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Friday, August 25, 2006

Time Magazine Exposes Russian Racism

In an awesome and terrifying two-part opus by a Russian reporter, Time magazine lays bare the horrors of Russian racism (the young lady in the photograph is a member of the National Bolshevik Party and is holding a copy of the book Another Russia by Eduard Limonov, founder of the party; nationalism and racism, it seems, go hand and hand in Russia these days, and indeed you have to look quite closely to realize that the young lady isn't actually a Nazi).

Part I: Russia's Racism Problem

More and more Russians believe their country is for whites only, and that's leading to deadly violence

By Yuri Zarakhovich (Moscow)

The blast that ripped through a small cafe in the Cherkizovo market in eastern Moscow Monday morning killed eight instantly, including two children aged four and five. Two more victims died in a hospital, and the death count may yet grow: eleven of 35 wounded are in extremely grave condition. It was a brutal attack, and many Westerners acquainted with the Chechen rebels' tactics over the years might at first simply conclude it was yet another front in the war on terror — a random act of violence perpetrated by Islamic militants bent on inflicting as much carnage as possible on the West, be it George Bush's U.S. or Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Except that most of those killed are Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chinese and Vietnamese — the "blacks" or "churki" (wooden stubs), as Russian Nationalists derogatively call non-white foreigners, and as the increasing number of average Russians casually echo them. On Tuesday, law enforcement officials said they identified the bombers as three young ethnic Russian students of Moscow colleges. The suspects believed, Moscow's Prosecutor Yuri Demin told the press, that "There are too many Asians" here.

As repugnant as that may sound, it is becoming an increasingly popular view in today's Russia. Which is why even if the two suspects arrested are indeed guilty, they might get away with the crime. With 52% Russians supporting the slogan "Russia for Russians," and with many increasingly sympathetic to those who attack immigrants, the courts may well be lenient. "Racist attacks happen with shocking regularity in Russia, and the government is shirking its responsibilities and failing to confront the problem," Amnesty International said in its May 2006 report on hate crime in Russia. According to the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, racists murdered 10 people last year-and 18 in the first half of this year, not incluing the ten people killed by the Cherkizovo market bomb.

Last September, a St. Petersburg court heard the case of a neo-Nazi group, known as Shultz88, accused of multiple racial assaults. The leader got six years, while three stormtroopers got three years of suspended sentences each. One was let go as under-aged. And stormtrooper Alexei Vostroknutov was let go for the lack of proof.

I met Shultz88's stormtroopers in July 2004. One of them introduced himself as Alexei, but would not give his last name because he was facing that same trial. He had spent six months in pre-trial detention, but was set free. Alexei boasted about the number of the "churki" and "yids" he assaulted—-"And I don't care how many of them died." There wasn't another Alexei at the Shultz88 trial, so it must be him whom they let off scot-free. He knew he could afford to boast.

A day before that encounter I talked with Yuri Belyayev, leader of the neo-Nazi Freedom Party, based in St Petersburg. As we talked, he leaned over my recorder to make sure his quote would not be missed and said very distinctly: "Let me report: that Syrian who they say died in a Subway accident—-it was not an accident at all. My skin-group leader, the nickname of Valtroon, pushed him."

Belyayev also knew he did not risk anything. He supported Putin and believed the President shared some of his goals. "He is for rubbing the churki out, and for a strong Russia, and so are we," Belyayev said. Back in the fall of 1999, in the wake of terrorist apartment bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities, then premier Putin pledged "to rub out the terrorists on the john". Neo-Nazis — along with many Russians who would genuinely feel insulted, if called Nazis — interpreted this statement in the same way Belyayev did — as a virtual license to attack. I heard it from officers who fought in Chechnya often enough.

It is true that on the eve of the G-8 Summit, Putin's government had to show that it had cleaned up St. Petersburg; the police shot dead a 22-year-old skinhead, named as a neo-Nazi leader, charged with a blatant murder of an African student and resisting arrest. But despite that show of force, hate assaults did not cease either in St. Petersburg, or elsewhere. A week after the G-8 summit, the jury at the St. Petersburg City Court acquitted four nationalists charged with the deadly assault of an African student. The gallery applauded and shouted "well done" and "thanks" to the jury.

About a week ago, a band of skinheads beat to pulp a Tajik boy in a dacha Moscow village where I live, while another gang badly stabbed two Dagestanis on a suburban train. And many of these cases will never even be registered with the authorities.

What many Russians do not understand is that once they use the hate vocabulary of "churki" and "blacks", they feed the specter of fascism even if they do not fully support it. And yes, this specter is getting out of hand.

Back in July 2004, Alexei of the Shultz88 group told me: 'The time of our shahids, and our bombings, has come.' He was talking of groups or individuals who would create a Nazi Al Qaeda by linking through the Internet. Two years ago, I thought that the government could still roll all this scum back within a week. Monday's bombing seems to indicate that it might be too late — even if the government actually wanted to.

Part II: From Russia, with Hate

With skinheads and neo-Nazis on the rise, the country is bracing for a wave of xenophobic attacks

By Yuri Zarakhovich (Moscow)

It's a spring afternoon in downtown Moscow. Pushkin Square, a major hub of the Russian capital, is as vibrant as ever. Even those who hurry along on urgent errands steal a second to stop and enjoy the sunshine after weeks of rain and snow. But the atmosphere in one corner of the square is more menacing. A crowd of about 80 teenagers is chanting "Kill the U.S.A.!" and raising their arms in the Nazi salute. Zakhar, aged 15, with shaved head and camouflage shirt, is reluctant to talk to a journalist, but makes an exception to explain that the rally is "all about exterminating the Jews, Americans and other scum."

Immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Russians in their thousands brought flowers, wreaths, lighted candles and icons to the U.S. embassy wall. Something of a rapprochement between Russia and the West followed. But those feel-good days are gone. In a poll by the Public Opinion Foundation last month, 70% of those surveyed regarded the U.S. as a hostile country. And earlier this month, the U.S. embassy in Moscow received an e-mail in broken English that read: "We are to kill all the foreigners we see, marking the birthday of Hitler [April 20]. Send your citizens back — or else. Russia is for Russians." It was signed: "Ivan, President, Skinhead Group of Russia." The embassy took the threat seriously enough to alert all Americans in Russia to the increased risk over the next several weeks.

For members of extremist and neo-Nazi groups, Hitler's birthday has become an occasion for venting their anger. And not just against the Americans. On April 20 last year, Moscow skinheads launched attacks that left a young Chechen killed and more than a dozen badly injured. Why do they do it? "Because [Hitler] gave us the holy idea of National Socialism," says Zakhar.

Moscow police have promised to take "necessary measures" to prevent skinhead violence on Hitler's birthday. But one policeman, who impassively observed Zakhar and his friends hoist "Skins against Bush" posters near the McDonald's in Pushkin Square, didn't seem too worried. When asked why no "measures" were being taken against this group, he shrugged: "Where do you see any skinheads here? It's a rally to support domestic chicken producers against American imports."

Ten years ago skinheads numbered no more than a few dozen in Moscow. Now the Interior Ministry estimates that there are 10,000 skinheads and other neo-Nazis in the country. Independent analysts put the figure at closer to 50,000. No official data on skinhead violence exist, but an estimate by journalists and foreign embassies suggests that skinhead assaults have left more than a dozen foreigners dead and 100 hospitalized in Moscow since May 2000. Similar attacks have taken place in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Novgorod. Russian officials dismiss these incidents as simple hooliganism but can't deny that they have become more common. "There is a sharp increase in physical and verbal attacks against foreigners," says a senior U.S. embassy official.

The situation has become so bad that last month 18 foreign students, mainly from African and Asian countries, studying at Rostov Medical University chose to leave Russia for good. They had been subjected to repeated beatings and insults by local skinheads, while the police turned a blind eye. At a conference held last week in Moscow to discuss dangers to foreign students, representatives of Russian universities said that in the face of police indifference they would have to hire private guards and form self-defense teams to protect their 70,000 foreign students.

The skinheads also target non-Slav minorities from the Caucasus, whom Russians disparagingly refer to as "blacks," and Jews. Last October, a crowd of 300 skinheads smashed a market in south Moscow, beating the "black" merchants, then moved on to the Sevastopol Hotel to attack Afghan refugees staying there. Four people were killed and more than 20 badly injured.

Dressed in bomber or camouflage jackets and heavy steel-tipped boots, skinheads prowl in packs of three to five "fighters" armed with clubs and steel rods. These groups can merge quickly to form mobs of several hundred for major assaults, which seem too well-organized to be spontaneous.

Many Russians hold politicians accountable for skinhead violence. "Why blame the kids?" asks Sergei Antonov, an unemployed Moscow economist in his early 40s. "Blame the government, which has condemned Russians to poverty while the blacks and foreigners are lording it over us." Today, most skinheads are still in their teens, warns Antonov, but soon "they'll take dominant positions as they become adults. You'll see their impact a decade later." In fact, their impact is already clear in Pushkin Square.

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