As Preston Wiginton, a white supremacist from Texas, stepped forward to address thousands of Russian nationalists at a rally Sunday in Moscow, he lifted his black cowboy hat high in the air.
"I'm taking my hat off as a sign of respect for your strong identity in ethnicity, nation and race," he said, exposing his close-cropped head to a freezing drizzle.
"Glory to Russia," Wiginton, 43, said in broken Russian, as the crowd of mostly young Russian men raised their right hands in a Nazi salute and chanted "white power!" in English.
About 5,000 nationalists turned out for the Russian March, held for the third straight year on National Unity Day, a public holiday the Kremlin inaugurated in 2005 to replace the traditional Nov. 7 celebration of the 1917 Bolshevik rise to power.
The Kremlin has tried to give the holiday historical significance by tying it to the 1612 expulsion of Polish and Cossack troops who had briefly seized Moscow at a time of political disarray.
But the new holiday has been seized upon by extreme nationalists such as the Movement Against Illegal Migration, which advocates the deportation of nonwhite migrants, and the Slavic Union, another white supremacist group, as well as Russian Orthodox fundamentalists and monarchists.
The marches reflect a rise in xenophobia in Russia, where more than 50 people have been killed and 400 injured in ethnically motivated attacks this year, according to the Sova rights center.
Rights activists say the extreme nationalist sentiments are a natural outgrowth of the Kremlin's attempts to rebuild a strong Russian state.
President Vladimir Putin, who celebrated Sunday's holiday by laying flowers at the monument to Moscow's 17th century liberators, told the military cadets and pro-Kremlin youth group members who accompanied him that there were people in the world who wished to split Russia and divide up its natural resource wealth.
"Some believe that we are too lucky to possess so much natural wealth, which they say must be divided," Putin said, speaking near the monument on Red Square. "These people have lost their mind," he added with a smile.
Pro-Kremlin youth groups and the liberal Yabloko party also held rallies Sunday, in part to counter the nationalist march.Reuse content