Russian nationalists attending a “Russian March” demonstration on National Unity Day in Moscow yesterday. Photo: Maxim Shemetov/ReutersRussian nationalists attending a “Russian March” demonstration on National Unity Day in Moscow yesterday. Photo: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Thousands of Russian nationalists rallied across the country on National Unity Day yesterday, in a sign of the growing strength of far-right political forces galvanised by an anti-immigrant agenda.

Hard-line nationalists have adopted the holiday, which commemorates the liberation of Moscow from Polish invaders in 1612, as an occasion to hold annual “Russian Marches”.

This year’s rallies were larger and more numerous than in previous years, in a headache for Russian authorities who worry that rising ethnic tensions pose a threat to public order.

At the largest rally, around 8,000 people assembled in an working-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Moscow, police said. Organisers’ requests to hold the rally closer to the city centre have repeatedly been denied.

“Moscow has only just woken up, and Russians have only just started to recognise their identity,” said Alexander Belov, a nationalist leader and an organiser of the march. “With every day Russian nationalists are gaining more and more support across the country.”

Police said they detained around 30 march­ers for wearing masks or forbidden Nazi symbols, and for other minor public order offences.

No serious disturbances were reported. Smaller demonstrations, attracting hundreds or dozens of participants, were held in towns and cities across Russia.

Although nationalist organisations attract the active support of only a small minority of Russians, they tap into widespread public concerns over immigration and disenchantment among Russian youths.

Many ordinary Russians are deeply hostile to immigrants from the largely Muslim regions of Central Asia and the Caucasus, blaming them for problems such as crime and unemployment. A recent survey by the Levada Centre polling agency, taken on the eve of Moscow’s mayoral election in September, showed that immigration topped voters’ concerns. More than half of respondents said it worried them more than any other problem.

President Vladimir Putin first established National Unity Day in 2005 to replace the Soviet-era commemoration of the Bolshevik revolution and boost national pride with a reminder of a glorious event in Russian history.

“National unity has more than once helped Russia remain free and independent, overcome hard times and celebrate truly world-wide triumphs,” Putin told a ceremony at the Kremlin.

“Equally today, the consolidation of society behind our development goals is key to our successful way forward.”

This year’s marches come at a particularly sensitive time, less than a month after thousands of youths rioted in a working-class Moscow suburb, Biryulyovo, following the killing of a young ethnic Russian man.

Police later arrested a citizen from the mostly Muslim country of Azerbaijan for the murder.

Many of those marching in Moscow waved black, yellow and white flags, the old monarchist flag of the Romanov dynasty that has in recent years been adopted as a nationalist symbol. Others carried religious icons, or pictures of the last Romanov Tsar Nicholas II and his family, executed by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918.

Many marchers carried banners with slogans like “White Power” and “Russia for the Russians”.

“We should stop immigrants from coming into Moscow. Give them land so that they live like monkeys, like the Americans did with the Indians,” said demonstrator Alexei Shukin, 49, wearing camouflage fatigues.

As the head of a patchwork state with multiple religions and ethnicities, Putin can ill afford any escalation in racial tensions and has repeatedly called for tolerance.

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