01/24/2014 02:55 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2014

Russians Mark the Anniversary of a Moscow Double-Murder

The vicious murder of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova in Moscow still resonates in Russia. Hundreds demonstrated recently to mark the fifth anniversary of the attack.

On January 19, Muscovites held a traditional rally to mark the fifth anniversary of the double-murder. About 650 people representing antifascist, labor, green, LGBT, human rights, and youth or informal groups marched to Prechistenka street, where the murders had taken place. The march was peaceful and well-organized, but several participants were reportedly attacked after the demonstration in downtown Moscow: near the Lubyanka metro station and on Arbat street.

Five years ago on January 19, Stanislav Markelov stepped out of a building in downtown Moscow, accompanied by young journalist Anastasia Baburova. Markelov, a prominent lawyer and human rights defender and founder of the Rule of Law Institute, headed to the subway when a young man approached him and suddenly shot the lawyer in the back of the head. Stanislav Markelov dropped on the ground, and the killer began to escape when suddenly Anastasia screamed and, according to eyewitnesses, took several steps in pursuit of the murderer. He turned around and shot her in the head, too.

Two individuals well-known in the ultranationalist scene in Moscow were identified as the suspects, tried, and convicted for the double-murder. Yevgeniya Khasis is serving an 18-year sentence for her role in the crime, and her boyfriend Nikita Tikhonov received a life imprisonment for the premeditated, cold-blooded double-murder. According to witnesses, Khasis looked on from the opposite side of the road as Tikhonov shot two people, in broad daylight and in the heart of a major metropolis.

Russia's Investigative Committee claims Khasis and Tikhonov were a part of a network of right-wing radicals called BORN (Battle Organization of Russian Nationalists) whose members are responsible for dozens of attacks on ethnic minorities or high-profile advocates. Four more members of BORN are in custody and are expected to be tried this year, and another alleged criminal was extradited from Serbia in 2013.

In 2009, when the murders took place, the situation with neo-Nazi violence in Russia had grown seemingly out of control. The peak of such violence, according to the Moscow-based SOVA Center for information in analysis, falls on 2008, when more than one hundred people were killed in alleged racially motivated attacks across Russia, with Moscow and Saint Petersburg "leading" the way. In 2013, the numbers continued to decline: SOVA reported 20 killed and 173 injured in suspected bias-motivated attacks across Russia. A far cry from 2008, but still a statistic that should be carefully analyzed by Russia's law enforcement agencies.

Anastasia Baburova, 25, and Stanislav Markelov, 34, weren't the first or last high-profile victims of ultranationalist violence. In December 2010, after a Slavic soccer fan was killed in a street rumble, ultranationalist groups mobilized thousands, quickly taking over the Manezh Square near the Kremlin and proceeding to beat and assault ethnic minorities they encountered on the subway and in the street. A few months ago, the story repeated in the Moscow suburb of Biryulevo: chanting "Russia for Russians," several thousand people began rioting after an ethnic Russian was murdered in front of his girlfriend. Police arrested a thousand people, most of them migrants who were quickly released.

Debates over identity, ethnicity, and nationalism are extremely divisive in today's Russia. It's a key issue facing the country, and whoever wins the struggle in the question on nationalism will go on to challenge the Kremlin's status quo.