Thousands of Russian nationalist marchers raise specter of anti-immigrant violence

Russian nationalists shout slogans as they attend a nationalist march on National Unity Day in Moscow on Monday. Tatyana Makeyeva / Reuters

MOSCOW - Thousands of Russian nationalists took to the streets of Moscow on Monday as part of annual marches that have sparked anti-immigrant violence in the past.

Marchers celebrating National Unity Day ranged in age from young children to elderly men and women. They chanted "Death to the enemy” and “Russia for Russians, Moscow for Moscovites,” echoing hostility towards millions of Muslims who have emigrated from poor central Asian countries such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Some 80 participants were detained at one of the marches in the Moscow neighborhood of Lyublino, according to police, who warned of post-demonstration violence. 

Some 140 people have been injured and 18 killed in neo-Nazi attacks so far this year, according to SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, a Russian organization that studies nationalism, racism and political radicalism.

The State Department warned Americans and their families ahead of Monday’s public holiday, which commemorates the liberation of Moscow from Polish invaders in 1612.

Extreme violence has been witnessed during previous nationalist protests, and spontaneous demonstrations of support may appear anywhere throughout the city, at any time of the day,” the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security said in a statement. “Equally possible are counter-demonstrations staged by groups opposed to nationalist sentiments.”

Last month, a riot erupted in the Moscow district of Birlyulovo after the death of 25-year-old Yegor Sherbakov, which locals blamed on a migrant. A face-off between police and protesters resulted in around 400 arrests.

While in the past the National Unity Day marches tended to be anti-establishment, in recent years the government of President Vladimir Putin has tried to harness hard-line nationalist sentiment and use it against an array of groups.

Indeed, Putin has drawn parallels between foreigners and those the government opposes for ideological reasons.

“We witness many euro countries refusing and forgetting their roots, including the values of Christianity which formed the basis of their civilization,” Putin said during at a press conference in September. “They are following a policy which makes families with many children equal to same-sex families, faith in God equal with faith in Satan.”

Amid the ultra-nationalist sentiment, pressure has increased on many NGOs, the anti-Kremlin opposition, the gay community and environmental activists.

The attack on “foreigners” does not end in the media. A new law of “foreign agents” introduced in 2012 made it a requirement for organizations receiving foreign funding and engaging in political activities to register.

The human rights organization Memorial, which monitors the abuses and kidnappings in the volatile North Caucasus found their offices had been smeared with the graffiti “FOREIGN AGENT” in 2012.

Earlier this year, a Moscow court found the election monitoring organization Golos to be a “foreign agent.”

Reuters contributed to this report.