Russia has recently returned to the headlines in the wake of the Edward Snowden odyssey, but otherwise the nation’s domestic politics have remained off the radar since the brief flurry of post-election protests in March. Since then, the general notion has been that Putin has rebuffed the political threat and continued to consolidate control over civil society. Certainly, the political climate in Russia has grown chillier, as much from the failure of the anti-Putin movement as from Putin’s actions. Russia’s domestic politics, however, may devolve even further, as the rise of nationalist movements within the nation have fostered internal strife and threatened to harm the already strained U.S.-Russian relationship.
When Tsar Nicholas I sought to consolidate his authority in Russia, he adopted the policy of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.” It has, of course, been a common observation in the West that Putin has sought to maintain his authority in a nearly autocratic fashion, and the tsar comparison has proven irresistible for magazine covers. As much as that characterization has dominated Russian political discourse, however, the post-Soviet questions of nationality and religious orthodoxy may have even more profound impacts on Russia’s politics in the long-term.
The fall of the Soviet Union was certainly characterized by demands for national self-determination, but despite the splintering of the USSR, ethnic issues have remained salient within Russia, and after years of war in the Caucasus, the political discourse has veered toward a more nationalistic attitude.
Although many rhetorical outbursts by nationalistic politicians could be interpreted as isolated and sporadic cases of racism, alarming patterns have emerged in both the discourse surrounding the Caucasus and in the widespread embrace of Imperial nostalgia. The common phrase “Stop Feeding the Caucasus” certainly encompasses legitimate anger at the profligate governments of the North Caucasus republics, but it also channels resentment that Russians, (the russkiye, ethnic Russians, as opposed to rossiyskiye, the citizens of the Russian Federation,) are feeding unwelcome nerusskiye. The most worrying aspect is that such views have expanded beyond the usual minority of ultra-nationalists. Alexei Navalny, currently the most well-known leader within the opposition movement, has harnessed the phrase to gain favor among those who may oppose Putin but would also not be wooed by Western liberalism. It may not be that surprising, then, to hear of increased elements of racism in Russian society. For instance, fans of the soccer club F.C. Zenit St. Petersburg demanded that their team hire only white players. Although racism in general is no stranger to European soccer, Zenit fans have a history of clashing with clubs from the Caucasus. Likewise, a town in the south of Russia demanded that Chechens be expelled after a Chechen killed a young veteran. Certainly such instances are rare, but their increasing frequency demonstrates a growing frustration with the Caucasians and other ethnic groups within Russia. Nationalism — specifically Russian ethno-nationalism — has permeated the nation’s political dialogue.
What of the third aspect of Nicholas’s ruling doctrine, Orthodoxy? Once the state atheism of the USSR was discarded, the Russian Orthodox Church quickly regained preeminence in society. The revival of Orthodoxy has in some cases reinforced the development of nationalism, in addition to repairing its former status as the predominant social influence on Russian culture. Of course, “Orthodoxy” in this sense should not be taken to categorize all of Orthodox faith in one broad stroke, but the Russian Orthodox Church has not been shy in developing its political connections. In regards to nationalism, no ultra-nationalist “Russian march” can be complete now without the white-gold-black banners of the Romanov dynasty and a host of icons. Just as many of the Caucasian fighters have turned to radical Islam, many nationalists see an embrace of Orthodoxy as integral to their repudiation of Muslim Caucasians. After the canonization of Yevgeny Rodionov, a young solider beheaded by Chechen terrorists for his refusal to convert from Orthodoxy to Islam, the veneration of his sainthood became especially popular among ultra-nationalists.
Southern Russian towns have even encouraged the incorporation of Cossacks into the legal police force, recalling the days — almost 200 years ago — when Cossacks first settled the Caucasian frontiers.
Image credit: russiablog.org