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Russian ultra-nationalists march to celebrate National Unity Day

A Jew and a Catholic walk into a Neo-Nazi rally …

It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but that’s how I and about 5,000 Russians decided to spend the National Unity Day holiday in Moscow today (the Catholic came in the form of my friend Kevin, who promised to protect my Jewish self).

The rally was a sea of masked faces, raised fists, nationalist flags and angry slogans, marching its way for two hours through the outskirts of Moscow. “Russia for Russians!” they shouted. “Oi oi oi” went another popular refrain, mimicking the British skinhead slogan. “White Power” and “Glory to Russia” also echoed from the tall apartment blocks by which the sea of hate marched.

Russian ultra-nationalists are scary and they are many. The crowd was full of teenagers, mostly boys, buoyed by older racists, Orthodox priests and even members of Right Cause, a not very popular pro-business political party. For the most part, they looked like kids with nothing to do, nothing to believe in, nowhere to go. Many covered their faces with surgical masks or balaclavas. Only a handful that I saw sported the killer eyes/tattooed hands/shaved heads/rabid hate that come to mind when you hear the word “skinhead.”

And that might be the scariest thing.

“We’re preparing a revolution,” said Ivan, a 20-year-old economy student, marching with two friends. He ran through his complaints about the government: unemployment, a lack of direction. “So you don’t like Putin or Medvedev?” Kevin asked. “Putin’s OK,” he answered. “But don’t you know about Medvedev? He’s a Jew.” And thus launched the anti-Semitic tirade that we’d already heard from others in the crowd.
These people feel like they are under attack — from Jews, from immigrants, from a government that, from their point of view, promotes Jews and immigrants. “We are tired of being discriminated against,” said one teenager who refused to identify himself.

Nationalist feelings tend to rise whenever the economy and life turn sour, and Russia is no exception. The far-right LDPR party holds a place in parliament, whose deputy speaker is LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a populist firebrand who explodes into nationalist rhetoric any chance he gets. But he is also, in a bizarre way, a patriot and likely would not understand the “Sieg Heils” and Hitler salutes pointed at me and my camera, remembering the tens of millions of Russians who died fighting Nazi Germany in World War II. He would, however, likely praise the father who held a 2-year-old boy on his shoulders encouraging him to chant “Russia for Russians, Russia for Russians” with his babytooth lisp.

National Unity Day is a new holiday, introduced by then-President Putin in 2005 to replace a Communist holiday that marked the Bolshevik Revolution. Now, technically, the day marks the defeat of Polish invaders in 1612. (In practice, two-thirds of Russians polled have no idea what the holiday means.) It has quickly, however, become a day where nationalist sentiment runs rampant, and that’s something the authorities endorse — today's rally was quickly approved by the city government, while liberal opposition rallies rarely have such luck.