#RussianMarch: National holiday hijacked by nationalists

A group of ultra-nationalists on the outskirts of Moscow on November 4 2013, National Unity Day

A Russian national holiday on Monday - meant to heal the rifts of the Soviet era - has instead seen far-right extremists stoking a controversial online campaign.

This is surely not what President Vladimir Putin had in mind. Back in 2005, he replaced the old public holiday commemorating Russia's 1917 revolution - which reminded many people of the painful divisions of the Soviet years - with a new National Unity Day.

The new holiday hasn't been a complete success, however. According to polls, a third of Russians don't really know what it's meant to celebrate (the expulsion of Polish-Lithuanian occupiers from Moscow in 1612). On top of that, the holiday has become synonymous with ultra-nationalist marches in Moscow and other cities, in which neo-Nazi symbols such as swastikas are brandished and where minorities have been attacked.

Monday's marches were not larger than in earlier years, but they brought with them a growing campaign on social media. The Russian social network Vkontakte had dozens of online communities promoting the Russian March, and the topic was trending on Russian Twitter on Monday morning. "The nationalists have stolen this holiday from the government," claimed one Moscow-based user contacted by the BBC, Artem Chernyshov. The march, he said, is a "demonstration of the unity of white people", rather than something meant to demonise minorities - adding that social media is an excellent "propaganda tool" for nationalists.

As Monday progressed, Russia's nationalists also seemed to use social media to attack Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption blogger who has emerged as a key opponent of President Putin. A new hashtag was being used, #NavalnyGotScared.

Why did they target him? Despite his popularity with Russia's liberals, Navalny has strong nationalist leanings and has attended these marches in the past. In a widely shared blog post on Monday morning, he urged his supporters to march but said he would stay away in case he was photographed with school children doing Nazi salutes.

The tweets against Navalny seem to be highly organised so it is quite possible that there is an orchestrated campaign against him by his opponents in the government, says Vitaliy Shevchenko of BBC Monitoring. Whatever the case, the entire episode shows division in Russia despite it being National Unity Day. "Something that was supposed to unite Russians is antagonising them even more," he says.

Reporting by Mukul Devichand

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