Thousands of far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis marched through Moscow on Friday calling on ethnic Russians to "take back" their country, as resentment grows over dark-complexioned Muslim migrants from Russia's Caucasus and the money the Kremlin sends to the restive region.
Some 5,000 people, mostly young men wearing medical masks and balaclavas, marched through a working-class neighborhood of gloomy apartment buildings on the outskirts of the capital. They chanted "Russia for Russians" and "Migrants today, occupiers tomorrow," along with anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic slurs and obscenities.
Some raised their hands in a Nazi salute as hundreds of police officers stood shoulder-to-shoulder along the street, which was blocked to traffic.
"All Russian people are on the march — football fans, skinheads, national socialists," said Dmitry Demushkin, a longtime activist who now leads a group called Russkiye, or Russians. "We have to show what our nation is demanding."
Demushkin is a former leader of the Slavic Union, a neo-Nazi group that was banned last year as extremist, along with the Movement Against Illegal Migration.
Violent xenophobic groups have flourished in Russia over the past two decades. Their members kill and beat non-Slavs and anti-racism activists and crudely denounce the influx of immigrants from the Caucasus and from Central Asian countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.
Since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, they have drawn moral support from his efforts to rebuild a strong Russian state. After two terms as president, Putin moved into the prime minister's office, but an election in March is expected to hand him a third presidential term.
Following a clash last December between police and thousands of football fans and other extremists just outside the Kremlin walls — and an unprecedented outbreak of hate crimes — the government has taken a tougher line against the groups. But their virulent hatred is proving hard to combat.
Many Russians share the anti-migrant sentiment, and even those who would not describe themselves as racist are increasingly resentful of the hefty subsidies sent to the Caucasus, particularly to Chechnya. The money is intended to bring stability after years of war, but the region remains deeply impoverished while Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov flaunts his wealth.
"Stop feeding the Caucasus" was one of the catchphrases of Friday's march. It was printed on banners and repeated by speakers — including popular anti-corruption whistleblower Alexander Navalny, who originally came up with the phrase.
Navalny's description of Putin's United Russia party as the "party of swindlers and thieves" has also stuck.
"This is our country, and we have to eradicate the crooks who suck our blood and eat our liver," Navalny, a lawyer, yelled to the cheering crowd. "Down with United Russia! Down with the party of crooks and thieves!" he shouted.
The phrases coined by Navalny have helped to unite a broad protest movement and become so popular that both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have felt compelled to address the criticism and defend their policies in the Caucasus as vital to Russia's security.
The so-called Russian March has been held annually since 2005 on a new national holiday created to replace celebrations of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
The new holiday was usurped by far-right nationalists, whose first rally in 2005 led to the shocking sight of thousands of skinheads marching through central Moscow with their hands raised in a Nazi salute and shouting obscene racist slogans.
The following year the march was banned, but nationalists marched anyway and clashed violently with police. Since 2007, the Russian March has been relegated to areas outside of the capital's center.
Marches also took place Friday in other cities across the country, drawing hundreds of participants.
Tens of thousands of skinheads, neo-Nazis and far-right nationalists are active in Russia, according to analysts and polls. They advocate exclusive rights for ethnic Russians, who comprise two-thirds of the population of 142 million. More than 100 ethnicities account for the remaining third, including dozens of ethnic groups from the mountainous and predominantly Muslim Caucasus region.
Last year, some 320 ultranationalists were convicted of hate crimes, including several teenage gang members that stabbed or beat to death dark-skinned non-Russians, according to independent human rights watchdog Sova.