The Cable

This Year’s Russian Unity Day March Is … Anti-Putin?

Why were this year's Russian March participants protesting Putin?


Ah, the Russian March. Every Nov. 4 — Russia’s Unity Day, a federal holiday that was created in 2005 and conveniently bears a similar name to that of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia — Russians march around various cities to commemorate a 17th-century uprising against Poland, a turning point in the 1605-1618 Polish-Muscovite War.

Normally, the Russian March is criticized for its racist and xenophobic undertones. In 2014, for example, participants wore masks and camouflage and chanted “Russia for Russians.” This year, however, it was not only anti-immigrant (although, not to worry, there was plenty of that, too) but also — in a strange twist on the normally nationalist tone — anti-Putin.

No, not even his 84 percent approval rating and soaring pro-Russian rhetoric were enough to shield Putin from the ire of the Russian March demonstrators, who called for his resignation and an end to political repression.

Confusingly, some of the Russian Marchers protested the war in Ukraine, while others seemed thrilled with Russia’s cross-border adventurism. An anti-Putin nationalist gathering on Nov. 4 in northwest Moscow was attended by none other than Igor Strelkov, a.k.a Girkin, the former Minister of Defense of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” in Eastern Ukraine. It was also pro-Russian, and also pro-nationalist, but the Strelkov-backed protest included calls championing “Novorossiya,” the Czarist-era phrase Putin himself used initially as rhetorical justification for the fighting in Ukraine, but which he dropped from political parlance as the war dragged on and on.

Given the conflicting chants at the different demonstrations, it is unclear if nationalists are discontented with their dear leader because they want more war in Ukraine or less war in Ukraine; or if economic sanctions are finally beginning to take their political toll, even if that pain isn’t fully reflected in approval ratings. But the reality remains: A day created to foster political unity behind Putin’s party is now plagued by conflicting groups and messages and even arrests. Russian Unity Day — indeed, Russian nationalism — is apparently not what it once was for Putin.

This, then, was a good Friday in Moscow for different strands of Russian nationalism, but a bad one indeed for nationalist supporters of one Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin — if not yet for the increasingly autocratic president himself.

Photo credit: Adam Berry/Getty Images

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