Russia: racism on the rise

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski
25 April 2006

Anjani Kumar is a 23-year-old student at St Petersburg's Mechnikoff Medical Academy. As he was returning to his hostel one night, a group of youths attacked him, stabbing him in the neck.

Zaut Tutov is the minister of culture for the autonomous republic of Kabardino-Balkaria in the northern Caucasus. He was taking his daughter home from dance classes when fifteen skinheads surrounded him, shouting "Russia for the Russians", and beat him up.

Both Anjani Kumar and Zaut Tutov were lucky: they survived. Dozens of other victims of racially motivated assaults over the past fifteen months did not. Recent victims were a nine-year-old Tajik girl in St Petersburg, a Chinese street-trader in Vladivostok, and students from Guinea-Bissau and Peru who were killed in Voronezh. In the central Russian city of Volzhsky, a man and a woman died when skinheads armed with steel rods attacked a gypsy camp.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist and writer who has reported on Russia for leading German, Swiss and Polish newspapers since 1989. He is the author of the book Planet Russia, published in Poland in 2005.

Also by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski on openDemocracy:

"Mikhail Khodorkovsky's shadow" (April 2006)

In what appear to be the latest cases, a 17-year-old ethnic Armenian university student died on 22 April after being stabbed on a Moscow metro station platform, and a young Tajik man died from knife wounds on 24 April after he and his companion were attacked while walking in Moscow.

"We have been living in Moscow for nearly ten years", a Tajik friend told me. "We experienced no fear when we arrived. We felt at home, despite the anti-Caucasian sentiment following the fighting in Chechnya. It's different now. We are worried that the Asian features of our teenaged children might lead to them being beaten up. I told them to be especially careful if they're out late or visiting friends in remote neighbourhoods."

Even in a country with 140 million people, the number of attacks is alarming. In 2005, twenty-eight people died in hate attacks in Russia, and 366 were wounded. The number of murders in 2006 is already well into double figures. Human-rights activists say these figures hide the true number, and that people of different races, skin colours and anti-fascist groups are all targets of street violence.

Groups calling for Russia to be cleansed of foreigners, and using fascist salutes and emblems, are now active in nearly every major Russian city. On 20 April, the birthday of Adolf Hitler, most black students living in Russia spent the day at home rather than risk being caught outside by skinheads.

The members of these gangs are generally young, aged from thirteen to thirty, according to a report by the website gazeta.ru. They tend to come from low-income families and live in rundown suburbs. Around 1,000 skinheads live in the Moscow region, most of them outside the capital itself. A majority of attacks take place on suburban trains and in neighbourhoods away from the bustling main streets of the city centre.

The statistics in St Petersburg are even more alarming. The local governor, Valentina Matviyenko, has been unable to stop the city on the River Neva earning a reputation for hate crimes. The twenty large skinhead gangs in St Petersburg have an estimated 12,000 members. Across Russia, there are thought to be as many as 70,000 skinheads. Small Russian towns are covered in nationalist graffiti, swastikas and slogans like "Russia for the Russians" and "Death to Jews".

The authorities have been unable or unwilling to deal with the explosion in these gangs, and some minorities have set up self-defence groups in response. At Moscow's Peoples' Friendship University (formerly Patrice Lumumba University), African students have set up their own self-defence groups.

The roots of violence

Much of the problem dates from the late 1980s, the years of Soviet collapse. At that time, members of the Pamyat group dressed in black and openly paraded their anti-semitism. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the populist leader of the Liberal Democratic party, achieved unexpectedly good results in the 1993 parliamentary elections on the back of nationalist rhetoric; his party came in first, capturing nearly a quarter of the votes cast.

The two wars in Chechnya and a series of terrorist attacks on targets across Russia fuelled ill-feeling towards Chechens and other Caucasians. Public opinion has also turned against Ukrainians, Georgians, Poles and Moldovans for their roles in the various "colour", or "flower", revolutions that have swept through a number of Russia's neighbours. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians have also been criticised, thanks to the perceived prejudice and discrimination against Russian minorities in the Baltic states.

Also in openDemocracy, a debate between Russian writers on Russian power:

Nikolai N Petro, "Russia through the looking-glass"
(February 2006)

Mischa Gabowitsch, "Inside the looking-glass"
(February 2006)

Nikolai N Petro, "Russian democracy: a reply to Mischa Gabowitsch" (February 2006)

The change and uncertainty that the collapse of the Soviet Union caused turned Russia into fertile ground for racism. But some journalists and opposition activists believe the alarming recent growth in xenophobic gangs is the result of something far more sinister. They think some interests are benefiting from the rise in nationalist sentiments, and argue that some politicians and secret services might be manipulating events as part of their struggle for power, wealth and influence. Some point out that powerful interest groups in the Kremlin are looking for ways to keep power in the same hands even after the end of Vladimir Putin's presidency in 2008.

Many Russians, especially those with memories of the horrors of the Nazi invasion, wonder why Putin's government is so tolerant of those who use slogans reminiscent of Hitler's Germany. In his column for www.gazeta.ru, Georgy Bovt, the editor of Profil magazine, writes of his suspicion that skinheads are being used to intimidate and frighten the public into sticking with the establishment at the polls in 2008.

Dmitri Rogozin, the former leader of the Rodina (Motherland) faction in the Duma and an enthusiastic supporter of nationalist politics, argues something similar. He sees the skinhead violence playing into the hands of those in the Kremlin at the next parliamentary and presidential elections. In a television interview in March, he predicted that politics would be "a struggle between the authorities and the fascists. This would help them to sell these undemocratic elections to the west. And as there were no real fascists in Russia, they were having to create them."

Such a game, if the conspiracy theorists are right, would be extremely dangerous. Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of the recently founded Public Chamber (an advisory body set up by the government as a bridge between the state and civil society after the 2004 Beslan school siege by Chechen guerrillas) believes the country's unity is at stake. "The ultimate result of slogans like 'Russia for the Russians'," he said in a recent speech, "is slogans like 'Tatarstan for the Tatars' or 'Kabardino-Balkaria for the Kabardins and Balkarians'."

The Kremlin's critics are even more outspoken in their warnings. They say Russia's multiculturalism, its future as a civilised state and even its continued existence as they know it could be under threat.

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