THE BLOG
10/24/2014 12:39 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2014

The Russians Aren't Marching, The Russians Aren't Marching!

The municipal authorities in Moscow this week denied the right to free assembly to a group of Russian ultranationalists who organize the annual (deep) soul-searching extravaganza known as "The Russian March."

"Senseless and merciless," the Russian March usually covers multiple cities, delivering the greatest spectacle of all in Moscow, where else, as the capital shakes and wiggles under the feet of thousands of moderate, radical, or confused Starbucks-drinking, McDonalds-eating ultranationalist supporters. Popular slogans include "Russia for Russians," "Moscow is a Russian city!," "Down with the Occupation, Freedom to the Russian Nation!"

Russia's under occupation, you see? The Russian soul is yearning for freedom, you see? Vladimir Putin's regime is the target, you see?

The Russian March's tradition began in 2005, one year after the government came up with yet another holiday to appease the masses, designating a Day of National Unity to commemorate the Minin-Pozharsky uprising that freed Moscow from Polish-Lithuanian occupants in 1612. It is Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky who're sitting pretty in front of the landmark St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square, occupying a well-deserved spot in Russia's history and metaphysical mysticism. The uprising paved the way for the House of Romanov to settle on the Russian thrown from 1613 all the way through the Revolution.

The modern narrative of celebrating November 4th was created by the Russian nationalists flexing their proverbial muscles and bringing to TV screens around the country a radical message focusing on anti-immigrant, anti-Western, and racist bullet points. The holiday is still new, and the government wasn't quite able to explain to the Russian people why it was needed in the first place -- after all, there already was a Russia Day (June 12, celebrating Russia's independence from, well, Russia), so the Kremlin's PR magicians struggled to bring forth a wave of patriotic upheaval to households around the country. The nationalists carried the day, they Occupied! November 4.

Well, not this year. The Russian March is banned in Moscow. First, the march wasn't allowed to go on via a downtown route popularized in the Western press because it's so beloved by the "informal" liberal opposition, which has been marching in and around the Academician Sakharov Prospect. Then, the accommodating nationalists offered a dozen other possible locations to the municipal authorities, who decided to reject the application altogether citing -- what else? -- too many applications for different locations.

As the leader of "The Russians" Dmitry Demushkin explained to gazeta.ru, "In prior years, the authorities in Moscow didn't bother to listen to our wishes about the location -- they would simply pick one for us and send us all there." One of such places was in Lyublino on the outskirts of Moscow, where in 2011 the most expansive march had taken place, bringing together between 10 and 25 thousand people.

Mr. Demushkin and comrades haven't given up hope. "It's possible we'll surprise the mayor's office," said he. In the meantime, other applicants haven't lost hope and are still working with the authorities, and Mr. Demushkin's group, which is identified with the "Russian March" brand, may still join those efforts on November 4.

But why is the Kremlin suddenly meddling with the poor-soul nationalists?

There are two possible explanations. Domestically, the Kremlin needs to reclaim the November 4 brand and streamline the message of the holiday into a less-radical, fully controlled and scripted patriotic pathos. This can't be done under a "Russia for Russians" slogan that pops up here and there as thousands of people rally in Moscow. The pro-Kremlin youth movement "Nashi" has tried hard to offer alternatives to the Russian March, but they've not manpower to overcome Mr. Demushkin's mass appeal; Nashi's bland and sterile messaging can't compete with the thrill of a radical cheer. Using their real power in Moscow, the government is able to undercut the nationalists' efforts through non-PR means. Rejecting the application is therefore simple and cost-effective.

On the international affairs front, the Kremlin has been focused on the threat of Ukrainian nationalism, which brought forth a regime change in Kyiv with the ensuing annexation of Crimea by Russia and the ongoing struggles between Luhansk and Donetsk separatist movements and Ukraine. On the world stage, the Kremlin has been talking worryingly about post-fascist, neo-Nazi forces in Ukraine (and the Baltics) while promoting itself as the great anti-fascist hope and appealing to the Soviet Union's great victory of Hitler. Having a major outpouring of ultranationalists of their own would be unseemly at this critical juncture, wouldn't it?

So take a break, Mr. Demushkin, and be happy you aren't imprisoned for nothing, like some of your comrades. A break for your president's sake, Mr. Demushkin; he's got a lot to deal with these days.