On November 4, Russia celebrates its annual Unity Day. For years, the holiday has been overshadowed by right-wing extremists, who protest against immigrants. This year, the atmosphere is particularly explosive.
Rustam Arifchanov, chairman of the Azerbaijani Congress in Russia, has warned his countrymen to be careful if they venture out in public on November 4. He said that it would be best if Azeri proprietors “completely close” their cafes and restaurants, so that their businesses "are not completely demolished."
Arifchanov's warning comes in anticipation of the so-called "Russian March," organized annually by Russian nationalists. Thousands are expected to turn out in the Moscow district of Lyublino on Monday, where they will demonstrate against migrants and for ethnic Russians. Marches and rallies are also planned in other cities.
Dark-skinned migrants targeted
In the past, these demonstrations have turned violent, with drunken right-wing extremists hunting down people with darker skin, resulting injuries and even deaths. The victims were mostly migrant workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Moscow, above all, attracts hundreds of thousands of migrants from the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. They often work illegally on construction sites or in restaurants. Many Russians believe that migrants are responsible for rising criminality. The police and other authorities have arrested many migrants in recent months.
Holiday hijacked by far right
Officially, Russia celebrates November 4 as its Unity Day. The holiday was first introduced in 2004 and is supposed to mark the victory of the Russian resistance in 1612 against occupying Polish forces in Moscow. But many Russians are blasé about the holiday, according to Lev Gudkov.
"Most see an attempt to drive November 7 from memory," Gudkov, the director of the Moscow pollster Levada Center, told DW. The Soviets celebrated November 7 as their national holiday to mark the 1917 October Revolution by the Bolsheviks.
But ever since Unity Day was first introduced, right-wing extremists have re-appropriated it for their own purposes.
"While the authorities initially had no content for Unity Day, the nationalists reacted quickly and practically privatized it," Alexander Verkhovsky told DW. Verkhovsky is the director of the SOVA Center in Moscow, which investigates nationalism and xenophobia in Russia.
The Russian Marches are "the most important and biggest event" in the right-wing scene, wrote expert Robert Kusche in an analysis.
Many different neo-Nazi groups march on November 4 under the black-yellow-white flag of the 19th century Russian Empire. Swastikas and Hitler salutes are also to be seen.
Tense situation after recent clashes
This year, the mood is particularly tense. A few weeks ago, in the Moscow district Biryulyovo, an Azeri allegedly stabbed a young Russian to death, sparking heavy rioting. Hundreds of neighborhood residents stormed the weekly market, where many migrants work, and also fought street battles with the police.
Other events have also contributed to the tension, according to Gudkov. In October, a female suicide bomber from Dagestan blew herself up on a bus in the southern Russian city of Volgograd. Six people died in the attack. And during the Moscow mayoral race at the beginning of September, illegal immigration was a top issue.
"The propensity for violence has risen in this context," said Gudkov. He added that public attitudes toward the "Russian March" have radically changed. According to a poll by the Levada Center, 40 percent of those asked support the far-right demonstration, while just 25 percent oppose it. Two years ago, it was the reverse.
"The number of those who reject the Russian March as a neo-Nazi event has gone down drastically," said Gudkov.
Division in the far-right scene
Event organizers have predicted that the Russian March this year will surpass all expectations. While Gudkov doesn't rule that out as a possibility, Verkhovsky from the SOVA Center is more skeptical.
In the winter of 2011-2012, there was a split in the far-right scene, Verkhovsky said. At the time, neo-Nazis demonstrated together with leftists and liberal representatives of the urban middle class against Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency. These common protests angered the "hardcore neo-Nazis," who subsequently abandoned the Russian March.
In the past, leading Russian opposition politician and blogger Alexei Navalny also participated in the Russian March. Many liberal intellectuals criticize him to this day for participating. In recent years, Navalny has distanced himself from the marches. Whether he will participate this year is unclear. In a recent interview, Navalny wouldn't rule it out.