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Virtual Nationalism: Recent Cases Indicate that Social Networks Are a Catalyst for Spreading Nationalism in Russia

Though historically Russia has been a multinational country, bringing together more than 100 ethnicities, the spread of nationalism via the Internet is posing a growing threat to the integrity of the Russian society. Nationalist rallies like the Manezh Square riots last December and other activities organized by the neo-Nazi National-Socialist Organization (NSO) North have been coordinated primarily through the Internet, including social networks VKontakte and Twitter, recent research conducted by the Levada Center found. While experts from the Moscow-based Sova think-tank on xenophobia see the role of social networks as limited to a means for quick communication between nationalists, their counterparts from the Higher School of Economics believe that Internet propaganda could also serve to polarize a wider, undecided audience.

The nationalist protests last December at Manezh Square that united around 4,000 teenagers, college students and football fans, were a wake-up call for Russian society about growing nationalist sentiment among young Russians. Though the riots were predicated by the murder of a young Spartak football club fan during a brawl split along racial lines, calls for the gathering were widely coordinated through Internet blogs and forums. On Twitter, for instance, a post was widely disseminated to "put a person at every subway station and track down Caucasians" who were rumored to be uniting to strike back. Likewise, Lev Molotkov, the leader of the NSO-North Nazi branch and an IT specialist from Sergiyev Posad, frequently used the Internet to organize meetings and popularize his radical ideas.

"Planning collective events on the Internet is becoming routine for young Russians, and this makes them significantly different from the older generations," wrote Denis Volkov, the Levada researcher, in his report. "Young people aged 18 to 24 are the most active Internet-users. Most of them spend several hours per day using social networking."

Currently, there are more than 35 pro-nationalist organizations in Russia, ranging from the moderate People's Union to the radical North Brotherhood, to the outlawed Slavic Union. Most of them engage in Internet propaganda through their own Web sites. Alexander Verkhovsky, the director at the Sova Center for monitoring extremism in Russia, argues that the figure doesn't account for the entirety of nationalist activity in Russia. "It's difficult to say exactly how many nationalistic groups operate in Russia because of the huge number of small underground and secret organizations," he said.

VKontakte boasts more than 1,000 Russian nationalist groups, which can attract from anywhere between 3,000 and 110,000 members. When low standards of living exacerbate already tense relations with national minorities in Russia, social networks may encourage an undecided audience to sign up for a nationalist group and identify with their ideology, said Valeria Kasamara, the head of the Laboratory for Political Research at the Higher School of Economics. "The Internet is a good tool to manipulate undecided young people," she said.

Unlike Kasamara, Verkhovsky argued that "social networks don't play a significant role in the growth of nationalism," because participation in a group can't significantly change the mindset of a person and his core values. "It's simply a good communication tool to coordinate [the group's] activity," he said. "In reality, levels of nationalism have been rather stable for the last decade."

This opinion is partly reflected in research gathered from a January 2011 Levada poll, according to which 47 percent of Russians believe that the last decade hasn't seen a significant increase of nationalist sentiment; rather, people have just started talking more about the country's nationalism problem. However, 39 percent of those polled said that the increase in nationalist sentiment among Russians has been a common and alarming trend over the last ten years. National prejudices (11 percent of respondents), aggressive behavior by national minorities (37 percent), low standards of living in Russia (25 percent), and the Russian authorities' interest in fueling nationalist rhetoric (four percent) are among the major reasons for the growth of nationalism, according to the poll.

At the same time, participation in nationalistic groups on social networks doesn't necessarily mean that nationalists will attack immigrants from the Caucasus or other national minorities, Verkhovsky noted, and most Russians who hold a nationalistic ideology are hardly likely to assault people. Their actions will not go beyond kitchen-table talks, he said. "Radicalism is a personal characteristic which can be developed only in a certain environment among circles of radical nationalists, who are in the active minority," Verkhovsky said.

Today it's not taboo to identify oneself as a nationalist, because the term is widely conflated with patriotism, which may remove some of the stigma from identifying oneself as a nationalist. For example, one of the biggest nationalistic groups in the social network VKontakte "I'm Russian" brings together more than 110,000 people. The participants of this group identify themselves as active patriots who defend the idea of Russia's national and cultural integrity and seek to protect it from undesirable foreign interference.

Kasamara stressed that concepts of patriotism should be separated from nationalism. "Nationalism is a sign of an authoritarian regime which does not indicate sincere patriotism and true love for Russia," she said. "Nationalists can't stand constructive criticism because they are blindly obsessed with the idea of Russia's supremacy and power, which helps them to assert themselves and bolster their egos by chanting 'Russia is for Russians,' or beating representatives of national minorities. It's not real patriotism. Real patriotism means the critical analysis of a problem, serious attempts to resolve it and to reform the country."

The lack of good tolerance programs is another reason behind the growth in nationalist sentiments among young Russians. "Tolerance lessons in schools are not effective because they are too abstract and don't target certain audiences," Verkhovsky said. If high-school students have problems with their counterparts from national minorities, they should discuss these concrete cases in class to nip the problem in the bud, instead of discussing abstractions like humanity and human goodwill, he said.


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