The most notable shifts exacerbating tensions in Russia are demographic. First, more than 20 percent of the Russian population was born after the fall of the Soviet Union. This means that a large cohort has never been beholden to Soviet ideals or centralized government and society. Moreover, this generation's formative years mostly were spent in a strong and stable Russia under Putin. Russia fell into chaos during their earliest years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the country has resurged over the past decade. Because of this, the new generation is more interested in an open society and feels freer to resist government control. This shift was seen in the large anti-Kremlin protests held across the country in 2011 and 2012. The current generation is also spreading its ideas online more, with Internet use increasing in Russia (in 2006, less than 10 percent of the population used the Web, compared to nearly 60 percent now).
Russia's ethnic and religious makeup is also changing. The country's current population of 143 million people is forecast to fall by around 10 percent by 2030 — though government programs to improve healthcare, discourage smoking and drinking and give Russians incentives to have children may slow this decline. This trend is occurring primarily in the ethnic Russian population; the country's Muslim minority groups, whether Russian citizens or migrants, are growing. Most of the Russian Muslim republics have seen large population booms over the past few decades; since 1989, Chechnya has grown by 59 percent and Dagestan by 69 percent.
In addition, around 240,000 immigrants enter Russia legally each year, and an estimated 160,000 people arrive illegally. Most of these immigrants hail from Islamic former Soviet republics such as Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
A Rise in Social Unrest and Nationalism
With minorities making up more of the social landscape, Russian society — particularly its nationalists — has become more willing to speak its mind. There have been proposals in the State Duma to consider restricting the movements of Muslims from the Russian Caucasus outside their regions — say, preventing Chechens or Dagestanis from moving to Moscow. Meanwhile, surveys from independent Russian polling firm Levada Center have shown that some 70 percent of Russians — the highest share in a decade — want stricter immigration rules both for those already in Russia and those coming into the country.
Part of this sentiment has to do with employment. Many immigrants and Russian Muslims have come to Moscow in search of jobs. Of the city's 11.5 million people, the Russian government estimates that around 2 million are Muslims living there legally, while another 400,000 to 3 million Muslims are there illegally. This wave of migration has been caused by dire economic conditions in the Islamic former Soviet states and Russian republics. For example, the average monthly salary in Tajikistan is $22, while it is $75 in Kyrgyzstan and $439 in the Russian republics in the Caucasus. In Russia, the average monthly salary is $800, and in Moscow that amount rises to $1,750. Many Muslims from the Caucasus and former Soviet states are making between $300 and $790 per month for lower-class jobs in Moscow — far more than they would likely make at home.
This is why many ethnic Russians claim that Muslims are taking their jobs and moving into traditionally ethnic Russian areas. Moreover, two-thirds of Russians believe that the growing Muslim populations — whether Russian nationals or migrants — lead to greater crime and terrorism in the country, according to a Levada poll conducted in June.
This has fueled ultra-Orthodox and nationalist movements in Russia. Putin's Kremlin used religion as a tool to consolidate the country socially in the early 2000s, and nearly 80 percent of Russians claim to be Russian Orthodox. The Orthodoxy promoted by the Kremlin has led to fragmentation, giving rise to extremist groups such as the "Russia for Russians" and "Stop Feeding the Caucasus" movements that marched en masse in 2011, as well as "Orthodox brigades" that patrol the streets in dozens of cities to protect the Orthodox Russians from Muslims. Moreover, growing numbers of ultra-nationalist (and sometimes neo-Nazi) groups have formed. The government has banned such groups, but they still hold occasional marches.The combination of rising nationalist sentiment and a population more willing to take action has led to more protests and violence against Muslims and migrants in Russia. In the past month alone, several nationalist demonstrations were held across the country. On Oct. 12-13, hundreds gathered for anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant protests several days after an Azerbaijani man fatally stabbed an ethnic Russian man. The protests turned violent when the demonstrators ransacked a market run by migrants and Muslims. Similar protests erupted into violence in St. Petersburg a week later. After a Dagestani suicide bomber killed six people on a bus the following week in Volgograd, several Muslim prayer houses in the region were attacked. On Oct. 27, Russian nationalists attacked Tajik citizens aboard a Moscow-Dushanbe train stopped at a railway station in southeastern Russia.
This leads up to the Nov. 4 National Unity Day, during which Russian nationalists are planning multiple rallies to call for a government response to the growth of Russia's Muslim and immigrant populations. The Kremlin is capping the number of people allowed at the marches, so legally they cannot be as large as those held in 2010 and 2011, but the protests will be popular nonetheless.
Additional Pressure Points
Though the nationalist demonstrators are clearly focused on non-ethnic Russians, many groups have turned their attention to other issues, such as the slowing Russian economy. On numerous Russian blogs and news sites, nationalists have been discussing the weakening Russian economy and claiming that the Kremlin's insistence on keeping energy as the primary source of wealth and stability is leaving much of the country without an economic base. This, in turn, is further aggravating ethnic and religious tensions in the country.
The Russian economy has indeed stagnated this year, revealing weaknesses in non-energy sectors, where most Russians' interests lie. Even with high energy prices and record oil and natural gas exports, Russia's gross domestic product is expected to grow only 1.5 percent — down from around 3.4-4.6 percent growth in 2010-2012. The Russian Interior Ministry linked the public protests to the economy in a statement given to the RIA Novosti newspaper, saying that public disorder will escalate if the economy is not stimulated.
These changes and escalating tensions are occurring at a time when the Russian government is comparatively weak. Putin's regime has now been in power for nearly 15 years, and though the president has an approval rating of 62 percent, according to the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Studies, his government does not have such strong public support. Only 16 percent of Russians believe their government helps the country, according to Levada. The Russian system thus is centered on one person, and it is uncertain what will happen once he is no longer a part of the system. Putin's ability to consolidate control socially in the country has waned, mostly due to the generational and demographic shifts that have occurred since he took office.
The combination of demographic changes, economic struggles and political atrophy has raised the possibility that even greater changes are just over the horizon for Russia. Another point in Russian history during which a mixture of tensions erupted all at once was in 1905, during a period that foreshadowed the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Echoes of 1905
From the 1890s through the 1910s, Russia faced many issues similar to those emerging now. Although it is impossible to draw direct and precise parallels from that era to today, there were many striking similarities in demographic changes, ethnic sentiments, economic strains, government responses and constraints on maintaining overall instability.
In the earlier era, Russia's population increased and urbanized in a relatively short time. The Russian Empire grew by 31 percent between 1897 and 1913, from 126.4 million to 170 million people, and its primary cities nearly doubled in size between 1890 and 1910. Much of the urbanization was due to the empire's rapid industrialization. This led to the creation and growth of a new worker class in Russia — later the base of the Russian Revolution. The Russian nobles and elite referred to the peasants and low-wage workers moving to the cities (especially the capital, St. Petersburg) as "migrants," since their customs were so different from those of most urban residents. Upper-class Russians considered them almost foreign, despite sharing the same language and religion.
Meanwhile, the abolition of serfdom in 1861 had freed up many Russians to seek an education, leading to a vast expansion of the Russian educational system in the following decades. The emergence of a greater number of educated lower-class citizens in the 1870s, along with various social pressures, led to a student radicalization movement that grew through 1905 and morphed into another faction of revolutionaries in 1917.
These changes came about during a series of economic challenges. The empire's economy contracted sharply in 1899 due to the decline in European industry and money markets, in which the Russian government and nobility had been heavily invested. This forced more than a third of the noblemen to sell off their assets and land, leaving the emancipated peasant class with land they did not know how to manage.
Finally, strong anti-minority sentiments permeated the empire. Minorities mostly were restricted from living or working in the core of Russia — the territory that runs from St. Petersburg down south of Moscow. This meant that while xenophobia existed in the core, clashes between minorities — such as fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis or between Kazakhs and Turkmen, which was common — occurred in the empire's borderlands. However, tensions rose between the ruling Russian population and the minorities in European Russia (particularly Jews, but also some Catholics and Protestants) ahead of the unrest of 1905.
The empire's Jewish minority made up only 6 percent of the population, but it was concentrated in the Pale of Settlement — a region that today includes parts of Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova, Poland and Russia — originally set up in 1791 by Catherine the Great. By the start of the 20th century, 94 percent of the Jews in the Russian Empire were restricted to the Pale's territories, making up nearly 12 percent of the population in those lands. Ethnic Russians in the Pale of Settlement were highly anti-Semitic and blamed the Jews for poor local economic conditions. Jewish merchants and businessmen often held high positions in the larger cities and were the middlemen for grain purchases after Greek traders left the Pale following the Crimean War. In addition, industrial production in the Pale declined due to restrictions in trade, forcing many Jewish businessmen to lay off Russian workers. The Jewish population received as much economic blame as the monarchy.
Simmering tensions erupted in 1905 in a series of protests, riots and violence on a level the Russian Empire had never seen before. As the U.S. Consul in St. Petersburg, W.H. Stuart, said then, "The whole country is simply permeated with sedition and reeking with revolution, racial hatred and warfare, murder, incendiarism, brigandage, robbery and crime of every kind. ... As far as can be seen we are on the high road to complete anarchy and social chaos."
In St. Petersburg, where tens of thousands of workers went on strike to protest the aristocracy in previous years, 800,000 protesters gathered in January 1905. The czar's troops cracked down on the demonstration, killing between 200 and 1,000 people. Hundreds of thousands of workers continued strikes across Russia, and by the end of the year, half of the country's industrial workers were protesting the aristocracy. As the workers continued their demonstrations, students began academic strikes across the country. In October, ethnic tensions erupted with a series of riots mainly targeting Jews, though Poles, Lithuanians and students were also attacked. Some 3,000 Jews died in the riots. In all, an estimated 15,000 people were killed in 1905 in riots, protests, government crackdowns and terrorist attacks.
The government responded in various ways to the instability, controlling each situation differently. In dealing with the unrest among the worker class, the government began with crackdowns. However, when the protests continued, the aristocracy gave in to the workers' demands for a brief period, creating a manifesto of equality among the classes and different peoples of the empire and implementing a parliamentary system: the Duma. These tactics allowed the czar to quell the protests in the cities and among the workers for a few years.
In the ethnic riots, the authorities did not crack down on the Russians targeting minorities; they supported the rioters logistically and occasionally joined in the violence. Additionally, a political movement called the Black Hundreds was introduced in an attempt to channel Russian nationalist sentiment and focus it away from the government. This tactic was successful until about 1907, when the movement disintegrated and nationalists began to turn against the ruling authorities.
The Kremlin's Current Predicament
Just as Russia's current tensions and pressures are similar to those that led to the violence in 1905, the Kremlin's tactics and constraints in dealing with the unrest are similar to those encountered during that tumultuous year. Putin's government has been maneuvering constantly to contain the current tensions and social unrest, and the Kremlin is handling each predicament differently.
The government is aiding the Russian nationalists, who are agitating against Muslim and migrant communities. The Kremlin has sanctioned the nationalist demonstrations scheduled for Nov. 4. Also, the police and other authorities have been relatively lax in cracking down on or preventing nationalist riots across the country during the past month.
As in 1905, many within the current government and security forces sympathize with nationalist sentiments toward these minorities. This is evident in the local government's sweeping crackdowns on migrant populations in Moscow, as well as in the legislation being introduced on city and state levels that would fine and restrict migrant workers. More controversially, Vladimir Zhirinovsky — head of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, the fourth-largest party in the country — has said that the internal migration of Russia's Muslim population should be restricted, and that Muslims in Russia should be allowed to have only two children.
Besides sympathizing with the nationalists, the Kremlin knows that as long as these sentiments are focused on ethnic and religious issues, the nationalists cannot fully turn against the Kremlin. However, this strategy is tenuous; many nationalist leaders such as Alexei Navalny, who headed protests targeting Muslims and immigrants in Russia in 2010 and 2011, also led anti-Kremlin protests that swept across Russia in late 2011 and into 2012 ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections. This illustrates that the discontent aired during nationalist demonstrations can easily expand to include anti-Kremlin sentiments.
Following the mass protests of 2011 and 2012, the Kremlin gave in to several of the protesters' demands, such as changes to voting mechanisms and party registration in the country to quell the growth of the protest movements. The government then cracked down on the protest leaders, imprisoning some and co-opting others.
Most of the nationalist movements have refocused on ethnic and religious issues. However, these movements still quietly blame the Kremlin for these issues, as seen in the recent calls for stricter immigration and ethnic policies and the blame leveled at the Kremlin for the state of the economy.
If the economic situation in Russia continues to worsen, and ethic and religious policies in the country do not change, these groups could again turn their rage against the Kremlin. It is this more vocal and younger generation of nationalists that the Kremlin seems most concerned about, but with few options for crackdowns on these groups, the Kremlin is attempting to channel their discontent.
Another hindrance for the Kremlin is that it cannot crack down harshly on the minorities in Russia. First, the Russian Muslim and non-Slavic populations are Russian citizens, and Moscow does not want these groups lash out against the government. Minorities within Russia are already discontent with the rise in nationalism; Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has asked Putin to help end the growing interethnic and interreligious unrest. Moscow has faced conflicts with its Muslim republics throughout history and ended the most recent war with Chechnya just three years ago. Russia cannot afford another uprising in its Muslim regions and among its ethnic minorities.
Moreover, the Kremlin uses the ties between migrants from the former Soviet republics working in Russia and their home countries as a foreign policy tool with those countries. Also, with the ethnic Russian population in decline, Muslim and migrant populations are slowing the overall decline in the Russian workforce. Thus, the Kremlin can crack down on migrant populations to appease the Russian nationalists, but it cannot completely prohibit continued migration into the country.
It is unclear how long the Kremlin’s current strategies to divert, contain and co-opt social unrest can last. Putin has shown over the past 14 years that he is a savvy leader who understands the failings of Russia's previous leaders, such as the last czar in 1905. But Russia is an inherently unstable country that requires frequent and large transformations in order to remain cohesive.