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Nossik says that the Russian authorities, who were taken by surprise by the protests, have been searching for years for an ideology to unite society. But their attempts at positive imagery almost routinely fail.
“There’s one thing they are good at spreading, and that’s hatred,” Nossik said. “The authorities have been sowing the seeds nationwide against the migrants, against the NGOs, against sexual minorities, against foreigners, against Muscovites, against intellectuals. Every day, we hear incitement in state-sponsored media, some sort of incitement of hatred. And it’s never about Jews.”
It may be overly simplistic to date Russia’s xenophobic turn to December 2011; tensions between ethnic Russians and migrant workers from the North Caucasus and Central Asia have been bubbling away for years. And the Russian Orthodox Church, with its traditionalist and nationalist views, has been ascendant for more than a decade.
Even so, the past couple of years have seen a surge in activity targeting liberals and minorities.
Verkhovsky spoke of an open anti-migrant campaign in state-controlled mass media since the beginning of 2013. In St. Petersburg last winter, police organized a mass inspection of street vendors that swept up hundreds of migrants. Instead of the detainees being transported to the police station on buses, they were marched through the streets in columns.
“It’s like the TV [is showing] these people are enemies we defeated,” Verkhovsky said, explaining that the television footage would have evoked for many Russians the images of German prisoners of war who were marched through Russian cities during the closing months of World War II. “It’s a very strong symbolic message.”
Xenophobia is now also a hallmark of the Duma. In the summer of 2012, Russia’s lower House of Parliament passed a law requiring non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.” A separate law banned the adoption of Russian children by Americans.
But of all the currents of fear coursing through contemporary Russia, what has most caught the West’s attention is the country’s turn against gay people. The government insists that a law passed last year banning so-called promotion of “nontraditional sexual relations” among minors does not criminalize homosexuality. The statute, top officials say, is intended only to protect minors from being indoctrinated into — or as they would see it, turned toward — a gay lifestyle. Activists say that the effect has been a steep rise in homophobic assaults, which now appear to have the tacit approval of the authorities.