After Gays And Foreigners, Russia's Latest Bogeyman: Separatists

Russia is using "obligatory patriotism" and university "deans of ideology" to ward off separatist movements that challenge the central authority.

Russian guard outside Kremlin
Russian guard outside Kremlin
Maria Portnyagina and Olga Filina

MOSCOW — After the much-discussed laws against “foreign agents” and “homosexual” propaganda, Russia is moving on to a new bogeyman: separatism. And its strategy for fighting this apparent evil is obligatory patriotism.

Over the past two weeks, expressions of patriotism — within the government and among the intelligentsia, the masses and the media — has increased exponentially. It’s as if Russia is preparing to fight off some enemy at the beginning of December.

It’s no coincidence. The ground is being meticulously prepared for a proposed law in Russia’s legislative body, the Duma. It aims to outlaw “separatist propaganda” and proposes “deans of ideology” at St. Petersburg universities, not to mention a seminar for vice governors about “Russian identity.”

An informal group known as the “Russian Sovereignty” has developed in the Duma, and that group is now taking it upon itself to promote “patriotic education” with an associated government administrative and even entries in the criminal code.

This group has suggested a “Separatism Propaganda” article that would create criminal penalties for anyone who, with words or actions, “puts under doubt the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.” The maximum sentence would be 20 years in prison.

Separatism — that is an attempt to separate a country from its parts — is an anti-government act similar to a coup or terrorism, so calls for separatism should be treated as a crime against the country,” explains Evgenii Fedorov, one of the Duma members who has introduced the legislation. “Right now, those kinds of crimes are not regulated, and political separatism, including separatism financed from abroad, is not punished. After the adoption of this law, violators will be considered foreign agents whose actions are meant to liquidate Russia.”

A coalescing movement

The members of the Russian Sovereignty group say that the law is likely to pass, pointing to precedents such as legislation forbidding foreigners from adopting Russian children, and preventing government officials from owning property abroad. Fedorov has also suggested a law (though it is not being considered at the moment) that would classify the media as “foreign agents.”

The Duma is also considering legislation that would establish preferences for Russian businesses that do not have foreign debt, lower barriers to credit for Russian companies and even changing the national holiday from June 12 — the day that the modern Russian constitution was adopted in 1992 — to Sept. 21. The September date would celebrate the establishment of the first Russian state in 862 AD.

The movement has managed to recruit a significant contingent of young people. One of the leaders is Nikolai Starikov, an activist and author whose books include The West Against Russia: Russia’s Primary Enemy, and Let’s Remember Stalin Together.

“The proposal is ridiculous,” says Ivan Klepitskii, a professor of criminal law at a Moscow University. “What does ‘express sympathy towards separatist movements’ mean? Let’s say I like Giuseppe Garibaldi a 19th-century Italian general and revolutionary and I say so in public. Does that make me a separatist?”

A documentary recently aired on television with the title, Investigation: Who Wants to Break Up Russia? The show singled out a writer, a human rights activist and an art dealer as “separatists” who, according to the television show, wanted to create some kind of United States of Siberia.

If it were just this one television program, it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but the message that separatism is Russia’s biggest problem is clearly coming from high-level government officials.

Completing the troika

Separatism is now spoken about in the same way that “foreign agents” and “homosexual propaganda” were recently discussed, completing the troika of modern Russian bogeymen. Apparently, this is how to tell if someone is patriotic: He is not a separatist, he doesn’t prostitute himself to foreign powers and he’s not gay. Love of country, modern though that country may be, has once again been reduced to conservatism and defensiveness.

In 2012, there were more than 300 “patriotism education” programs at universities around the country, and around 40% of students took part in such programs. But participation varied drastically from region to region — some regions strongly associated with separatism had no programs whatsoever.

In 2014, participation will not longer be voluntary. Every governmental institution — federal, regional and local — will be expected to have a center for patriotism education.

“Every time that patriotism in Russia is discussed on a governmental level, it has two very unpleasant characteristics,” explains Igor Mintusov, a professor at St. Petersburg State University. “First of all, it is being sold for money. A government patriotism program is like selling love. It’s a magnet for people who want to get something out of it. The stronger you embrace your country, the more you will be forgiven — for anything from misbehavior to corruption. Secondly, our patriotism always has a military component, and is not remotely civilian. In addition, the political elite wants to make the government equal to country in people’s minds: If you’re a patriot and you love your country, you should also love your government officials and your courts. That’s not really the same as loving your country.”

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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