Russia: racism on the rise

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski

Open Democracy, UK
April 26 2006

A spate of attacks against ethnic minorities and African students
reflects a wider growth of nationalist political sentiment, says
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski.

Anjani Kumar is a 23-year-old student at St Petersburg’s Mechnikoff
Medical Academy. As he was returning to his hostel one night, a group
of youths attacked him, stabbing him in the neck.

Zaut Tutov is the minister of culture for the autonomous republic of
Kabardino-Balkaria in the northern Caucasus. He was taking his daughter
home from dance classes when fifteen skinheads surrounded him, shouting
“Russia for the Russians”, and beat him up.

Both Anjani Kumar and Zaut Tutov were lucky: they survived. Dozens
of other victims of racially motivated assaults over the past fifteen
months did not. Recent victims were a nine-year-old Tajik girl in St
Petersburg, a Chinese street-trader in Vladivostok, and students from
Guinea-Bissau and Peru who were killed in Voronezh. In the central
Russian city of Volzhsky, a man and a woman died when skinheads armed
with steel rods attacked a gypsy camp.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist and writer who has
reported on Russia for leading German, Swiss and Polish newspapers
since 1989. He is the author of the book Planet Russia, published in
Poland in 2005.

In what appear to be the latest cases, a 17-year-old ethnic Armenian
university student died on 22 April after being stabbed on a Moscow
metro station platform, and a young Tajik man died from knife wounds
on 24 April after he and his companion were attacked while walking
in Moscow.

“We have been living in Moscow for nearly ten years”, a Tajik friend
told me. “We experienced no fear when we arrived. We felt at home,
despite the anti-Caucasian sentiment following the fighting in
Chechnya. It’s different now. We are worried that the Asian features
of our teenaged children might lead to them being beaten up. I told
them to be especially careful if they’re out late or visiting friends
in remote neighbourhoods.”

Even in a country with 140 million people, the number of attacks is
alarming. In 2005, twenty-eight people died in hate attacks in Russia,
and 366 were wounded. The number of murders in 2006 is already well
into double figures. Human-rights activists say these figures hide
the true number, and that people of different races, skin colours
and anti-fascist groups are all targets of street violence.

Groups calling for Russia to be cleansed of foreigners, and using
fascist salutes and emblems, are now active in nearly every major
Russian city. On 20 April, the birthday of Adolf Hitler, most black
students living in Russia spent the day at home rather than risk
being caught outside by skinheads.

The members of these gangs are generally young, aged from thirteen to
thirty, according to a report by the website They tend to
come from low-income families and live in rundown suburbs. Around 1,000
skinheads live in the Moscow region, most of them outside the capital
itself. A majority of attacks take place on suburban trains and in
neighbourhoods away from the bustling main streets of the city centre.

The statistics in St Petersburg are even more alarming. The local
governor, Valentina Matviyenko, has been unable to stop the city on
the River Neva earning a reputation for hate crimes. The twenty large
skinhead gangs in St Petersburg have an estimated 12,000 members.

Across Russia, there are thought to be as many as 70,000 skinheads.

Small Russian towns are covered in nationalist graffiti, swastikas
and slogans like “Russia for the Russians” and “Death to Jews”.

The authorities have been unable or unwilling to deal with the
explosion in these gangs, and some minorities have set up self-defence
groups in response. At Moscow’s Peoples’ Friendship University
(formerly Patrice Lumumba University), African students have set up
their own self-defence groups.

The roots of violence

Much of the problem dates from the late 1980s, the years of Soviet
collapse. At that time, members of the Pamyat group dressed in black
and openly paraded their anti-semitism. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the
populist leader of the Liberal Democratic party, achieved unexpectedly
good results in the 1993 parliamentary elections on the back of
nationalist rhetoric; his party came in first, capturing nearly a
quarter of the votes cast.

The two wars in Chechnya and a series of terrorist attacks on
targets across Russia fuelled ill-feeling towards Chechens and other
Caucasians. Public opinion has also turned against Ukrainians,
Georgians, Poles and Moldovans for their roles in the various
“colour”, or “flower”, revolutions that have swept through a number
of Russia’s neighbours. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians have also
been criticised, thanks to the perceived prejudice and discrimination
against Russian minorities in the Baltic states.

The change and uncertainty that the collapse of the Soviet Union caused
turned Russia into fertile ground for racism. But some journalists and
opposition activists believe the alarming recent growth in xenophobic
gangs is the result of something far more sinister. They think some
interests are benefiting from the rise in nationalist sentiments, and
argue that some politicians and secret services might be manipulating
events as part of their struggle for power, wealth and influence. Some
point out that powerful interest groups in the Kremlin are looking for
ways to keep power in the same hands even after the end of Vladimir
Putin’s presidency in 2008.

Many Russians, especially those with memories of the horrors of the
Nazi invasion, wonder why Putin’s government is so tolerant of those
who use slogans reminiscent of Hitler’s Germany. In his column for
, Georgy Bovt, the editor of Profil magazine, writes of
his suspicion that skinheads are being used to intimidate and frighten
the public into sticking with the establishment at the polls in 2008.

Dmitri Rogozin, the former leader of the Rodina (Motherland) faction
in the Duma and an enthusiastic supporter of nationalist politics,
argues something similar. He sees the skinhead violence playing
into the hands of those in the Kremlin at the next parliamentary
and presidential elections. In a television interview in March, he
predicted that politics would be “a struggle between the authorities
and the fascists. This would help them to sell these undemocratic
elections to the west. And as there were no real fascists in Russia,
they were having to create them.”

Such a game, if the conspiracy theorists are right, would be extremely
dangerous. Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of the recently founded Public
Chamber (an advisory body set up by the government as a bridge between
the state and civil society after the 2004 Beslan school siege by
Chechen guerrillas) believes the country’s unity is at stake. “The
ultimate result of slogans like ‘Russia for the Russians’,” he said
in a recent speech, “is slogans like ‘Tatarstan for the Tatars’ or
‘Kabardino-Balkaria for the Kabardins and Balkarians’.”

The Kremlin’s critics are even more outspoken in their warnings. They
say Russia’s multiculturalism, its future as a civilised state and
even its continued existence as they know it could be under threat.

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