EXCLUSIVE: Russian Human Rights Activists Face Spike In Death Threats (UPDATES)

Updated 7.15.09, 7.24.09

By day, Russian teenager Artur Ryno studied at a Moscow icon painting school, where he gingerly burnished thin sheets of gold leaf onto the sort of religious pictures that centuries ago were thought to protect the devout from evil.

By night, Ryno became evil incarnate, spending most evenings prowling Moscow's dormitory suburbs looking for immigrants to beat up. At first the police didn't believe the 17-year-old art student when he confessed to killing 37 people in 2007. Sadly, investigators gradually confirmed Ryno's gruesome claims. According to the Russian daily newspaper Vremya Novostei, Ryno told authorities he hated immigrants who "come to Moscow and oppress Russians." He thought Moscow "needed to be cleansed."

As a parable of Russian life in the 21st century, Ryno's case is disturbing in scale, but hardly surprising. Since 2004, the far-right has murdered more than 350 people because of the color of their skin.

These so-called skinheads consider themselves hero-warriors -- part of a national liberation movement to rid Russia of immigrants. They revere Adolf Hitler, and believe his only mistake was to attack Russia. They align themselves with officially registered ultra-nationalist groups such as the Movement Against Illegal Immigration and the Slavic Union.

Russian human rights activists receive death threats, too

More than 50 percent of the Russian people believe that ethnic minorities "should be limited or expelled from the country," Alexander Verkhovsky told Huffington Post. Verkhovsky is the director of SOVA, the leading independent monitor of racist and bias crimes in Russia. The soft-spoken activist publicly defends the basic human rights of all minorities. As a result, there is a target on his back.

We met in the Washington, D.C. office of Human Rights First, a non-profit organization that recently offered Verkhovsky and his candid deputy director Galina Kozhevnikova brief fellowships in the U.S. so they could temporarily leave the overheated political climate in Russia, where extreme nationalist groups have intensified their death threats against the two human rights activists.

"It's hard for civil rights workers to live and work in Moscow these days," said Verkhovsky. "And in smaller cities the situation is even worse. Our colleagues are receiving death threats from local Neo-Nazi groups who know where they live. Our friends have no protection at all. I'm very afraid for them."

In 2008, Verkhovsky awoke one morning to find his name on an Enemies of the Russian People list that was posted on the Internet along with a clear call to kill everyone on the list -- human rights activists, supreme court judges, prosecutors -- and Verkhovsky and Kozhevnikova. "Soon after the list was posted, Neo-Nazis came to my flat and tried to get me to come out and talk to them, but I refused. The police cannot find them, so I am in a bad position because they continue to visit. Galina is receiving threatening emails. Our lives have changed," said Verkhovsky.

Is the perceived danger real? The murders of prominent human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova in January were possibly linked to their work drawing attention to the growing number of hate crimes in Russia. SOVA estimates that 87 people were killed and 378 injured in racist attacks during 2008.

"Numbers are difficult to come by because there are no official statistics," Kozhevnikova told Huffington Post. "We collect statistics from various sources, and we try to be very conservative in the tally. The numbers could be several times higher."

Russia's Neo-Nazis use many of the same tactics as terrorists

Most of the young people who commit hate crimes in Russia are Neo-Nazis, and the number of serious attacks is growing. "The groups are more developed now, they're better equipped, and they operate in a climate of impunity because law enforcement agencies have not been paying attention to them until recently," said Kozhevnikova.

The Internet is quickly replacing the cell phone as the propaganda medium of choice because it is viewed as more secure. In one Russian city, Neo-Nazi groups used closed web forums to coordinate attacks in different districts on the same day.

Many Neo-Nazis use terrorist tactics. "They attack police stations, and they use explosives," explained Kozhevnikova. "It is possible that Prime Minister Putin believes he can control these groups using words alone, but in reality that's not the case. The past two years prove the extremists are getting out of control."

Despite a dwindling population, Russians prefer cultural homogeneity to growth via immigration

During the 1990s, most Russian immigrants were "Russian" from a cultural point of view. They spoke Russian. They studied in the same Soviet schools. They had similar backgrounds. If immigrants felt at all alien, it was simply because they had moved from a small city to a large city.

"But today the situation is completely different," Verkhovsky told Huffington Post. "Few Russian immigrants speak Russian. They perceive themselves as foreigners, and they are perceived as foreigners. The government should make a serious effort to integrate the newcomers, but nothing like that has happened. Why? Because it is assumed that immigrants are here on a temporary basis. In Moscow, often they are referred to as guests."

The multi-ethnic nature of Russian society has always been more of a concept than a practical reality. Until very recently, most people lived in cities where they belonged to the majority ethnic group. They rarely traveled. But cities today are more diverse. Yet surprisingly, surveys have shown that Russians have a difficult time describing any significant negative changes in their lives that have been caused by immigrants.

"When surveyors asked for a concrete change, people don't know what to say. It's more about prejudice," explained Kozhevnikova. "For example, a former labor union activist said that if we invite labor migrants from the Central Asia states, we will all get hit over the head with bricks. And he isn't the only one using such metaphors. It's possible that this provokes acts of violence by regular people who hear this rhetoric on TV after they lost their job and are in despair."

Obama visits Moscow in July, but will he bring up human rights?

At the invitation of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, U.S. President Obama will attend a summit meeting July 6-8 to discuss reducing nuclear weapons, cooperating on non-proliferation, exploring ways to cooperate on missile defense, addressing mutual security challenges, and expanding the ties between American and Russian society and business. Human rights is not on the official agenda. Why not?

The protection of human rights is the foundation of American foreign policy, and human rights abuses are a problem the U.S. shares with Russia. In 2007, there were 595 incidents of hate crimes against Hispanics in the U.S. and 1,265 incidents of attacks motivated by sexual orientation bias, according to the most recent FBI statistics.

"It's time to bring the issue of racism and human rights to the high-level desks and deal with the problem together," Innokenty Grekov told Huffington Post. Innokenty works for the Fighting Discrimination Program at Human Rights First. "I'd like to see the United States and the Russian Federation sharing best practices, bringing Russian law enforcement officials to the U.S. to see how the system works here, and demonstrating how to prosecute these cases properly."

In fact, anti-discrimination legislation practically doesn't exist in Russia "because the problem of discrimination is almost never discussed," explained Verkhovsky. In addition to racial discrimination, problems for religious minorities are growing. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom just added Russia to its watch list.

Solving these problems will not be easy in a country where it is estimated that up to one in two government transactions involves a bribe, and where nationalism runs deep. But President Obama could help the U.S. regain a measure of its moral authority in the eyes of the international community by at least adding "discuss human rights initiatives" to the summit agenda.

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7.15.09 Update

Prominent Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was found slain execution-style today, hours after being kidnapped in Chechnya. The slaying took place on the same day as the release of a report she helped research that concluded there was enough evidence to demand high-ranking Russian officials be called to account for crimes committed on their watch. Read more.

7.24.09 Update

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend and colleague who was born in Russia but now lives and works in the United States. I expressed my outrage over the murder of Russian journalists and human rights workers, yet she was surprisingly resigned. "It's always been that way. Why would it change?" What a sad, sad situation. International advocacy group Human Rights First is demanding Russian authorities conduct a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into the murder of Natalya Estemirova. If you would like to join their letter-writing campaign, click here.