Activists in St Petersburg took to the streets to march against hate and fascism. Kevin Ovenden reports
About two hundred people took to the streets of St Petersburg, Russia, at the weekend for the annual ‘March Against Hatred’, which aims to ‘unite those who fight against intolerance, xenophobia, fascism and discrimination on grounds of race, nationality, religion and beliefs, sexual orientation etc.’
The following day, tens of thousands in about 100 cities joined the ultra-nationalist ‘Russian March’. In St Petersburg, that nationalist frenzy was followed by an anti-gay demonstration organised by a right-wing politician who has pressed recent homophobic legislation. It attracted 50,000 people.
The hard Right demonstrations led immediately to a wave of violent assaults on migrants. The biggest was probably near St Petersburg’s Udelnaia Metro station, where a group of young people attacked a street market — most of the traders there would be people from Central Asia and the Caucasus. They smashed stalls and attacked people who they deemed non-Slavic. Prior to this, possibly the same group attacked people in the underground train, beating up everybody with a non-Slavic appearance who was in a carriage. The police have opened an investigation under laws covering ‘hooliganism’. They have refused to categorise the attacks as racially motivated, which would carry a higher sentence upon any conviction. Again in St Petersburg, near another Metro station, a body of migrant from Uzbekistan was found with multiple stab wounds.
People leaving that Moscow Russian March also attacked ‘foreigners’ near a Metro station. The SOVA Centre (a Russian NGO monitoring incidents of racism and xenophobia) has copious reports of these and other attacks and also gives a flavour of the kinds of slogans raised on the march.
It is this frightening rise in racism and the far Right that the organisers of the March Against Hatred are responding to. They explain the reasoning for their protest and the reaction of the authorities:
'The march is traditionally held on or around 31 October to commemorate Nikolai Girenko — anthropologist and human rights activist killed by a Neo-nazi gang in 2004 — and other victims of hate crimes, including eight year old Tajik girl Khursheda Sultonova, 20 year old Vietnamese student Vu Anh Tuan and 28-year old student from Senegal Samba Lampsar Sall.'
The main slogan of this year’s march was: ‘For Russia without pogroms!’
The organisers appealed for support as ‘this year, unlike the years before, the St Petersburg authorities initially refused to “authorise” the march under various pretexts and only after a lengthy negotiation process and some pressure, the authorities allowed the March to go ahead.
‘At the same time, the so-called “Russia March” — a march of neo-nazis, nationalists and racists of all kinds — is allowed to go ahead in St Petersburg, Moscow and several other Russian cities. It is feared that next year the authorities will ban March Against Hatred altogether.’
On behalf of Unite Against Fascism in Britain I sent the following solidarity message, which was read out at the St Petersburg march:
'Warmest greetings to all who are taking to the streets of St Petersburg today against fascism, racism, bigotry, and hatred in all its forms.
You should know that you are not alone today. Across Europe and beyond you have many, many friends who are following what you are doing — and monitoring keenly the response of the authorities.
Everywhere we face a similar threat — whether it is the fascist murder of immigrants and left-wing figures such as Pavlos Fyssas in Greece, the medieval hounding of Roma communities from the Balkans to Ireland, or attempts by fascists and racists in Britain — where I send this from — to exploit the misery caused by austerity and economic distress.
And everywhere too we see public authorities giving in to racism and bigotry, or worse. In many cases they are in fact consciously fanning the flames of hate. What starts as inflammatory speeches or discriminatory laws passed in parliaments and dumas, ends up with the sharpened knives of racists or of anti-LGBT thugs plunged into innocents of all kinds.
We know that the majority of people in Russia are opposed to that. Yours is a country that knows better than any what the horror of fascism and racial persecution means.
So in no sense is our solidarity with you in any way ‘against Russians and Russia’, as some of your more reckless and stupid politicians may claim.
We are with you because we are fighting against the same enemy everywhere. In Britain, we are resisting the scapegoating of migrants from Eastern Europe, including from Russia. We are against racism everywhere, and everywhere we are for unity against the far Right.
That is why we in the Unite Against Fascism campaign — the leading anti-racist coalition in Britain — have joined the call from friends in Greece for an international day of action across Europe on 22 March next year against racism, xenophobia and the far Right.
We hope you will also consider taking action that day and we look forward to coordinating our activities further with you.
Unity — все вместе против фашизма — никогда снов'
Fascism, Russia and internationalism
The growth of racism in Russia and parts of the former Soviet Union, such as Ukraine, has broken into the mass media thanks to some ugly recent incidents of abuse of black or foreign football players. That comes after international condemnation of state-orchestrated homophobia adding to a shocking climate of murderous gay-bashing and all manner of attacks on LGBT people.
Calls to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics in February next year and for a wider ‘boycott Russia’ campaign have swiftly followed.
For those of us with longer memories, this kind of Olympic boycott call has repugnant Cold War associations. I remember how the sponsor of the hangman general in Pakistan, of the Saudi kleptocrats, of the recently ousted Shah of Iran, and of Israel (as well as the world’s largest aggressor in its own right) — the US with a bellicose Margaret Thatcher in harness — boycotted the Moscow Olympics of 1980 on account of the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan.
The hypocrisy stank. And the vast bulk of the Left — whatever our position on Russian tanks in Kabul — refused to go along with it and with the boycott call as the ‘Second Cold War’ intensified with the stationing of Cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe.
The Cold War may be over. But much of the rhetoric surrounding a resurgent Russia asserting its strategic interests (selfish, as are those of any great power) in the Levant and elsewhere could come straight from the Reagan-Thatcher years.
None of that should mean indifference to the frightening rise of racism, fascism and violent bigotry in Russia, which is all the more shocking when you consider that territory suffered than any from the eruption of European fascism in the 20th century.
Acute awareness of Western hypocrisy and naked imperial interest does not mean allowing geo-political realities to trump universalist commitment to opposing oppression and injustice. That was the accusation levelled against the Left by the short lived, Eustonite ‘decent Left’, who embraced Tony Blair’s Chicago liberal interventionist doctrine and assailed the anti-war Left as cultural relativist, Stalinist amoralists.
They promptly disappeared faster than the beer swill in the north London pub they met in. Disturbingly, however, some of their stale wine is reappearing today in fresh bottles.
There is, indeed, what Malcolm X once described as a ‘global struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter’. A true Left internationalism needs to engage in that struggle in a way that confronts the great power conflict for global dominance, rather than pretending it can evade it. Two elements, at least, are critical to doing so.
The geo-politics of internationalism
First, analytically. As in so many other cases, the standard liberal interpretation — or more often assumption — of the rise of attacks on minorities in Russia is itself to appeal to ethnicised explanations. As did the Russophobes of the British imperial bureaucracy of the 19th century, many liberal commentators ascribe pogroms and bigotry in Russia to an ‘Oriental despotic’ mentality or, in more moderated form, the backwardness of a vast and dark country which remains several rungs down the ladder of proper European liberal development.
This fascinating analytical piece in the Financial Times, however, locates the rise of the anti-immigrant racism in Russia in the very mechanisms of capitalist growth and crisis, great power competition and desperation by the political class to create a popular political project which we see also across the OECD and in ‘advanced’ Europe.
The article notes:
'Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia has become a magnet for migrants second only to the US, with more than 13m arriving in the country for permanent residence since 1993. Its oil-fuelled boom over much of the past decade created a demand for workers that the shrinking Russian population could no longer meet and attracted millions from the newly independent republics in Central Asia whose economies have been struggling.'
The pattern of savagely widening inequalities, then compounded by renewed attacks on the social wage even after the catastrophic collapse of the 1990s, is not unique to Russia.
Nor is the attempt by the Russian state simultaneously to benefit from very necessary immigration (the Economist reports yet another study showing the benefits for the economy, and indeed other things being equal for wage differentials, of immigration into OECD countries) while balancing its regional/global role with constructing a political bloc at home cemented by reactionary themes.
According to the FT piece:
'Mr Putin is trying to balance his ambitions for a regional trade bloc with his need to respond to the growing anger about immigration.
He has used the Orthodox church and Russian patriotism to underpin his legitimacy and create a stronger sense of social consensus. But at the same time, Mr Putin has resisted all calls for a smaller Russia. In a manifesto-like article in January 2012, he rejected multiculturalism and recognised people’s fears of migration but stubbornly stuck to the notion of Russia as a multi-ethnic nation and to the claim to its status as a power spanning Europe and Asia. “President Putin has been remarkably ambiguous on the issue of migration,” says Blair Ruble, a Russia scholar at the Wilson Center and co-author of a forthcoming study about the reception of migrants in Russia’s regions.'
The ‘growing anger about immigration’ has not fallen from the Siberian sky, but is the resultant of agitation by the Right, policy and rhetoric from the state and the absence of a coherent Left alternative to both.
The Russian opposition which is favoured in the West is at the very least complicit. Opposition leader and self styled ‘nationalist democrat’ Alexei Navalny was lionised in the Western media as a great liberal hope when he came second in the race for mayor of Moscow and then faced state charges of embezzlement. The Wall Street Journal last year called him ‘the man Putin fears the most’.
He took part in the March for Russia despite the warnings of anti-fascists that it would be stuffed with neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and racists of all hue. The FT reported before the march:
'Alexei Navalny, the opposition politician who is seen as a potential challenger to Mr Putin after garnering 27 per cent of the vote in September’s mayoral elections in Moscow, appealed to people to participate in the march in order not to leave it to the radicals.'
A central theme of the march will be familiar to any anti-racist in Europe — virulent Islamophobia, in this case fused with hostility to immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus (in Britain it is conjoined with racism against people largely from the Indian sub-continent; in Germany, from Turkey and in France, from the Maghreb).
The problem is not ‘Russian racism’ but ‘racism in Russia’ — a racism that in broad cause and even physiognomy is far from an ‘Eastern’ question.
So the second element of an internationalist response is to construct actions and arguments that reflect that.
The UAF message sent to the St Petersburg anti-fascist demonstration explicitly locates solidarity in a common struggle across Europe. In doing what hard-pressed activists in Russia call for — solidarising with their struggle — it cuts against both the racist Right in Russia and against those who would seek to detach that from its moorings in the common capitalist crisis and place it instead in paradigm of Cold War liberalism.
It seeks to respond with a concrete, common call for coordination. Not a ‘boycott’ springing from liberal imagination in the West and, whatever its intention, fusing with highly illiberal forces here while providing a ready alibi for their equivalents to the East.
Forward to M22
The call for common action against racism and fascism before, on and after 22 March next year, which emerged from a major anti-fascist conference in Greece, is taking on a great significance.
Just as with a similar call, at shorter notice, for coordinated protests on 19 January this year, it is striking a chord with anti-fascist and anti-racist collectives of many kinds.
That in itself is extremely important. There is the prospect of an historic day of mobilisations across Europe — including in Russia — which can be the launch pad for co-ordinated movements having direct political effect against the Right on a scale that has been lacking so far.
It also means something else. It provides a clear alternative from the Left to the at best confused and at worst mischievous responses that have been all to common to developments such as the passing of anti-gay laws or the assaults on migrants in Russia or some other country ‘far away of which we know little’.
It reasserts the centrality of constructing a mass movement. Such a movement has to be built in each national political reality. That can be done only by those in that reality. Solidarity means assisting in its creation, not imagining you can act on its behalf or over the heads of those ‘over there’ who base their politics on trying to do so.
And it means the coordination of real national mobilisations, not the coordination of manifestos which seem to grow in length, breadth and distance from the task in hand in direct proportion to the lack of traction in moving real forces within society — or rather in societies demarcated by the polity of the nation-state.
So what is at stake on 22 March is not only the opportunity to cohere a blow against racism and the Right, but also to construct an internationalist pole: an approach that intelligently and with genuine principle ensures that its blows are so carefully aimed it can never be of assistance to the enemy at home — the one we must confront above all if talk of international solidarity is not to become the piety of individualist morality.
From Left Frank
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
More articles from this author
- Witchfinder Starmer must be stopped: this is a fight for all the left
- The struggles are fusing: Greece protests rage against authoritarianism
- Starmer's flag fetish: win the middle ground, don’t chase it
- Vaccine nationalism: a plague on all our houses
- Impeachment will not defeat Trumpism
- We need to learn from the mistakes of Brexit past
- Keir Starmer's Brexit opportunism