MOSCOW — In Russia, 2010 ended with an unprecedented upsurge of ultranationalist violence. Images of rioting, fascist-minded thugs have dominated TV broadcasts.

The violence began following an ordinary conflict between two small groups of young people over a taxi. One group consisted of young people from the Northern Caucasus, the other of fans of a Moscow soccer club. One of the leaders of the Moscow fans, Yegor Sviridov, was murdered.

Rumors raced around the city the next day that the police had released all those accused of Sviridov’s murder (as it happens, the rumors were true). Spontaneous protests erupted in front of police headquarters, but the police did not intervene.

On Dec. 11, another rally was held at site of the murder, and moved into the very center of Moscow, Manezhnaya Square, just outside the Kremlin’s walls. The crowd began to chant nationalist slogans, and then proceeded to beat up passersby who did not look Slavic.

The police were slow to arrive. The beatings continued and spread to the subway, where the police were essentially powerless. The night finished with many wounded and one more killed. The next day, back on Manezhnaya Square, beside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a huge swastika appeared.

These events are not without precedent. In 2002, Moscow authorities mounted huge TV-screens on Manezhnaya Square to broadcast a World Cup match between Russia and Japan. By the start of the game, tens of thousands of young fans were on the square, many of them drunk and agitated. When the final whistle sounded on a 1-0 victory for Japan, the crowd, infuriated, burst into spontaneous pogroms and beatings.

Those events were preceded by a propaganda campaign in which government-controlled newspapers, television stations and radio broadcasters took part. It was decided to exploit the forthcoming world championship for “patriotic” purposes.

In pumping up football-induced hysteria, Russian politicians — headed by then-President Vladimir Putin — took the lead. The government had erected the TV screens outside the Kremlin in order to ensure patriotic exultation of the victory that they assumed was coming. No one was prepared for defeat.

Clearly, careless manipulation by the authorities of patriotic sentiments has proven to be a risky business in Russia. But the Kremlin still seems addicted to this means of buttressing its legitimacy among ordinary Russians.

Indeed, the vast popular protests that took place during the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine five years ago convinced the Kremlin that they could not allow any spontaneous outburst of public emotions. Officials evidently decided that it is better to flirt with and control public passion than allow it to erupt on its own.

Back then, the Kremlin was frightened by the possibility of a “color revolution” breaking out in Russia. As a result, enormous resources — both funds and officials’ time — were invested in youth movements created by Kremlin puppeteers, with two aims: Control street political activity and prepare brigades for a future struggle — which might include ballot rigging — against political opponents. For this purpose, contingents of football fans were also used.

This sort of manipulation is now a Kremlin staple. Indeed, by coincidence, on the Sunday the young football fan was murdered in Moscow, Vladimir Surkov, the first deputy in President Dmitry Medvedev’s administration, was meeting Michael McFaul of U.S. President Barack Obama’s National Security Council. That meeting was taking place as part of a gathering, led by Surkov, of Russian youth-movement activists.

One quote from Surkov that day is particularly telling: “Make ready for the elections, train your brains and muscles. You can always rely on our support.” Those muscles were put to use outside the Kremlin walls that very day.

To understand what is at stake, it is sufficient to consider the name of the main youth movement fathered by the Kremlin: Nashi, or “Ours.” It is difficult to invent a more potentially explosive moniker, for the name proudly proclaims a division between “us” and “them” — the most ancient and most destructive of human instincts. And it is hard to rationalize so atavistic an effort being initiated by a government and supported with taxpayers’ money.

As a result, special youth brigades fostered by the Kremlin nowadays beat up activists of “not ours.” If the police detain Nashi members, a telephone call from the president’s administration follows, and the detainees are released. That is why the police fail to take tough action against rioting young thugs. Only when the Kremlin was seized by panic at the level of the disturbances that Nashi had initiated, did it demand that the police take control of events.

It is not clear yet whether the nationalist youth rebellion has been suppressed, and whether Muscovites will be able to use the subway without fear over the next week. But it is absolutely certain that the Kremlin’s unconstitutional activities — its division of citizens into “ours” and aliens, and its flirtation with hardcore xenophobes — has led to serious social and political destabilization.

In a society with weakened immunity to extremism — and with an utterly dysfunctional government — the authorities are, perhaps literally, playing with fire.

Georgy Satarov is director of Indem, a Moscow think tank.© 2011 Project Syndicate

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