MOSCOW—The Russian national holiday called Unity Day began on Saturday with dozens of arrests all over the country: east, west, south and in Siberia. Troops from Russia’s Federal Security Service, the successor of KGB now known as the FSB, hunted for supposed “revolutionaries,” searched homes, and detained members of the opposition in Moscow, Saratov, Krasnodar, Kazan, Samara, and Saratov, confiscating quantities of Molotov cocktails.
The FSB claimed that the people it rounded up are supporters of the Artpodgotovka movement, “a project aimed to organize a revolution in Russia,” which is led by exiled Russian nationalist Vyacheslav Maltsev.
The Interfax news agency reported on Saturday that Maltsev’s followers were planning to burn administrative buildings and attack policemen in Russia on November 4 and 5.
What to make of this?
Russia is a country of extremists, some genuine, some figments of the Kremlin’s imagination. Crackdowns on so-called extremists have become almost weekly routines, so when real extremism occurs, many people don’t believe police reports.
When it comes to nationalist movements, at this moment approaching Russian presidential elections in 2018, only the pro-Kremlin far-right has been allowed to take part in politics.
But Artpodgotovka is different. Its 53-year-old leader, Maltsev has been calling for the overthrow of Putin since 2012 and publicly declared the moment would come on November 5 this year, the “Revolution of 2017.”
Maltsev and thousands of his supporters estimate Putin’s wealth at more than a trillion dollars. They insist that at this point only a coup could stop the elite from stealing billions more dollars.
Formerly a member of the municipal council in the city of Saratov, Maltsev in the past experimented with various political movements—nationalist, communist, liberal and green.
Some of Maltsev’s supporters in Artpodgotovka called him “Uncle Slava,” some just “Dad.”
“We refer to this epoch as the Information World,” Maltsev said on Radio Liberty last week. He likened the state to a dog: “The people’s job is to chain the dog, so the state obeys the people.”
Maltsev has a significant following on YouTube. His talking head has appeared on his video blog daily for three years and has been viewed by at least 135,000 people.
Currently the blog is banned in Russia, but as a result of his popularity on the internet, more than 5,000 people supported Maltsev’s candidacy in the PARNAS party primaries during the parliamentary election campaign last year.
To silence Maltsev’s calls for revolution, police detained him several times earlier this year. In June he spent 10 days behind bars and in July he left Russia for France out of concern he’d be arrested again.
The FSB crackdown was rolling across Russia’s regions on Unity Day, a holiday that alludes to the idea that all classes of Russian society unite to preserve the state. To mark the day, President Vladimir Putin made a public statement revealing the “genetic code” of Russian people: “The rejection of any external pressure is the basis of Russian statehood and the genetic code of the people,” he declared on Saturday.
“It seems that some weeks President Putin is obsessively dependent on conspiracy believers, like the former head of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev,” political observer and presenter on Rain TV Pavel Lobkov told The Daily Beast on Saturday.
Lobkov was skeptical about the seriousness of Maltsev’s revolutionary movement. “One day Putin talks of Americans stealing Russian bio material, next day he reveals the nation’s biological code, or orders a crackdown on some marginalized group who could only be seen as clowns.”
Earlier this week Putin spoke at the Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights.
"Do you know that the biological material is collected all over the country for different ethnic groups and peoples living in different geographical areas of the Russian Federation?” President Putin told his listeners. “The question is why they are doing it, and they are doing it purposefully and professionally. We are an object of great interest. Of course, we do not need to have any fear about it. Let them do whatever they want, and we must do what we have to do," Putin said, leaving Russians to wonder what sort of nefarious plot is afoot.
Maltsev had critics among Russian independent observers. “He is a provocateur, who is sitting in France and making many people excited about the idea of a coup,” Alexander Verkhovsky, the head of Sova Center for Information and Analysis, told The Daily Beast. Sova is a Moscow based independent NGO monitoring hate crimes.
On October 25, police discovered a laboratory for producing explosives at a private apartment in Moscow region. The apartment’s owner was injured by an accidental explosion. In that apartment police detained Ivan Kalinichnko, a member of a neo-Nazi group, accused of two murders and series of attacks.
“Some accusations of extremism are real,” said Verkhovsky. “But it is hard to tell this time how many of Maltsev’s detained supporters were really preparing for violence—if any.”