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About Stella Rock

Stella Rock is Senior Research Fellow at Baylor University, Keston Center for Religion, Politics, and Society. Her research focuses on Russian Orthodoxy, in particular popular faith and the relationship between religious and national identity; the historiography of Russia; the relationship between religion, prejudice and conflict.

Articles by Stella Rock

This week's editor

NSS, editor

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to 50.50.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Russia’s new saints and the challenges of memory

The Soviet-era repression of Christian clerics has led to the posthumous recognition of many new Orthodox saints. But the faithful, it seems, are not interested. They still prefer the quick fix of traditional saints to these humble “new martyrs”, writes Stella Rock.

Racist Crime in Russia

For the last five years a small Moscow-based NGO, the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis, has produced an annual report on radical nationalist activity in Russia and the efforts of state and non-state bodies to counteract it. This year they've issued another 24 pages of sober calculation and analysis, opting for the most conservative estimates (minimum number of ‘hate murders' in 2008 -97) and carefully examining the significant, if limited, progress made in combating this activity. Despite the lack of sensationalism and hyperbole, it is a truly disturbing read.

To calculate the number of individuals attacked, acts of vandalism and other extremist activity, SOVA researchers monitor websites (including neo-Nazi and anti-fascist web-forums), and collate data from reports and statements issued by other NGO activists and by law enforcement bodies such as regional prosecutors' offices.

However, they mostly rely on media reports for their figures. Therein lies the rub: the quality of their data relies to a great extent on the efficiency and accuracy of journalists, and the readiness of those bodies dealing with victims and perpetrators to release information to the press. And as the report repeatedly points out, neither the media nor the authorities can be relied upon to convey accurate, comprehensive and timely information about ultra-right activity.

SOVA researchers are well aware of the limitations of their methodology, and consistently alert their readers to the problems. They exclude from their statistics any incident where the ‘hate motive' is not absolutely certain.

Their figures for violent crime are further reduced, as they point out, because they do not include incidents reported in the Caucasus, as they deem any data available from this area to be too unreliable to analyse. Nor do they include violence committed against street homeless, on the grounds that motive is almost impossible to ascertain. Gun crime is also excluded unless the police specifically identify a racist motive. This latter exclusion tacitly acknowledges the risk of counting contract killings committed for business reasons as racist crimes, simply because the victim is from an ethnic minority.

Problems of data collection

The difficulty SOVA faces is not just that of correctly distinguishing a ‘hate crime' from an ‘ordinary' crime. Finding the information at all is the real problem. Like most EU countries,  Russia does not yet have a central mechanism for systematically recording racist incidents.

Victims of racism and religiously-motivated violence (or, more accurately, violence against individuals on grounds of their perceived religious affiliation) are often reluctant to approach authorities they perceive as unsympathetic or even hostile.

Under-reporting is an issue in any country. In Britain, it took the racist killing of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and the 1999 report from the inquiry into how the system could have failed to bring his murderers to justice, to prompt improved reporting and recording methods in the UK. As a result Britain appears to have a far greater problem with racist violence than any other country in the European Community. Currently, international comparisons tell us more about how countries are tackling the problem of racism than the extent of the problem itself. 

Steady increase

SOVA figures over the past five years reveal a steady increase in violent crime, mostly related to neo-Nazi and skinhead activity. In 2004, 264 individuals were attacked, of whom 49 died. In 2006 the figure was 541, resulting in 55 fatalities.  Last year there were 525 victims, of whom 97 died. SOVA's figures tend to adjust slightly over the year as new information becomes available, but the current total number of attacks is slightly lower than last year's (690, of whom 85 died). They suggest several reasons for this lower figure, but not that there might have been fewer attacks. The general trend, they argue, reveals a well-organised, increasingly experienced neo-Nazi network, committing increasingly violent crimes.

SOVA suggests that the lower number of reported attacks and increased level of violence are related, arguing that Russian society - and therefore the media - has grown indifferent to racist and extreme nationalist activity. Incidents are no longer newsworthy unless they are sensational.

As a result, radical nationalists are committing more sensational crimes, and in at least one instance, responding to public statements that crimes are not racist by proving that they are. In response to an announcement by law enforcement officials that the murder of a Chinese man in September 2008 was an ‘ordinary' murder rather than a racist crime, a video was posted on the internet of his death at the hands of skinheads.

The blurring of fantasy violence and real suffering may have been around since human beings could write or even draw, but the mobile phone camera and the internet have ushered in a truly chilling era.

The report also remarks, in a footnote, that on 16 January 2009, an infamous neo-Nazi was found guilty of faking the execution of a person in the name of the ‘Russian Ku-Klux-Klan', specially filmed at the request of an ATV journalist. After the revelation that the internet clip of the brutal execution-style murders of a Tajik and Dagestani man in 2007 was genuine footage, this seems almost inconceivably irresponsible journalism.

The SOVA report continually highlights the failings of the Russian media. There is the self-censorship that results in regional (and sometimes national) media ceasing to report racist or ‘extremist' crime following announcements by local politicians that such crimes have been eradicated. There is the careless or malicious dissemination of inflammatory material.  There is the failure to release accurate and timely reports during the mass disturbances which are now labelled ‘Kondopoga-style' events, in reference to the riots in the Karelian town of Kondopoga in 2006.

The Kondopoga scenario

This latter phenomenon merits its own section of SOVA's report. The ‘Kondopoga scenario' is an opportunity - an ‘ordinary' crime, fight or disturbance involving individuals from an ethnic minority - which nationalists seek to exploit for political purposes. The pattern developed in Kondopoga in 2006 has yet to be replicated with the same degree of success. But the pattern is that nationalist agitators arrive on the scene to escalate the violence and inflame latent tensions. They then ‘help to resolve' these tensions by calling public meetings and demanding sanctions against ‘immigrants'. SOVA's evidence suggests that despite the media's failure to respond appropriately to such ‘provocations', local authorities are now wise to these tactics and better able to deal with them. Karagai local authority (in Perm region) is singled out for particular praise.

The MovementAgainst Illegal Immigration (better known by its Russian acronym, DPNI) has been instrumental in manipulating most of these Kondopoga-type scenarios, and indeed can be credited with transforming the face - and the vocabulary - of Russian racism in recent years. Protesting against the influx of ‘migrants' in the rhetoric of the European far right, the DPNI has gathered an alarming degree of popular support and media airtime, despite its close connections with skinheads and other marginal extreme nationalist groups.

The good news

Perhaps the most encouraging news in the report is that the acrimonious fragmentation the DPNI experienced in 2008 has yet to be resolved. As a result, the ‘Russian march' held annually on November 4 since 2005 reflected the divisions that continue to plague the nationalist movement. In 2008 there were three separate ‘Russian march' events in Moscow, two of which were organised by DPNI splinter groups. In contrast to the first Moscow march,which attracted around 3,000 participants, it seems that less than half that number joined the farcically disorganised Moscow marches in 2008.

More constructive news is to be found in the section on combating radical nationalism. After years - along with many other researchers and NGOs - of lamenting contradictory or inadequate legislation, inept investigations and the dearth of prosecutions, SOVA reports that criminal proceedings against racists are increasing both in quality (with better investigations leading to more convictions) and in quantity. There have even been successful prosecutions of racist law enforcement officials - against one police officer who maintained a neo-Nazi blog and another who colluded in a racist attack.

However, those working within the criminal justice system are, like NGOs working in this field, increasingly finding themselves the target of neo-Nazi intimidation. Judges and prosecutors found themselves included in the latest list of ‘enemies of the Russian people' that was published on the internet in early 2008, along with journalists, members of the Public Chamber and human rights activists. Unusually, personal details such as home addresses were included on the list - a serious enough issue given the 2004 murder of Nikolai Girenko, for example, an academic and expert witness for the criminal justice system in Petersburg who was shot through his own front door.  Threats, including the mailing of photos of a severed head, have followed.

The fact that the extreme right have lost their political lobby is further good news. Not only, the report points out, did ultra right groups fail to win any seats in the December 2007 elections, but most of their former allies lost their seats. With the fracture of the thus-far influential DPNI, and the loss of active nationalist politicians, two major factors for generating and encouraging racism and discriminatory behaviour amongst the ordinary populace - which generally takes a dim view of neo-Nazis and skinhead gangs - are weakened.

Future trends

SOVA identifies another two factors which may take their place, however. Firstly, the appearance of groups of youths from the Caucasus committing violent retaliatory acts is encouraging the public (led by a media which describes these new groups as ‘skinheads from the Caucasus') to perceive nationalist violence as necessary vigilantism.

Secondly, the pro-Kremlin youth groups, most significantlythe Young Guard of United Russia, joined the DPNI's anti-immigrant band wagon in 2008 with a Russia-wide campaign ‘Our money to our people', which effectively demanded that vacancies be offered to Russian citizens in preference to economic migrants from abroad. SOVA argue that the participation of ‘official' groups in such campaigns legitimizes ‘ethnically-coloured anti-migrant moods and discriminatory practice.' Since this sort of protectionism is a growing worldwidetrend in a worsening economic climate, we should probably expect to see more of it. One can only hope that the racist violence so carefully documented by SOVA does not continue to rise alongside it. 

Remembering Aleksii II Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia 1990-2008

With thanks to И. Максим Between forty and ninety thousand believers paid their respects to the late Patriarch Aleksii II, who died on the morning of 5 December 2008, as he lay in state in the massive Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. It seems fitting that they should make their farewells to him in a church that has become a controversial and multivalent symbol of the ‘Orthodox Russia' he worked to rebuild. The patriarch is buried at the Epiphany Cathedral, however, at his own request. He lies near the relics of his patron saint, the medieval Metropolitan Aleksii of Moscow, who served a Church still dominated by the Golden Horde and engaged in fraternal strife with the neighbouring Orthodox Metropolitan of Lithuania. He lies, too, near Patriarch Sergii (Stragorodskii), whose 1927 ‘Declaration of Loyalty' to the Soviet state contributed to the schism between the Moscow Patriarchate and the émigré Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. Both churchmen would no doubt recognise the immense moral, political and spiritual challenges Patriarch Aleksii faced as he shepherded his flock into the post-Soviet era; both, no doubt, would appreciate the delicate balancing act he sought to maintain in his eighteen years of office.

Patriarch Aleksii's clerical career spanned cycles of Church repression and revival, and myriad problems within and without the Church. Born in Estonia in 1929, Alexei Ridiger was inspired by pilgrimages with his parents to follow the religious life. The son of an Estonian priest of German descent and a Russian mother, by the time Alexei reached sixteen he had lived through the annexation of his country by the Soviet Union, its invasion by Nazi Germany, and its liberation. As a teenage subdeacon, Alexei participated in the 1945 reopening of Tallinn's Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky, before studying at Leningrad Theological Seminary. He was ordained as a priest in 1950, during a period of relative calm for the Russian Orthodox Church. Shorn as a monk in 1961, at the height of Khrushchev's anti-religious campaign, Aleksii began a rapid rise through the ‘black' clerical ranks only open to monastics - Bishop of Tallinn and Archimandrite in 1961, Archbishop in 1964, Metropolitan in 1968.

During this period, Aleksii also became a member of the Synodal Commission on Christian Unity and Inter-Church Relations, and in 1964 was elected president of the Conference of European Churches. Khrushchev - while shutting churches, banning pilgrimages and incarcerating monks in psychiatric units - was acutely aware of the propaganda value of the Church, and ensured Orthodox participation in the World Council of Churches and various peace movements. The ritual dance of Soviet clerics denying problems at home whilst lobbying about problems abroad may have frustrated Western Christians, but it was one of many compromises that senior clerics made to ensure the continued functioning of the institutional church. The suggestion that Aleksii himself collaborated with the Soviet regime - in acting as a KGB informant codenamed ‘Drozdov' - has always been denied by the Patriarchate. Although some inside and outside of the Russian Orthodox Church have regretted a lack of transparency about and public repentance for collaboration on the part of senior hierarchs, in 1991 Aleksii publicly asked for the forgiveness and understanding of those hurt by the compromises the Church made during the Soviet period.

Aleksii was elected to the Patriarchal throne in June 1990, as the Church was emerging from the moral quagmire of the Soviet period into a minefield of new and re-emerging problems. Thousands of buildings were returned to the faithful in a state of disrepair. Parish churches reopened faster than priests could be trained to serve in them. Nationalist aspirations threatened schisms amongst Orthodox faithful in Ukraine and the Baltic states, while nationalists amongst Orthodox faithful in Russia raised the ugly flags of antisemitism and xenophobia. The Patriarch's moving address to rabbis in New York in November 1991 - which acknowledged a shared religious heritage and lamented antisemitism - unleashed a furious response from militant right-wing groups within the Church. Further threats to unity came from the ‘True Orthodox Church' and Moscow Patriarchate parishes re-aligning themselves with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. The unity of the Church looked very fragile in these early years of freedom.

The Patriarch had to contend, too, with the revival of the Ukrainian Eastern-rite Catholic Church, anxious to reclaim property allotted to the Orthodox under Stalin. That, and the influx of foreign missionaries and clerics reclaiming pre-revolutionary territories or simply preaching to the ‘godless', no doubt contributed to his continued refusal to meet the Pope, and his support for the 1997 legislation which privileged Russia's ‘traditional religions'. Westerners, in particular, have judged him harshly for this, but the insensitive behaviour of missionaries (and, one might add, of politicians and entrepreneurs) in the immediate aftermath of Soviet collapse is at least partly responsible. ‘Would you like to know Jesus?' enthusiastic American teenagers would call out to Muscovites in the nineties. The assumption - that Russians did not know Christ, or at least didn't know Him as well as these adolescent interlocutors - must surely have irritated those whose Orthodoxy had survived persecution for longer than their would-be saviours had been alive.

Under Patriarch Aleksii's leadership, the Church formulated a document on the ‘Social Concept of the Orthodox Church' to articulate the basic teachings of the Church on social problems and church-state relations in a secular world. It also embarked on the massive task of researching, recording and canonizing the Orthodox victims of Soviet repression - including, controversially, the Romanov family. This latter process, painful and fraught with theological and moral problems, resulted in the elevation of Nicholas, his wife and four children (but not their servants) to the ranks of ‘passion-bearers', and removed one of the barriers to the reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad with the Moscow Patriarchate. This reunification, which eventually took place in 2007, will no doubt be remembered as the pinnacle of Patriarch Aleksii's achievements. The reunion agreement was signed at a ceremony in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a double emblem of Bolshevism overturned.

To construct the original Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (completed in 1882) in commemoration of Russia's victory over Napoleon, the seventeenth century Convent of Aleksii the Man of God was destroyed. Legend has it that one of the convent's nuns cursed the site, so that nothing built thereafter would last. The pre-revolutionary Cathedral was demolished in 1931, Stalin's grandiose plans for a Palace of the Soviets came to nought, and Krushchev's open air swimming pool was eventually replaced by Luzhkov's monument to Russia's renaissance. Buildings come and go, but somehow or other, the body of the Church endures. Russia is paying its respects to a man who has helped to keep that body whole.


Following the cross: a journey with Russian pilgrims

Pilgrims at the St Seraphim Spring in Diveevo (phot.Sandra Reddin)


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