Thousands of nationalists marched through Moscow on Sunday chanting slogans such as "Russia
for the Russians" to protest President Vladimir Putin's
government, which they accuse of lavishing privileges on migrants and minorities while ignoring ethnic Russians.
Though no violence was reported at the Moscow march, at least 100 people were involved in a brawl in a subway station between nationalist and anti-fascist activists shortly after it ended, the Interfax news agency reported. Police also detained 25 men wearing overcoats emblazoned with swastikas.
About 200 people were arrested for participating in unsanctioned Russian Marches in St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg and Kazan.
Although Sunday's organizers said most participants in the march were ordinary people, skinheads with covered faces and neo-Nazis
were highly visible. When a regional nationalist activist gave several fascist salutes, Belov rushed onstage and awkwardly hugged her to stop her from raising her right arm.
25 people arrested in Moscow (Photo: AFP)
The march took place on Unity Day, a national holiday established in 2005 to replace commemorations of the Bolshevik Revolution. It has become associated with the nationalist "Russian March," which has taken a stridently anti-Kremlin tone. More than 40 Russian Marches were held throughout the country during the day.
Nationalist leaders believe many ordinary Russians share their concerns but that they are put off by their movement's more radical members. As a result, some nationalist leaders have denounced racism and violence and some are even trying to set up a more mainstream political party.
"You hear it all the time: 'I've really had it with the darkies, but I'm still not a nationalist,'" nationalist leader Konstantin Krylov told The Associated Press last week. "And then people go up to me after I speak at protests and say, 'Listen, you're a nationalist, but you're telling it like it is.'"
Putin in Red Square (Photo: MCT)
Although they make up a small part of the broad anti-Putin protest movement, nationalists are among its most visible members, thanks in part to their experience organizing Russian Marches. Nationalists have spoken at rallies alongside major opposition figures and ran for the opposition movement's elected governing council last month.
But mainstream opposition leaders are wary of the nationalists' violent racist elements, and few share their enthusiasm for a unified protest movement. Some organized a largely successful campaign to ensure that moderate nationalists were elected to the governing council instead of radicals.
And several liberals called for one nationalist to be expelled from the governing council after he wrote on Facebook that Sunday's march would be "as happy as the Holocau... as Halloween!"
"There was no reason to legitimize them," prominent opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov said. "It's like the Nazis in the 1920s — they were marginal until they got support from politicians and businessmen, and it brought the whole of Europe to ruin."
The rise in nationalist sentiment since the 2008 financial crisis should gather pace if economic conditions worsen in Russia, which relies heavily on oil and gas revenue, said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"This is the tip of the iceberg," he added. "The Kremlin is worried that nationalist sentiment will become uncontrollable."