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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Oh, Those Hospitable Russians!

Writing for Transitions Online Nadezhda Pitulova, a student at Moscow State University’s School of Journalism, reports on that good old famous Russian hospitality:

The lessons of World War II, in which the Soviet Union lost more than 20 million people while battling the forces of fascism and Nazism, seem lost on Roman, a 30-year-old shaven-headed ultranationalist from Moscow.

“All non-Russians should be ousted from Russian territories. Minorities should live in their own zones. Yakuts should stay in the Sakha Republic. Chechens in Chechnya, Russians in Russia,” he said.

Armed with brass knuckles and metal rods, sporting clean black boots and swastika armbands, Russia’s extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis have typically been disaffected young men in the big cities, fueled by alcohol or drugs. But Roman, deputy director of a manufacturing firm in Moscow, is a good example of how those patterns are changing.

“In the past two or three years, the social structure of active neo-Nazi groups has changed significantly. Before they were coming from troubled families, while now they’re students at prestigious universities and sons of engineers, service members, police officers,” said Galina Kozhevnikova, an analyst at the SOVA Center think tank, which tracks extremist activity.

Such activity is on the rise in Russia, and the changing background of the extremists roughly mirrors changes in the broader society, as the average wage has nearly tripled, confounding the notion that increased poverty and deprivation fuel racism. “Being part of the neo-Nazi movement can guarantee lifelong opportunities. They can count on employment, PR, and legal and financial support in prison,” Kozhevnikova said. While there is no proof that neo-Nazis are supported at the highest levels of business or government, activists say there is plenty of evidence that they are at least countenanced by law enforcement. “There are a number of instances of strong ties between ultranationalists and law enforcement agencies, including studying at police schools, working for the police, being related to someone in the police force,” Kozhevnikova said. She noted that the founder of the notorious neo-Nazi gang Mad Crowd 13, Dmitry Borovikov, was the son of a “a high-profile police official.”

Mad Crowd 13 members have been charged with murdering an African student in 2006, killing a Chinese citizen, and attacking an Armenian citizen in 2003. Most of the gang members were detained shortly after Borovikov was fatally wounded while being arrested last year. Mikhail is a 22-year-old information technology major at one of Moscow’s best universities. He said his hatred of foreigners started in high school. “When I saw that those newcomers didn’t behave the way Russians did, I started looking for ways to show them that we live differently,” he says, explaining that he tried talking first but resorted to violence when the “newcomers” did not change their ways. Mikhail doesn’t drink vodka, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t use drugs. He calls his ideology “common nationalism,” a reaction against those who “perfidiously encroach upon something” he loves. “If you call yourself ethnic Russian, then you’re a nationalist. Nationalism isn’t fascism or Nazism, but love for your nation,” said Mikhail, who couldn’t estimate the number of times he has beaten up non-Slavs. "We rough up until the moment we see sincere repentance.”


For his part, Roman calls himself a “guerrilla” in a war against all “alien diasporas” that come in great numbers to this country, with its 80 percent ethnic Russian population. According to the State Statistics Agency, more than 215,000 immigrants came to Russia between January and September 2007, the overwhelming majority from Central Asia, the Caucasus, Ukraine, and Belarus. One unofficial estimate puts the number of illegal immigrants in Russia at 8 million to 12 million. Jews or anyone with dark features from the impoverished Caucasus regions are particularly unwelcome.

“Everyone everywhere hates churki [mud people] and Jews. Chechens slaughtered 60,000 Russians! If they could, people would start wiping them from the face of the earth.” said Roman, who never kills his victims, preferring to stab or break bones. “Younger neo-Nazis are fools. They get carried away and are sometimes ready for murder,” he added. “We act like gangs and never have a set plan of attack. We agree on a ‘hunt’ when playing Reich [pouring out onto the street shouting pro-Hitler slogans] or hanging out in a pub. We just get out and pick an alien in the street that we like,” Roman said, estimating that he has been on about 20 such hunts. In the first 11 months of 2007, racist or skinhead violence in Russia increased by 19 percent over the same period in 2006, resulting in 57 members of ethnic minorities being stabbed to death and at least 546 attacked, according to the SOVA Center.

State figures do not count the number of isolated ultranationalist groups in the country, but human rights groups, including the independent Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, reported 50,000 individual extreme nationalists in 2005, compared with a few dozen in the early 1990s. Among the biggest extremist groups are the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, Moscow Hammer Skin, Skin Legion, and United Brigades 88, a coded reference to Heil Hitler, as the double “8” refers to “H,” the eighth letter of the alphabet. Their memberships include up to 10,000 in the Russian capital and some 15,000 in St. Petersburg, with hundreds in smaller cities. And those smaller cities are seeing an increasing share of the violence. “Skinheads formerly were active only in big cities and in the towns of the southern part of Russia, where ethnic tensions are very acute, but today this movement is spreading over regional and county centers,” a recent report by the human rights bureau says.

Meanwhile, political leaders have failed to stem the tide of violence because they “frankly don’t recognize a neo-Nazi movement as a serious political problem,” Kozhevnikova said. Human rights activists say that ethnic and even racist language has been grossly exploited by high-ranking politicians. And some major political parties to some degree embrace xenophobia, a 2006 report by the SOVA Center says. “The problem isn't so much that some officials support the neo-Nazis, it's that official actions are aimed at catering to nationalist voters and instilling paranoia and fear in the electorate for political gain.” said Niсkolai Butkevich, research director of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union. The Liberal Democrats, for instance, have a long record of anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric: in the previous parliament, their leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, suggested using death squads to kill off entire Chechen villages. In the recent elections to the State Duma, the party passed the 7 percent threshold to stay in parliament.

Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party is not above such appeals, either. Shortly after the 2006 murder of an African student in St. Petersburg in which members of Mad Crowd 13 were charged, United Russia member Alexander Nevzorov commented that foreigners “can also get into fights, insult someone, or seduce someone's wife.”

The Jewish union’s 2006 report suggests that official indifference to the plight of non-Slav victims simply reflects public opinion, “which tacitly endorses neo-Nazi views.”


It’s not only the demagoguery of contemporary Russian politics or the corruption of law enforcement that feed the growth of extremist violence. Many ultranationalists say their behavior has its roots in a long tradition of defending what is truly Russian. “Just look at the icons in church,” Mikhail said. “Most of them portray saints with swords and spears.” The Rev. Alexander Volkov of St. Tatiana Church in Moscow said a superficial knowledge of Orthodox Christianity provides nationalists and extremists with easy cover. “When people lack simple knowledge of what Orthodoxy and the icon paintings mean, it becomes easier to take the view that there are ‘natives’ and there are ‘aliens.’ Nationalism is a serious threat. It has a tendency to combine misleading opinions with false ideas about religion and faith,” Volkov said. “Every kind of extremism should raise serious concerns, since Orthodoxy promotes the values of prudence, moderation, and peace,” he said. The priest predicted that ultranationalism will only spread until the government adopts and enforces a humane policy toward minorities. Otherwise, he said, “We may face an avalanche that would sweep away everything.”


Anonymous said...

The emergence of radical nationalist organizations in Russia is only a logical result of Russia's humiliation in the wake of its defeat in the Cold War (like Germany after the Versailles Treaty) aggravated by a flow of migrants from the former Soviet Republics where "liberation from Russian oppression" (and sometimes from Russian population as well - which was either exterminated, or driven out, or both) resulted in an economic collapse. Many of those migrants are involved in criminal activities and drug traffic; however, the media, while ballyhooing every case of a migrant having been beaten or murdered by Russian nationalists virtually ignores the cases of ethnic Russians beaten or murdered by migrants. Must Russians wait until migrant youth starts mass riots with car burnings like those underway in France?

Anonymous said...

That's just a cop out anonymous.

There is long wide vein of this in Russian history. Look up the Black Hundreds and the multiple massacres of Jews by Cossacks in the Pale of Settlement in Tsarist Russia for but a few examples.

During the 'brotherly paradise' of the Soviet Union during the Reign of Terror in the late 1930's a large number/percentage of the victims were 'suspect' ethnic minorities ie Poles, Germans etc

Even during the war this went on eg the Tartars, Inguish etc

In Chechnya some 1 million are estimated to have died in that conflict, plenty of them non-combatant civilians, with numerous reports of human rights abuses having occured.

The Putin administration plays the time honoured Soviet/Russian paranoid 'us' and 'them'card. Russia encircled and threatened by hostile nations and an enemy within. They positivly whip up a state of insular nationalism.

They also turn virtually a blind eye to the activities of the largest number of active neo-Nazis in any nation on the planet. Why ? Because they are politically useful ie ' look, if you don't back us you'll get them, we're the only ones thast keep them in line'

A further example, during that recent demonstration in Moscow of gay rights activists the police turned a blind eye as these activists were attacked by a neo-Nazis, who were on camera being blessed by Orthodox priests before going on the rampage.