Rising Russian nationalism sets off ethnic tension

The Day of National Unity, which Putin made a holiday in 2005 to replace the annual celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution, officially commemorates the victory over Poles who invaded Moscow in 1612. It was meant to inspire Russians, reminding them how they came together as a people to overcome a foreign enemy.

When Russians celebrated the Day of National Unity last week, marchers waving imperial flags and shouting racist slogans paraded through cities across the country while ethnic minority citizens and migrants from the former Soviet Union stayed out of sight, better to avoid a beating.

Russians are growing increasingly nationalistic, according to the latest polls, and Muslims from the Caucasus and migrant workers from Central Asia are facing more and more hostility. Those groups get blamed for much of what goes wrong here, including corruption, crime and dead-end jobs.

President Vladimir Putin has tried to exploit the underlying xenophobia, casting himself as a leader defending a special country — built on Christian Orthodox tradition — from a predatory and dissolute world. At the same time, he sounds inclusive regarding the 10 percent of the population that identifies as Muslim, speaking of Russia as a tolerant and multicultural society. It’s a feat of balance that is beginning to show deep strains.


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