Russian nationalists, racism and the Sochi Olympics

9 January 2014

By Richard Arnold

Should there be a large terrorist attack in Russia before or during the Olympics then the reaction of the nationalists should also come under scrutiny.

While the attention of most analysts in the wake of the double bombing in Volgograd has rightly been on the threat posed to the Sochi Winter Olympics by the Caucasus Emirate and Doku Umarov’s pledge to disrupt the Games, the bombings also revealed another potential disruption to a peaceful Games. In the aftermath of the first bombing, nationalist groups on December 30th led by the group ‘Russian Regions’ called for a gathering to demand the resignation of the “governor and the mayor of the city.” One of the groups who joined in the call to stage protests calls itself “Sputnik and Mayhem.” Although that particular planned gathering was put down by the city authorities, Russian racist attitudes and violence pose substantial threats to the Winter Olympics and rights in Russia more generally.

It is no secret that racist attitudes in Russia are flourishing. Moscow is one of the least ethnically diverse capital cities in the world and Russia has become the center of hope for the international racist movement. After the fall of the Soviet Union, groups such as Combat-18 and Hammerskins moved in to establish local branches in Russia and in 2006 the country had half the world’s skinhead population. Prominent racists known in the west like David Duke, former grand wizard of the KKK, are now based in the Former Soviet Union (Duke in Ukraine) and travel frequently to Russia. Further, one can frequently see signs asking for people “of Slavic appearance” (i.e. white) for jobs or accommodation. Both the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia are led by politicians who have made claims about Jews that seem to be straight out of the 1930s.

Sometimes these attitudes boil over into violence. Most of the racist violence in Russia in the past ten years has been directed toward Central Asian migrants and people from the Caucasus. The violence reached its apogee in 2008 and a prominent judge who had sentenced Neo-Nazis, Eduard Chuvashov was shot dead in broad daylight in Moscow in 2010. Since this time, the government has policed racist violence much more rigorously but it is still likely to feature in the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics for two reasons. First, the attention of the police is likely to be on monitoring terrorists from the Caucasus, not necessarily nationalists. Second, both the governor of Krasnodar Krai (where Sochi is located) Alexander Tkachyov and the federal authorities have deputized Cossacks to assist law enforcement throughout the Games. The Cossacks have a racist ideology of their own and a history of antipathy towards darker-skinned ethnic minorities.

Yet the mobilization in Volgograd revealed another threat, the threat of mass reactive mobilization by ethnic Russians. Beginning in 2006 with the nationalists' first major success in the Karelian town of Kondopoga, such gatherings followed by violence have become regular features of contemporary Russian politics. 2007 saw such a gathering in Stavropol; 2010 the infamous large gathering of 5,000 nationalists on Manezh Square in Moscow; and 2013 saw pogroms in both Pugachev (Saratov region) and the Moscow suburb of Biryulyevo. One predicts events at one’s peril, but should there be a large terrorist attack in Russia before or during the Olympics then the reaction of the nationalists should also come under scrutiny.