Thousands of nationalists rallied across Russia on National Unity Day on Monday, reflecting the growing strength of far-right political forces galvanized 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 marches that tend to have a decidedly xenophobic tone. This year's rallies were larger and more numerous than in previous years, worrying Russian authorities that rising ethnic tensions could pose a threat to public order.
At the largest rally, some 8,000 people assembled in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Moscow, police said. Marchers waved black, yellow and white flags, the old monarchist flag of the Romanov dynasty, which has in recent years been adopted as a nationalist symbol.
Others carried banners and placards with slogans like "White power" and "Russia for the Russians."
"Moscow has only just woken up, and Russians have only just started to recognize their identity," said Alexander Belov, a nationalist leader and an organizer of the march. "With every day, Russian nationalists are gaining more and more support across the country."
Police said they detained about 30 marchers for wearing masks or forbidden Nazi symbols and for other minor public-order offenses, but no serious disturbances were reported.
Although nationalist organizations attract the active support of only a small minority of Russians, they highlight 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 Center polling agency, taken on the eve of Moscow's mayoral election in September, showed that immigration topped voters' concerns. More than half the respondents said it worried them more than any other problem.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reinstituted National Unity Day in 2005 after a long hiatus to replace October Revolution Day, the Soviet-era commemoration of the Bolshevik Revolution. In recent years, marches held on the holiday have served as platforms for ultranationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
This year's marches come at a particularly sensitive time. Last month, thousands of youths rioted in a working-class Moscow suburb, Biryulyovo, after the killing of a young ethnic Russian man. Police later arrested a citizen from the mostly Muslim country of Azerbaijan for the killing.
Maria, a 15-year-old schoolgirl with dyed red hair, said that she attended Monday's Moscow march — her first — because of the incident.
"After what happened in Biryulovo, I couldn't not take part. I want to live in a country where immigrants act like guests, not where they own the place," she said, declining to give her last name.
"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 racial and religious tolerance.
In an effort to curb the nationalists' rising appeal and to mobilize public support for the government, however, Russian authorities have at the same time adopted elements of the nationalist agenda.
The federal and regional governments have recently cracked down on the use of illegal immigrant labor, notably in construction and outdoor markets.
As Russia prepares to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi this February, the government has also undertaken a number of controversial security measures that target Muslim citizens in the nearby North Caucasus region.
Critics fear that this response may reinforce negative anti-immigrant stereotypes and fuel ethnic tensions.
But there was little evidence of such concerns at Monday's Moscow rally, where participants said authorities were doing too little to clamp down on illegal immigration.
"The only way the current authorities, who make money off illegal immigrants, will listen to us is if we move onto the streets," said Shukin.
Al Jazeera and wire services