It was Monday evening in February of 2004 when a particularly harsh winter arrived at the doorstep of Yusuf Sultonov. The Tajik immigrant was walking into his apartment building in St Petersburg with his young daughter, Khursheda, and son, Akobir. A gang of seven teen-aged skin-heads rushed across the snow-covered yard armed with brass knuckles, chains, metal bars and knives and literally started hammering the young family to the ground, according to eye witnesses. Nine year old Khursheda was stabbed eleven times and bled to death before an ambulance arrived. Her seven-year old brother was rushed to the hospital with severe head injuries but survived. Immigrants from the Caucasus such as the Sultonovs are frequent victims of hate crimes in Russia.
Since that night four years ago, thousands of immigrant job-seekers from the former soviet Union, among them Tajiks, Uzbeks, Georgians and Armenians, as well as scores of Africans, Jews, East Asians and Chechens have been assaulted all across the vastness of Russia, but especially in the areas in and around Moscow and St Petersburg. Over the past two years Neo-Nazis have been involved in at least 100 murders and 1200 attacks on immigrants, according to independent groups that monitor racially motivated crimes. Amnesty International believes the number of victims to be much higher.
Two years ago the United Nations dispatched a special envoy to the Russian Federation to probe the growing wave of racist killings and beatings. Today the situation remains just as dire. These attacks according to experts on ethnic violence are not aberrations of Russian society, but consistent with widespread xenophobia that has swept over Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian newspapers and television are rife with xenophobic messages blaming "foreigners" for many of the countries ills, especially crime. And a poll conducted by Public Opinion Studies (VTSIOM) found that 61% of Russians approved of the slogan "Russia for Russians."
Police say that's exactly what the killers of 9-year old Khursheda Sultonov yelled as she was being slashed and stabbed, and investigators cited ethnic hatred as the primary motive for the murder. Similarly in May of 2006, black-booted skin-heads shouting "glory to Russia" stabbed to death a 19-year-old ethnic Armenian man aboard a Russian passenger train. True to that strange construct known as race, Georgians, Tajiks, Azeris and other citizens from the Caucasus and Central Asia are regarded by many ordinary Russians as "blacks." (http://liftedveilsproductions.blogspot.com/) It is probably no coincidence, therefore, that American Ku Klux Klan legend David Duke is wildly popular among Neo-Nazis and other ultra-nationalists in Russia and has made frequent trips there to cheer and to be cheered on by his supporters, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report.
The Moscow Helsinki Group puts the number of skinheads in Russia at 50,000 to 60,000. But consider the fact that in 1992, there were only about a dozen fascist skinheads in Moscow and five in St Petersburg. Far more important than their numbers is the tacit and often overt support Neo-Nazis receive from Russian society.
Many of the assaults carried out by fascist skin-heads have taken place in broad open daylight in outdoor markets operated by migrant street vendors, aboard trains and in subways, and often in view of police and Russian citizens who have stood by and done nothing. In several documented cases some have actually cheered on the attackers.
When the thugs arrested in connection to the murder of Khursheda Sultonov were finally brought to trial in March of 2006, a group of Russian citizens chosen to render a "just" verdict effectively cleared all the defendants. It was the Russian equivalent of an all white jury in the American Jim Crow South. Only one of the young Nazis was even charged with murder and he was promptly cleared. All seven teenagers were found guilty only of "hooliganism" and sentenced to terms ranging from 18 months to five years. Three days after the jury turned justice for Khursheda on its head a 9-year-old girl of mixed Russian and African heritage was stabbed in the stairwell of her St. Petersburg apartment building by skin-heads who followed her home. A separate Russian jury in St. Petersburg that same year acquitted the defendants in a case of murder of a Vietnamese student named Vu Anh Tuan. He was stabbed 37 times. The skin-heads in question had earned a fierce reputation for crippling citizens of Ghana, Palestine, China and Azerbaijan but reportedly never spent more than a day in jail.
To his credit, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has spoken out forcefully against racist violence and intolerance. In turn, extremist groups like the National-Socialist Society have called for his resignation and that of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. But human rights groups also believe that Putin's harsh rhetorical attacks on Chechen separatists, Georgians and others have fanned the flames of nationalism and served as a green light for his more thuggish countrymen (and women in quite a few cases) on the streets of Russia. With evidence of growing public support for ultra-nationalist grassroots movements and, to a lesser degree, rightist political parties, Putin's rhetoric may be backfiring.
Last August Russian police who had blamed Chechen terrorists for the bombing of a railway near St. Petersburg conceded that it was likely the work of far-right extremists. The Russian Interior Ministry's about-face coincided with the posting of a ghastly video on the internet showing neo-Nazis chopping off the heads of two migrant workers from Tajikistan and Dagestan. Police confirmed the video to be authentic. A group calling itself ''the military wing of the National Socialist Society'' claimed responsibility and boasted that this was ''the start of our party's armed struggle against colored colonists and the Russian bureaucrats who support them.'' Experts on right wing extremism do not believe these groups are operating in a vacuum. Indeed there is evidence that far-right groups are becoming more organized and dangerous.
Human Rights researchers in Moscow have published documents showing "Nazi skinheads are being encouraged, organized, and used by Russia's ruling circles in their own interests." And Isvestiya reported that "Nazi skinheads from an openly fascist organization, the NNP (People's National Party), were being trained at the Moscow OMON special-purpose police detachment facilities and that they were being trained specifically by OMON coaches." Several years ago Russian historian Vladimir Ilyushenko asserted that "some parties view skinheads as their reserve. The process of encouraging fascist sentiments in Russia is steered by government officials." Young fascists have been linked to National Front, Russian National Socialist Party and Russian National Party politicians. Fascists have also successfully infiltrated the Motherland Party, which is widely believed to have been created by Putin to counter parties on the extreme right.
Not to say all Russians are focused inward. Indeed, hundreds of anti-racists have taken to the streets to counter right wing violence, and several Russian citizens have even given their lives. The World reacted in shock to the murder of independent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya two years ago in her Moscow apartment building. Her investigative reporting into Russian military atrocities in Chechnya and street attacks against Chechen refugees made her a target for ultra-nationalists of every stripe. There also was Nikolai Girenko, an ethnologist who testified as an expert witness against skinheads to try to convince Russian juries that these groups posed more of a danger than ordinary hooligans. In 2004 he was shot in the head when he answered the door of his St. Petersburg flat. Eight self-acknowledged neo-Nazis were arrested in connection to his murder.
The danger in Russia is not the revival of an expansionist communist state, as some American conservatives and neo-cons have ridiculously asserted. Rather, it is the ideology of growing ultra-nationalism that has found expression in Neo-Nazism, elements of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Russian judicial system, and government policies that systematically discriminate against non-Russians.
It seems ironic that many within a nation that lost 20 million of its citizens to Hitler's war machine have turned a blind eye to the activities of 21st Century Nazis in their midst. But the current crop of fascists is merely expressing the animus that millions of ordinary Russians apparently feel toward foreigners, but would prefer to let someone else wield the knives, brass knuckles and chains. Now with the invasion of Georgia (given license by Georgian President Mikhail Saakshvili's recklessness), Russian ultra-nationalism has reached its logical conclusion with tanks, Kalashnikovs, and rampaging South Ossestian irregulars substituting for bald-headed youth shouting "glory to Russia."
Follow Phillip Martin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pwdmartin