Thousands of black-clad Russian nationalists marched through central Moscow on Sunday, marking a “National Unity Day” holiday created by Vladimir Putin by calling for an end to his rule and voicing hostility to ethnic minorities.
Putin instituted the holiday in 2005 to replace the annual Soviet-era celebration of the Bolshevik revolution. But civil rights activists say his own flirtation with ethnic nationalism has stoked a rise in far-right violence, and is partly to blame for the hijacking of the holiday by hardline militants.
The marchers, mainly young men with closely cropped hair in black leather jackets, shouted “Russia without Putin” and anti-immigrant slogans, carrying Russian Orthodox icons, waving imperial flags and chanting “Russia for Russians”.
Police said 6,000 people turned out under grey skies for Sunday’s far-right rally, which was given official permission for the first time to march through the heart of Moscow.
Many expressed hostility to migrants from Russia’s own mainly Muslim southern regions and other parts of the former Soviet Union, saying Russia should tighten its visa requirements and bolster domestic restrictions on internal migration.
The newly-reconstituted holiday commemorates a Moscow uprising against Polish-Lithuanian occupation 400 years ago. Putin marked it at an event flanked by leaders of the Russian Orthodox Christian church and the three other faiths the Kremlin regards as traditional in Russia—Islam, Buddhism and Judaism.
“People united their forces in the name of Russia, in name of the Motherland, rising above class, national, religious and other differences,” Putin said after laying a wreath at a Red Square monument. “People freed Moscow and the country from the occupiers and those who sold and betrayed Russia.”
Sunday’s march was mostly calm although some protesters made Nazi-style salutes and set off smoke bombs. Police said 25 were detained for wearing swastika arm-bands and trenchcoats.
Putin has promoted nationalism to help fill an ideological void left by the collapse of Communist rule in 1991 and feed his vision of a resurgent Russia, emboldened by booming oil revenues, during two terms as president from 2000 until 2008.
But Russia’s nationalists now feel he has betrayed them by welcoming migrant laborers and sending billions of dollars in subsidies to the majority Muslim regions of the North Caucasus.
Right-wing activists who once backed the Kremlin have joined liberals and leftists in a nascent, patchwork protest movement fed by popular anger over corruption, failing social services and allegations of vote fraud denied by the authorities.