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Nationalists March In Moscow While Kremlin Celebrates 'Unity Day'

  • Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW -- Nationalists carried flags and chanted slogans at Russian March parades on November 4, while President Vladimir Putin and his supporters played up patriotism in celebrations of the National Unity Day holiday.

Rival parades and government celebrations were colored by the conflict in Ukraine, where Kyiv and the West say Russia has sent weapons and troops to support separatists fighting against government troops in a conflict that has killed more than 4,000 people since April.

In an apparent reference to Western sanctions and criticism over Russia's actions in Ukraine, Putin told a Kremlin ceremony, "No threats can make us give up our values and ideals."

At noon, a motley crowd of up to 2,000 mostly male nationalists, some carrying tsarist-era flags, filed though metal detectors in a southeastern Moscow neighborhood, formed columns and paraded down a short stretch of two-lane road flanked by tall tower blocks as riot police watched from behind a cordon.

The marchers -- some in masks, others in camouflage or baseball caps -- chanted slogans such as "Russia for Russians," "One for all and all for one," and "Forward, Russians."

A few threw out their hands in Nazi-style salutes, but the march was mainly peaceful.

A rival Russian March drew some 2,500 nationalists from a medley of far-right, monarchist, imperialist, and radical Orthodox Christian groups to a residential area of northwestern Moscow a few hours later.

Smaller parades were held in other Russian cities and in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in March.

The Russian March has been held annually since 2005, when National Unity Day, which commemorates Russia's defeat of Polish invaders in 1612, was introduced during Putin's second term.

The holiday replaced the anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Since his election to a third term in 2012, Putin has repeatedly championed patriotism as crucial to Russia's future, and he and his government have struck an increasingly assertive, great-power tone over the past year, as relations with the West have soured badly over the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine.

"This year we have been confronted with tough challenges. Just as has been the case a number of times throughout our history, our people have again responded with consolidation, moral and spiritual renaissance," Putin said in the Kremlin.

But the authorities have turned a cold shoulder to the Russian March.

As in past years, the main nationalist march as pushed to the edge of Moscow, while a bigger parade featuring prominent Kremlin allies promoting unity was planned in the heart of the capital.

Nationalists marched along the Amur River in the Far East city of Khabarovsk.

Nationalists marched along the Amur River in the Far East city of Khabarovsk.

About 100 nationalists gathered in the snow in the Far East city of Khabarovsk, but they had been denied permision to march downtown and instead paraded along the Amur River in a park and dispersed an hour later.

Analysts say the Kremlin is wary of the hard-line Russian nationalists, many of whom are disenchanted with Putin's leadership and considered dangerously radical in an ethnically diverse nation with a large Muslim minority and a large population of migrant workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

While nationalist movements have provided material support and volunteer fighters to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, some have grown disenchanted with Moscow's on-again, off-again backing of pro-Russian separatists there and are pushing for far more radical agendas both in Ukraine and Russia.

PHOTO GALLERY: The marchers -- some in masks, others in camouflage or baseball caps -- chanted slogans such as "Russia for Russians," "One for all and all for one," and "Forward, Russians."

At the rival nationalist parades in Moscow, splits over Ukraine were evident.

One banner read "Russians are against war in Ukraine," while some clutched flags meant to represent "Novorossia" -- a tsarist-era term, now revived by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine and used by Putin as a signal of support to the rebels, that refers to a large portion of southern Ukraine.

Andrei Antonov, 50, a businessman who wore a black, yellow, and white imperialist scarf, said he opposes Putin's Ukraine policy.

"Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians are one people," said Antonov. "I came here to show there are Russians in this country."

At the later nationalist march, in northwestern Moscow, participants paraded to a makeshift stage decorated with a banner reading: "Russian March for Novorossia."

Waving imperialist flags and carrying icons and portraits of tsars, activists intoned Russian Orthodox prayers and chanted, "Kyiv is a Russian city" and "Glory to the Russian people."

Some activists said the other Russian March was for "traitors" who support Ukraine.

"We have come here to show absolute solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Novorossia," an organizer called out from the stage. "Our main slogans are 'For Russian rule' and 'For Novorossia.'"

The crowd held a moment of silence for pro-Russian rebels who have died in Ukraine, and a group of rebels appeared onstage and expressed gratitude to the crowd for support.

Ralliers replied with chants of "Thank you, thank you!"

Meanwhile, mainstream Russian political leaders mixed strident invective against Kyiv and the West with words of support for the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine at a rally in central Moscow that followed a parade police said drew some 75,000 people.

"Russia has never been afraid of external enemies," Pariarch Kirill said after a prayer service at the Kremlin. (file photo)

"Russia has never been afraid of external enemies," Pariarch Kirill said after a prayer service at the Kremlin. (file photo)

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriach Kirill, urged unity among citizens of Russia and suggested the sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union over Moscow's role in the Ukraine crisis were aimed to plunge the country into a new "Time of Troubles" like the one considered to have ended in 1612.

"In order to sow discord, it is necessary to worsen the economic situation. We are confronting this problem today with foreign sanctions," Kirill said after a prayer service in a Kremlin cathedral, the Interfax news agency reported.

But he said "Russia has never been afraid of external enemies. We have always defeated them, even when we were much weaker."

Putin placed flowers at the Red Square monument to Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky, who led the forces that expelled the Poles from Moscow in 1612, according to the Kremlin press service.

Putin was also to hand out medals to foreigners seen by the Kremlin as contributing to peace, friendship, and mutual understanding at a time when he faces vehement criticism from the West.

With additional reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service, Interfax, and Ekho Moskvy
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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at balmfortht@rferl.org

     

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