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Race Riots Remind Russians About Political Divide

Demonstrator injured in Biryulevo, 13 October 2013, screenshot from YouTube video.

Demonstrator injured in Biryulevo, 13 October 2013, screenshot from YouTube video.

This week’s reactions to a riot that took place outside Moscow are a reminder that the subject of ethnic nationalism deeply divides Russians. The rift between the RuNet’s liberals and nationalists was one of the key findings of a mapping project by Harvard’s Berkman Center in 2010. Three years later, the divide persists.

One of the controversial interpretations of the Biryulevo riot, which involved upwards of a thousand young men breaking into and vandalizing a vegetable market, is the idea that it represents a display of the popular will. Such characterizations, of course, mirror the narrative routinely offered to explain Russia’s “Winter of Discontent,” which produced the many spectacular political demonstrations of the 2011-2012 season. Inherent in such storytelling, however, is a degree of vindication. The rioters (and the relatively peaceful protesters who took to the streets in their defense against responding police officers) were reacting to the murder of a local ethnic Russian—killed by a then-still-unidentified man, presumed to a (non-white) Caucasian.

If Biryulevo’s violence was a reaction against police corruption and ethnic mafias, does it diminish the rioters’ savagery and racism?

Indeed, many Russian liberals refuse whatsoever to see the Biryulevo riot as a manifestation of popular dissatisfaction with the state. To do so, they seem to fear, would poison the well of democratic credibility feeding their own anti-Kremlin movement.

Blogger and opposition leader Alexey Navalny is Russia’s most prominent “liberal nationalist.” Throughout his time as the biggest star of the protest movement, Navalny has worried liberals with his nationalist views, and disappointed nationalists with his liberal views. Surprisingly, the delicate dance has worked, so far. Navalny has benefitted from the senescence of the Putin regime, the intolerability of which has increased Navalny’s viability as a political alternative. Nevertheless, there are bumps in the road, and Navalny’s response to Biryulevo (promoting an anti-immigrant petition [ru] to require travel visas for citizens of Russia’s southern periphery) hasn’t curried favor [ru] with Russia’s bleeding hearts.

That said, the division between liberals and nationalists doesn’t prefigure everything about Russian politics. Valery Fedotov (a former United Russia functionary, who jumped ship in July 2013) is an example of someone who disparages how liberals dismiss the popular sentiments behind Biryulevo, but also mocks [ru] Navalny for an excessive, poorly designed visas initiative. Consider Fedotov’s October 17, 2013, LiveJournal attack [ru] on Dmitri Oreshkin, a noted liberal-leaning “politolog,” whom Fedotov criticizes for speculating [ru] that the Biryulevo riot was the result of an orchestrated campaign to destabilize Moscow, in order to justify canceling next year’s city council elections (where the liberal opposition is expected to do well). Oreshkin’s conspiracy theory, Fedotov points out, is eerily similar to the tropes Kremlin propagandists used to trivialize (and criminalize) anti-government demonstrations in 2012:

[…] когда речь заходит о «социально неблизких», те же журналисты и политологи без каких-либо угрызений совести готовы сменить свою точку зрения и превратиться в «Аркадия Мамонтова».

[…] when it comes to discussing those who aren’t “social allies,” the same [liberal] journalists and political analysts—without any compunction—are ready to change their point of view and transform into “Arkady Mamontov” [the man behind the hated anti-opposition TV series, “Anatomy of Protest”].

Seizing on the fact that Oreshkin even implicated the Internet in riling up Biryulevo’s rioters, Fedotov also attacked him for recycling the Kremlin’s open-ended distrust of netizens and its refusal to surrender the slightest legitimacy to political rivals:

[…] куча таинственных намеков о «круге специальных товарищей», преувеличение злокозненной роли интернета и полное неверие в то, что люди могут выйти на улицу сами, просто потому что «достало».

[…] there are a bunch of mysterious hints [in Oreshkin’s comments] about “a circle of special friends,” the exaggeration of the Internet’s insidious role, and an utter disbelief that people might go out into the streets on their own, simply because they’ve “had enough.”

The ethnic question promises to estrange and exasperate bloggers and oppositionists more now and in the coming weeks, than it has in the months and years previous. Aside from a brief disturbance [ru] last July in the small town of Pugachyov, the post-December 2011 opposition movement has not had to endure any significant explosions of ethnic tensions.

With Biryulevo, society’s movers and shakers in Moscow now face such turmoil, and at their very doorstep.

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