Prisoners without conscience

Members of BORN, a Russian ultranationalist group, will soon face trial for murder. They have been linked with Centre E and the presidential administration in Moscow; and with ‘Svoboda’ and ‘Pravy Sektor’ in Kyiv.

Alexandr Litoy
12 May 2014

The victims

The Militant Organisation of Russian Nationalists, generally known by its acronym in Russian, BORN, is Russia’s most prominent ultra-right group. Their crimes took place in Moscow itself, but the capital’s city court passed the case over to its Moscow Region colleagues because of a conflict of interests – one of BORN’s best known victims was a Moscow judge, Eduard Chuvashov. It was his murder in 2010, along with the double killing in 2009 of two other well known figures, socialist human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and opposition journalist Anastasia Baburova, that brought top specialists from the FSB (Russia's Security Service - successor to the KGB) and the Russian Investigative Committee (equivalent to the FBI) on to BORN’s case.

Yevgenia Khasis, who will appear as a witness in the trial, has already been sentenced to 18 years.

Yevgenia Khasis, who will appear as a witness in the trial, has already been sentenced to 18 years. CC Berimir

Up till then the group’s criminal activities had been under investigation by lower-ranking law enforcement bodies, but without success, and ‘Centre E’, set up precisely to combat extremism and terrorism, hadn’t been allowed near them, possibly because it had infiltrated undercover agents into BORN who could have been in the way of investigations that might expose the Centre.

Chuvashov was shot dead because he had presided over several high profile trials of nationalist extremists, and also because of a casual remark he made about Russians behaving badly on trips abroad. Markelov was killed for his political views and his defence of left wing political activists and so-called ‘anti-fascists’ in court. Baburova died simply because she was with Markelov when he was shot.

Judge Chuvashov was killed because he had presided over several trials of nationalist extremists.

Another BORN victim was European Amateur Thai Boxing champion Muslim Abdullayev, a Dagestani, who was ‘guilty’ of training at Moscow’s Scorpion Club. There are two main Thai Boxing clubs in Moscow, Scorpion and Combat. Scorpion is the one favoured by fighters from the Caucasus, but BORN wanted to make it, like Combat, exclusively Slavic, and accused their victims from the club of attacking Russians who tried to train there.    

Muslim Abdullayev

Thai boxing champion Muslim Abdullayev was killed by BORN members. CC Peoples.ru

BORN militants also killed three anti-fascist activists after trailing them to the entrances of their homes, and beheaded a Central Asian migrant worker; they then dumped the head on the steps of a local council building as an ‘act of protest against ethnic minority crime’. Two of their other victims, both from the Caucasus, were defendants in much publicised criminal trials. One was a member of a gang known as the Black Hawks, who were accused of attacking two Russian ultranationalists; the other was an Armenian taxi driver, who was inadvertently released on bail after he had beaten up a pregnant mobile phone shop employee who then lost her baby. Three other people survived attacks by BORN members, one of them wounded by a homemade bomb.

The group compiled long lists of potential victims, which included anti-fascist activists, lawyers, judges and well known public and church figures – one of them investigating officer Igor Krastov, who was later to open the case against them.

The players

BORN’s crimes date to between 2008 and 2011 (Russian criminal investigations are notoriously slow). Five members will be on trial. Aleksei Korshunov, one of the group’s leaders, was killed when the hand grenade he habitually carried with him accidentally exploded. Another member, Aleksandr Parinov, is still in hiding. Yevgenia Khasis, the common law wife of BORN’s founder Nikita Tikhonov, will appear as a witness, although she will give evidence that she has aided and abetted the organisation's actions (she has already been sentenced to 18 years in prison as an accessory to Markelov’s killing). Nikita Tikhonov is already serving a life sentence for Markelov and Baburova’s murders. The papers before the court will also make numerous references to other, as yet unidentified, accessories to the group’s crimes.

Ilya Goryachev, Tikhonov’s closest friend and important witness for the prosecution

Ilya Goryachev, Tikhonov’s closest friend and important witness for the prosecution. (c) RIA Novosti/Sergei Kuznetsov

Aleksei Korshunov, a leader of the group, was killed when the hand grenade he habitually carried with him exploded.

At the Markelov murder trial Ilya Goryachev, Tikhonov’s closest friend, was an important witness for the prosecution. Now it is Tikhonov who is actively cooperating with the investigators, and Goryachev who will be the defendant at another trial, to follow this one, accused of aiding and abetting, and of being the organisation’s ideologue.

All the militants, apart from Goryachev and a minor group member, Yury Tikhomirov, are pleading guilty to most of the charges. Possibly they are by now disillusioned with violence as a strategy, but they are also well aware that Russian courts are generally on the side of the prosecution. It would be difficult to derail a case where there is so much incriminating evidence, and besides, a guilty plea is the only way to possibly avoid a life sentence.

Russian nationalists give fascist salute at the 'Russian March' in 2011

Russian nationalists at the 'Russian March' in 2011 (c) Demotix/Alexander Chernavskiy

An A4-sized cell

There is no reliable evidence that the BORN defendants were tortured to force confessions out of them, but being in a Russian prison is not good for one's health. Tikhonov pleaded not guilty to the murder of Markelov, but the judge found against him, and he was sent down for life to the ‘Snowy Owl’, the harshest prison in Russia, beyond the Arctic Circle.

Not long before his departure to the far north, Tikhonov’s comrades posted this blog: ‘On 20 September 2011 the FSB colonel in charge of his arrest and detention, and who had "worked' with him after his arrest," visited him in jail and told him that "all was not lost" and that he could 'improve his chances by passing the FSB information they might find interesting."’ But Nikita didn’t take him up on it, just asked the colonel to check up on his strength of mind once a year or so when he was in the lifers’ prison camp.’

A year in prison in the far north was enough to start Tikhonov cooperating with the authorities.

Nikita’s father, Aleksandr Tikhonov, described conditions in the camp on an ultraright blog site: ‘I must say Nikita is holding up very well, but he has lost more than 10 kilograms since he arrived there. He had no fat on him in the first place, so he’s losing muscle mass. He’s also unable to move or exercise in any way; he’s in solitary, in a cell 3.5 lengths of an A4 sheet of paper wide by 11.5 long. His bunk is two A4 lengths wide plus five centimetres (an A4 sheet was the only measuring tool available). The toilet bowl practically touched the bed and there was nothing between them, there was no ventilation and the cell was damp. There was no bedside table, not even a stool.’

A year in these conditions was enough to break Nikita Tikhonov. Now he is back in the more civilised surroundings of Moscow’s Lefortovo FSB prison and helping the police with their enquiries. The BORN case is notable for the willingness of most of the defendants to make detailed statements about not only their own roles in the crimes of which they are accused and the roles of their closest friends, but crimes committed by other extremist groups as well.

Friendships and betrayals

Seven members of BORN were actively involved in the above murders. All of them were previously either directly involved with the skinhead group United Brigade 88 (known by it's Russian initials, OB88) or had collaborated with its members. OB88 was the largest far-right grouping in Moscow between the mid 1990s and the early 2000s, specialising in mass pogroms against migrant workers. One BORN member, Mikhail Volkov, had already served time for organising and taking part in a rampage on Moscow’s Tsaritsynsky Market in 2001, in which two people died.

By the mid 2000s the police had worked out how to thwart these mass outbreaks of teenage violence, and the creation of BORN was an attempt ‘to move to a new level.’ There was no shortage of extremist groups in Russia that could murder a dozen people, but no other group was able to commit so many high profile crimes, especially using firearms.

Apart from involvement in OB88, some BORN members were brought together by an interest in paganism and in particular the works of Dobroslav (born Aleksandr Dobrovolsky), the guru of a movement preaching his interpretation of Slavic spirituality and nature worship who in 2010 was found guilty of disseminating extremist anti-Semitic material. Tikhonov and Khasis, however, converted to Russian Orthodoxy after their arrest.

Dobroslav, Slavic spirituality guru wearing a red headband and sporting a huge beard

Aleksandr Dobrovolsky aka 'Dobroslav', convicted for extremism in 2010 CC rpgcodex.net

All BORN’s militants were also former fans of the skinhead group Kolovrat, the cult band among the Russian right, whose founder Denis Gerasimov was recently arrested for ‘extremism.’ This gave them a link with Goryachev, a former administrator of the visitors’ book on Kolovrat’s website. Goryachev had no other connection with skinheads or history of violence, but was part of a young conservative Orthodox movement, and so was known in ultranationalist circles by the half derogatory nickname ‘the student.’

Tikhonov and Goryachev were brought together by a common interest in Serbian nationalism, and together they founded a journal called Russian Image. Then Tikhonov was put on a federal wanted list and had to go underground, while Russian Image grew into a high profile far-right organisation, believed by many to have links with both Centre E and the presidential administration.  

Tikhonov has stated (although Goryachev denies) that BORN was the military wing of Russian Image, and that Goryachev was a key figure in planning the murders. According to Tikhonov, the murders were necessary as part of a game between Goryachev and his political patrons whose ultimate aim was the launch of Russian Image as, at the very least, a parliamentary party.

In Tikhonov’s words, ‘Goryachev gave me lots of background support, and provided information about the targets. He also promised me financial help. He hinted that his "backers" were keen to see the anti-fascist movement neutralised. And of course it was Markelov that worried him most.’

Russians are so accustomed to people being jailed on trumped up charges that they won’t believe that these are real thugs.

All sorts of people may find themselves dragged into the case. Tikhonov has told the police that it was his friend Dmitry Steshin, a well known journalist on the pro-Putin Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, who put him in touch with arms dealers, although Steshin has not yet been charged with any offence. On the other hand, some BORN members have fled to Ukraine, and some of them are evidently staying with people linked to ‘Svoboda’ and ‘Pravy Sektor,’ ultraright organisations quite close to the present Kyiv government.

One of the problems with the understanding of the BORN case in Russia is that it has actually been investigated. Russians are so accustomed to people being jailed on trumped-up charges, and police harassment of the political opposition that the whole justice system functions under a presumption of dishonesty and corruption: the law enforcers have yet to convince the public that in this case the accused really are ultraright thugs and murderers.

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