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Russian nationalism can be deadly

RIA Novosti Stenin Baburova crop.jpg

As the trial of an extreme Russian nationalist organisation continues in Moscow this month, the parents of one of their victims try to come to terms with what has happened. Русский

The cemetery in Sevastopol, Crimea is on the edge of the city. The rain is unceasing. The parents of 25-year-old Anastasia Baburova, Eduard and Larisa, stand in front of their daughter’s white marble grave, laid with fresh roses, slightly bent (‘So that no one can re-sell them’). The gravestone has a portrait of Baburova, together with the anarchist slogan, ‘My homeland is all mankind.’ Anastasia was an anarchist.

‘They’re winter daffodils, and they can withstand the cold. I want flowers to grow near Nastya, always,’ says Larisa, pointing out the little green bushes with shiny leaves, which look like snowdrops.

Anastasia Baburova, killed by members of BORN in January 2009. CC Aleksandr ChernykhOn 19 January 2009, Anastasia Baburova was gunned down alongside Stanislav Markelov, in central Moscow. While Markelov, a human rights defender, had provided legal support to people involved in Russian anti-fascism, Baburova, an anti-fascist herself, was a reporter for opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Six weeks later, a previously unknown group, the Military Organisation of Russian Nationalists (BORN), announced that it was responsible for these murders. In 2011, Nikita Tikhonov and his partner Evgenia Khasis, members of BORN, were sentenced for the murder of Markelov. Tikhonov received life imprisonment; Khasis – 18 years. Four other members of BORN are currently on trial in Moscow. Among other offences, they stand accused of several murders, including a Moscow judge and an anti-fascist activist. 

Six years later, Baburova’s parents agreed to recount how they came to study the destructive power of extreme nationalism, and the progress made on bringing the killers to justice. 

A chance victim

‘After the funeral it was so difficult to go back to work’ says Larisa, who teaches at Sevastopol’s University of Nuclear Energy and Industry. ‘The first time I went into the lecture hall, I couldn't look up, so the students put a piece of paper on my desk with the words “Hello, Larisa Ivanovna!” I was afraid I’d break down, so I silently took the chalk and wrote the assignment on the board. It was only then I could talk. Now work is everything for me. But when things are hard I come here, to my daughter.’ 

‘He snapped us from all angles, trying to scare us.’

Sitting round a table in their flat, Eduard and Larisa recall the first day of the Tikhonov-Khasis trial. A right-wing radical tried to photograph them. ‘He was taking pictures, but I couldn't see his face, only the nose sticking out of his scarf. He snapped us from all angles, trying to scare us.’

‘On 19 January 2009, I came home after work on autopilot,’ says Larisa Ivanovna. ‘I didn't change out of my work clothes. It was as if I expected something. I switched off and fell asleep half sitting, which I've never done before’ she remembers in a trembling voice. ‘In my sleep I heard the telephone, my niece was ringing from Moscow very upset. She asked for Nastya’s telephone number. Fifteen minutes later another call: “Nastya’s been shot, but don't worry, she's in hospital.” Larisa continues, her voice breaking: ‘We rushed to buy plane tickets, then ran home. Our relatives came round and told us that Nastya had died.’ 

According to CCTV footage, Anastasia was shot at 2.22 pm. A minute later, the killer, dressed in black, rushed into the Kropotkinskaya metro station. Anastasia was shot when she tried to stop the killer. ‘We didn’t know that he had shot her on purpose,’ says Larisa Ivanovna. ‘We thought she was hit by a bullet because she was walking beside [Markelov].’ It was only half an hour later that a passing pensioner called an ambulance. Meanwhile, Anastasia was bleeding to death on one of Moscow’s central streets. 

Anastasia was bleeding to death on one of Moscow’s central streets.

In the two-room apartment in the centre of Sevastopol, everything reminds the parents of their murdered daughter. A school portrait hangs in the corner, her room is just as it was: left-wing history books, pencil drawings and binoculars with the label still on.

‘Here’s a magazine with her articles,’ says Eduard Baburov. The magazine is published by Autonomous Action, a group whose main goal is self-government and direct democracy. Nastya became a member of this organisation the day before she died. ‘She was always independent,’ says her father. ‘She even went to the kindergarten alone. I had to walk 50 metres behind her.’ 

Antifa

Eduard and Larisa tell me that their daughter wrote to them regularly – twice a week. But she said nothing about her political views. ‘She was a good conspirator, she changed her telephone number regularly and didn’t even give us her address,’ says her mother, sighing. ‘It was very irritating! We didn't know that she was going to the trials of neo-Nazi groups, and was being very careful for this reason.

‘We found out about all this after her death. I couldn’t settle down to anything and was reading everything that was written about Nastya on the internet. They had taken everything we had. We couldn’t stick our head in the sand,’ says Larisa, remembering how she studied the street protests at the end of the 2000s. ‘I visited Russian nationalist sites like Aleksandr Potkin’s Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), Maksim Martsinkevich’s Format 18, and Dmitry Dyomushkin’s Slavic Union (which later became Slavic Power).’ Here, Larisa found posts in response to killings: ‘the Russophobes have been dispatched to hell’; ‘the journalist girl kicked the bucket in intensive care.’ She was shocked that people could react like this. She had never encountered anything like it before. 

‘We first heard the word antifa [anti-fascist] in 2003, by chance,’ says Eduard. ‘It was pouring with rain. Nastya had been staying with us and left her wet rucksack behind when she left.’ Her mother takes up the story: ‘I decided to dry it out, so I shook out all the contents and we found a little brochure called The Red Antifa Book. The preface talked about how you could be killed for owning this book in Russia today. I read it, but I didn’t understand a word. It wasn’t real.’

‘We were very worried and we asked Nastya, “What's antifa?” She just smiled knowingly. That was the first time we heard the name Markelov.’ A human rights defender, Stanislav Markelov was known for his work representing the family of Elza Kungaeva who was kidnapped and murdered by Colonel Yury Budanov in Chechnya; defending the victims of the 2002 Nord-Ost theatre siege; and the mass OMON beatings in Blagoveshchensk, Bashkortostan, in 2004. Markelov, a trained lawyer, not only defended anti-fascist interests and the relatives of murder victims, but was actively involved in the movement itself.

Moscow metamorphosis

In Moscow, Anastasia went to study at MGIMO, Moscow’s prestigious Institute of International Relations. She studied French, English and Chinese, though she dropped out of her course halfway through the second year, with no explanation. ‘I went to Moscow to try and put her back on the right path, even if it meant joining the paying course,’ remembers Eduard. ‘I was told in the registry office that she had had top marks throughout, and that she only had one exam to finish. She would’ve made the grades for a free ride.’

‘But Nastya wasn't having any of it,’ says Larisa. ‘She didn’t want to talk about it. She was staying at the journalism faculty at Moscow State University, and that was it. She found MGIMO difficult both morally and materially. It was all the children of diplomats. Everyone knew everyone, and she didn’t feel at home there. 

‘As soon as she moved to Russia, she was in touch with the anti-fascists. She felt more at home with them. She learnt a lot during the 1990s. Salaries in Sevastopol weren’t paid for years. The central heating didn’t work for three years in a row. When it all started, I was so worried about how we were going to live. I sent Nastya to a children’s holiday camp for a month just because there, at least, she’d be properly fed.’

‘When she was at the university, she used to do self-defence. When she came home she would show off her biceps. I would say to her, “If anyone wants to attack you, then you will lie there and die, and no one will help you,”’ says Larisa, not looking at us. ‘She would reply with tears in her eyes: “Mum, do you think I’m going to live for a long time?”’

Russian Image

Files with all the transcripts of conversations recorded in neo-Nazi apartments lie on the table. Larisa has carefully studied the evidence given by Nikita Tikhonov and his common-law wife Yegenia Khasis during the trial. ‘Murderers can be maniacs or people steeped in ideology: the former kill everyone, but the fascists choose their targets on ideological grounds,’ says an agitated Larisa Ivanovna. ‘Here’s Tikhonov telling Khasis: “We were in a car with an ‘animal.’ I felt as if I’d eaten something past its sell-by-date. I just want to take him out. The only thing that stopped me was that I didn’t know the area we were driving through.”’

Nikita Tikhonov and Yevgenia Khasis were convicted of the murder of Anastasia Baburova in 2011. Nikita Tikhonov and Yevgeniya Khasis were convicted of the murder of Anastasia Baburov in 2011. (c) RIA Novosti/Ruslan Krivobok

The most striking passages are marked in colour, and found their way into Larisa’s speech at the 2011 trial of Khasis and Tikhonov: ‘I’ll never believe in their repentance, my eternal curse is on the murderers, the organisers, and the people who ordered the killing. Who needs their repentance? It won’t bring Nastya back.’ 

‘Who needs their repentance? It won’t bring Nastya back.’

In November 2014, new judicial proceedings began in relation to BORN. As these proceedings developed, Tikhonov and Khasis stated that people with links to the Presidential Administration and Ilya Goryachev, the leader of extreme nationalist organisation Russian Image, were complicit in organising the killings. While the Presidential Administration later denied any such links, Tikhonov and the 32-year-old Goryachev had known each other since at least 2004, when they started publishing the Russian Image magazine together. ‘I had already read about the concept behind Russian Image before the trial,’ says Larisa, quoting the organisation’s slogan: ‘It’s not a gang, a propaganda agency or a political party, but all of them together. We know the names of all our friends and enemies, and each one of them can count on individual approach!’ 

‘In his interviews, Goryachev said that the nationalists wanted to take power in any way possible,’ says Larisa Baburova. She admits that the Presidential Administration may have had a hand in it too. ‘Those two [Tikhonov and Goryachev] made friends there as speechwriters, and thought they could do the job themselves. In Russia, everyone dreams of running something.’  

Aleksandr Potkin, leader of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, has said that Tikhonov wrote speeches, even possibly for former Finance Minister and political heavyweight Boris Fyodorov and the current Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov. Goryachev was working in the PR department for the TV Channel Spas, which promotes Russian Orthodoxy. 

Instructions for murderers

‘Today, the BORN trial is making progress, as is the Tikhonov-Khasis case,’ says Larisa. She fetches the step-by-step guide for ‘prisoners in ZOG torture chambers’. This foreign acronym refers to the ‘Zionist Occupation Government’, the bugbear of all ‘Russian patriots’. The document, found in a nationalist flat, is illustrated with an eagle squeezing a swastika in its talons. ‘People were shocked that Tikhonov and Khasis had slit their veins [in 2011], but the first point of the instruction booklet is about to kill yourself.’ 

While Khasis and Tikhonov did not manage to kill themseves, Ilya Goryachev and Maksim Baklagin, members of BORN on trial in December 2014, also attempted suicide in pre-trial detention. Both stated that they were pressured by the security services.

‘Don’t look a cop in the eyes, look at the floor,’ Larisa reads, forcefully. ‘Deny any guilt and don’t get drawn into innocent questioning. If you betray your comrades, you’ll get a longer sentence – penalties for group crime are tougher.’ This is why the suspects in the BORN trial accused have denied the existence of any group. Yuri Tikhomirov and Mikhail Volkov, another BORN suspect, are particularly adamant that they did not belong to any group.

‘Other cases have demonstrated that trial by jury is preferable. The jurors in the case of the Tadjik child only found the accused guilty of hooliganism, and one of them was acquitted completely.’ The child referred to here is 8-year-old Khursheda Sultonova, who was murdered in February 2004 in St Petersburg. Only two of the murderers were sentenced to life imprisonment. 

‘Khasis is now saying that she regrets having anything to do with the murders and is sorry for the victims. But this is pure hypocrisy,’ says Eduard Baburov. ‘She was in charge. Tikhonov decided to delay the attack, which was planned for the next day, because he was always anxious before a murder and hadn’t slept. But Khasis said “I’ll find replacements. Give me 100 bullets and I’ll go.”’

Confession

Anastasia's parents are convinced that Tikhonov confessed under the influence of his father, a retired security services officer. After his father painted an eloquent picture of the likelihood of Nikita rotting away in prison, Tikhonov decided to do a deal with the investigation in the hope he would get better conditions – no Arctic prison camp, at least. 

Khasis, 29, explained her motives in cooperating with the investigation on a BORN support site: ‘I shall give evidence in this case within the limits of what I know. I have become free.’ Later she added, ‘This is not a fight with Ilya [Goryachev] or the Presidential Administration. That would be funny, really it would. My fight is quite another one. It’s with myself, a search for answers to questions which cause me agonising pain, which divide my life into “before” and “after”, as if with a razor.’ 

‘Goryachev’s lawyers are sure that it’s because he gave evidence against Tikhonov and Khasis, now they’re going to take their chance to get their own back,’ says Larisa Ivanovna. ‘But no one made Sergei Golubev give evidence against Goryachev!’

Known as ‘Agent’, 31-year old Sergei Golubev was a vocalist for an ultra right-wing band Terror National Front, and co-ordinated advertising for the ultra-right group Blood and Honour. At the 2011 trial of Tikhonov and Khasis, Golubev said that, a few days before the murders, Ilya Goryachev had warned him that ‘within the next two weeks something is going to happen and there could be police raids’, so it would be better to disappear. Goryachev did just that. At the time of the Markelov and Baburova murders, Golubev had an alibi: the right-wing radical was on holiday in Serbia. 

The best memorial

‘A just sentence would be the best memorial.’

‘Nastya liked playing in this courtyard here,’ says Larisa as she sees me out. ‘We had our wedding party here and the Vladimir Cathedral is over there, which is where Nastya’s funeral was held. It’s good that she and Markelov are remembered.’ 

Every year on 19 January, friends and supporters of Baburova and Markelov hold a march in their memory in Moscow. This year several hundred people turned out to take part.

‘The demonstrations in memory of Nastya and Stas [Markelov] are helpful,’ says Larisa, ‘they support us. The recordings in the neo-Nazi apartment made it clear that the suspects acted together. A just sentence would be the best memorial.’

Standfirst image: (c) RIA Novosti/Andrei Stenin


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