and are no longer isolated on the fringes of Russian nationalist movements. However, their agendas have become almost indistinguishable from those expressed within the government’s discourse, resembling something of a factory of narratives that are almost identical to the government’s rhetoric. As a result, despite added support and a weakening of competitiveness in the activist community, ideological nationalists have not gained any extra popularity. Russian nationalism has lost its political subjectivity in the wake of becoming another government ‘-ism’, although it has managed to attract a broader audience. Combining political activity with volunteering for the front, many nationalists attempted to take part in the municipal elections last autumn, but almost completely failed to win any political power. A radical critique of the military and political leadership from the ‘right’ is in high demand, but few can afford to deliver this.

The SOVA Center has been monitoring the activities of right and far-right political groups and movements for many years, as well as the concurrent practice of introducing anti-extremist legislation aimed at these groups. On New Year's Eve, the centre released a review called ‘Russian Nationalists on the Ukrainian and Ideological “Fronts”. Most of the ‘nationalists’ have been vocal in their support for the war, and some of them have even gone to the frontline, while apathy has reigned among the war’s few opponents on the far right, the review claims. Like those from the ‘liberal’ camp who have voiced their opposition to the war, many nationalists were arrested: for example, Dmitry Demushkin was prosecuted for ‘discrediting’ the army, and several right-wing political movements (among them Vladimir Basmanov’s nationalist ‘Conservative’ movement) ceased all activity.

On the other hand, those who have supported the war have enjoyed new privileges, with Telegram’s statistics providing evidence of their growing popularity: the Bookstore ‘Listva’ had about 2 thousand subscribers in February, but by the end of the year it’s audience had increased to about 5 thousand; the channel ‘Tsargrad’ grew its audience from 30 thousand to more than 100 thousand; the ‘Kholmogorov’ channel turned 11 thousand followers into 45 thousand, and Alexei Zhivov went from 1.2 thousand followers to almost 38 thousand. But none of this can be compared to Igor Strelkov, the former ‘Minister of Defense’ of the self-proclaimed DPR, whose Telegram audience grew from 25,000 to 750,000.

Among the pro-war nationalists, however, it is possible to identify those who parrot the Kremlin’s narrative, and those who are extremely dissatisfied with the state of affairs at the front and are in opposition to the leadership of the ‘military operation.’ Nevertheless, both groups have reacted with hostility to the retreat of the Russian army from the Kharkiv and Kherson regions. The difference is evident only in regards to the level of critique aimed at the political and military leadership. Some, like the right-wing conservative channel ‘Tsargrad’, has urged its audience ‘not to stand in opposition to the country's leadership,’ while others (in particular, E. Kholmogorov) expressed bewilderment regarding the war’s ultimate goals. On November 25, the Other Russia movement held a rally on Palace Square in St. Petersburg against the withdrawal of troops from Kherson. Some nationalists have expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that the state has not cracked down hard enough on those who disagree with the war, allowing them, for example, to leave the country.

Strelkov, once again, stands apart from the crowd. He has consistently levied harsh criticism at the military leadership, a common theme among many so-called military correspondents, promoted with the help of Prigozhin's astroturfing technologies. In his statements, Strelkov criticises the quality of weapons, the poor training of soldiers, and calls Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ‘a rare combination of a fool, a thief and a scoundrel — stupid as a cork.’ Such rhetoric assures he receives a great deal of engagement in social media and a powerful platform from which to preach.

Despite some moderate criticism of the ‘leadership’, most of the pro-war nationalists have been using various volunteer projects (purchasing food and medicine for refugees, supplying equipment and equipment to the military) as a way to contribute to the war effort. A number of groups have managed to build a complete assistance cycle: collecting money — purchasing goods — delivering them to the recipients, including those directly at the front line (i.e the project ‘Tyl-22’ by the Black Hundred publishing house and Roman Yuneman’s ‘Society. Future’ movement which cooperates with it, ‘Army of Defenders of the Fatherland’, ‘Russian Union’ of the international brigade ‘Other Russia’, etc.).

However, Strelkov's attempts to form a more serious organisational breakthrough have failed. Twice — in early and mid-October — he announced the recruitment of volunteers, promising them special conditions (the opportunity to serve ‘where you want, and not where they send you’). However, both times the calls for volunteers failed, and Strelkov himself said that the Novorossiya movement headed by him ‘can no longer bear any responsibility for how and under what conditions the formation of a squad at the training ground will take place.’

Initially, the war and the new political agenda seemed to open doors for nationalists, giving them the opportunity to reach a wider audience. Yet today, they copy some of the liberal opposition’s strategies: in addition to active volunteering, there have also been attempts to take part in municipal elections, which would, as a result, legalise their ‘political activity’. In Moscow’s September elections, approximately twenty nationalists came from ‘Society. Future’, but only one of them, Leonid Balanovsky, managed to get a mandate (in the Airport area). Roman Yuneman, the founder of ‘Society. Future’, said that the candidate’s failure was the result of electronic voting and coercion of state employees. Sergei Baburin’s Russian People's Union (RUS), the Army of Defenders of the Fatherland, and Conservative Russia nominated their candidates for elections in the Sverdlovsk and Novosibirsk regions as well as in Rostov-on-Don. Some of these candidates were denied registration during the stage of collecting signatures, but even those who were able to register were unable to achieve any success at the polls.