Naziq has decided to go back to Bishkek. Her mother is returning to her clinic in Moscow. Everyday she’ll walk the path where her daughter was viciously attacked.
Skinheads have been on a murderous tirade in 2008. Fifty-seven people have already been killed and 116 injured as a result of hate crimes – double the figure for 2007, said Moscow Human Rights Bureau Director Aleksandr Brod. Eleven Kyrgyz have been killed in Moscow in 2008, Consul of the Kyrgyz Republic Daniyar Syrdybaev said, while 14 were killed in all of Russia in 2007. Recently, a Tajik and Kabardino-Balkaria resident were murdered in the capital. Two people were convicted of murdering an Armenian and Azeri in the Altay region. Four Tajiks were severely beaten in Yekaterinburg. A young Roma and his 1.5-year-old daughter were killed in the Volgograd region. And the list goes on.
It would be wrong to say that Russia has declared war on the Kyrgyz alone. Azeris, Tajiks and Armenians have also been subject to hate crimes over the past few years. The Kyrgyz are particularly targeted as they have proven less likely to resist attacks, whereas no reports have been made about skinheads attacking Chechens, Dargins or the Ingush. Besides being thought of as more aggressive, the North Caucasus peoples are also often mistaken for South Slavs. This is the primary reason they are seldom targeted as skinheads usually use quick visual screening to handpick their victims.
This screening process often goes wrong and victimizes individuals who are not the traditional targets of Russian nationalists. Last autumn, the son of an Iranian diplomatic adviser was murdered in Moscow. A young ethnic Russian boy, Vasiliy Poduzov, was also killed in a hate crime. A group of schoolchildren in Yekaterinburg thought he was a migrant. In late 2007, a group of skinheads killed Sergey Nikolaev, a world-class chess master, who friends called modest, kind and respectable. Newspapers wrote the “Chess Star of Russia’s Asian North Has Faded.” The autumn day when Nikolaev was killed, 26 others suffered in ethnically motivated attacks in Moscow.
Statistics show that nationalist groups don’t care if potential victims are Russian citizens. They’re concerned with ethnicity. Thus Russia’s non-Slavic peoples are often victimized, such as Buryats (ex-boxing champion Bato Batuev was stabbed twice in Moscow in early January), Kalmyks and Tartars, who have had a near-model union with Russia for centuries. Journalists and human rights advocates warned the situation would take a turn for the worse several years ago, saying skinheads would first target migrant workers, then gradually non-Slavic Russian citizens and ultimately specific groups of ethnic Russians, such as gays, anti-fascists and punks.
Journalist Sayana Mongush didn’t think she would be attacked just one year after she reported on the murder of the 19-year-old Tuvinian student Yumbuu Chechek. But in December 2007, Mongush was attacked in the Saint Petersburg metro by a group of skinheads. Eight young boys beat Mongush, who was old enough to be their mother. She swung at them with her heavy, professional camera and took several photos of the incident accidentally. “They stood next to me screaming: ‘Leave Russia!’ They hit me in the stomach, head and legs,” Mongush told KP in an interview over the phone. She hoped her case would be handled by the Saint Petersburg Prosecutor’s Office because she headed the Tuvinian government’s press center. “I simply had a run-in with Russian fascist fundamentalism,” Mongush said.
It’s difficult to dissect the issue to understand why this is happening. Russians don’t have a history of xenophobia. They have always been considered caring and helpful by minority peoples. (And this is evident as Russia didn’t assimilate 85 peoples.) So what happened? Why are non-Russians so afraid to walk our streets?
Skinheads have already killed 57 people in Russia in 2008. Why are citizens of former Soviet republics afraid to roam Russia’s streets?
I’m riding the same metro line in Saint Petersburg where Sayana Mongush was beaten in December 2007. I see Tajiks sitting in the corner of the car quietly with their caps pulled down over their eyes. I also see peoples from the North Caucasus staring ahead fearlessly, prepared for a confrontation. And I blush. This is xenophobia.
Everyone has these feelings – only the degree varies from person to person.
You can learn to restrain yourself. You can turn your back on skinheads attacking a migrant, or scream “Hit me instead!” as did an elderly Russian woman in the same metro car as Mongush. But one thing is clear. If internal limitations aren’t set, it’s easy to get carried away on both a personal and national level. Deep down many people have the “fascist seed.” It only needs to be fed. There’s nothing simpler.
An incident in the history of the Polish city Kielce is a model demonstration of how xenophobia works.
It was 1946. World War II was over and nearly all Europe’s Jews had been killed. The world had learned the horrid truth of the Nazi deathcamps Auschwitz and Treblinka. But new pogroms began. And these were orchestrated by Poles – not Hitler’s army.
A young Pole went to visit his sister in secret in a neighboring town. He returned home three days later. Afraid his parents would reprimand him for his actions, he decided to lie. He told them he had been held captive in a cellar by a group of strangers who spoke a foreign tongue.
The boy walked through Kielce with a group of local men, looking for the home where he had been held captive. He pointed to the first Jewish home he saw. His elders paid no mind that the house didn’t have a cellar. Forty-six people died as a result.
Of course, similar tragedies have transpired in the newly independent states – specifically in Karabakh, Transnistria and Fergana. Russians are all too familiar with these stories.
Xenophobia isn’t the biggest problem facing Russian society, says the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, but it’s grave nonetheless. Forty-four percent of Russians disagree with the slogan, “Russia for Russians,” while the remaining 56 percent went from Soviet internationalism to Russian nationalism in only 15 years. How did this happen?
Fashion? Ideology? Technology?
It wouldn’t be fair to say Western winds swept this xenophobic tendency into Russia like a belated fashion trend. Figures show that British skinheads are louder than they are dangerous. This simply isn’t the case in Russia. We also can’t claim xenophobia is related to state ideology. It would be hard-going for the government to influence Russian skinheads with a median age of 16-18.
Look at what’s happening around the world. European politicians ended SS parades in the Baltics, yet youth attended a meeting en masse commemorating soldiers who fought on the Nazi front in Hungary – not old men. Anti-Semites attempted to organize a march in the Jewish district on the anniversary of the Night of Broken Glass in the Czech Republic. And Germany reports over 500 attacks against foreigners each year despite its heavy conscience after WWII.
The strategy of attacking foreigners where assailants pinpoint a target, lie in wait, commit the crime and then disperse was developed in Russia – not the West. Experts say Dmitriy Bobrov of Saint Petersburg’s Shultz-88 gang devised the tactic.
Russia’s skinhead leaders certainly aren’t dumb. They know their attacks have nothing to do with fighting migrant workers who are stealing jobs. First and foremost they are engaging in propaganda and terror. Skinhead ideologists used to say that financing was an integral key to the skinhead revolution. But today they have stopped telling their followers to search victims for money and valuables. They no longer tell them to commit greater crimes as adults with the use of firearms. It seems these groups have found a number of financial backers to support their cause.
It’s hard to believe that this is happening in Russia. The country’s benevolent relations with minority peoples is a historical fact. Russia did not assimilate 85 minority peoples who freely exist on Russian territory today. What happened?
Experts blame the collapse of the Soviet Union and sparks of nationalism in adjacent republics where Russians were blamed for a range of historical crimes. Even in the early 1990s, social psychologists warned that demanding daily penance from Russians would result in a nationalist backlash.
And the parents of today’s skinheads have been dealt the hardest blow as a result. How did the younger generations get caught up in the rhetoric? It’s often thought that these young boys are simply acting out on conversations they heard at home as children. But it’s unlikely so many children heard their parents blaming Kyrgyz yard-keepers for Russia’s woes.
Motive for revenge
Who awakened the beast in these small boys? Two Chechen wars and numerous terrorist acts? It’s true that nearly all Russia’s police force toured the country’s hot spots and shared their impressions on national TV. But Africans, Latin Americans and Chinese didn’t commit terrorist acts and are still murdered each year in Russia.
Are migrants at fault for misbehaving on Russian soil? Partially. But as far as I can tell this has only happened once – in the case of Artur Ryno who studied icon painting in Moscow. He later confessed to numerous ethnic-related murders. Ryno says he was beaten by Chechens in Yekaterinburg and ended up in the hospital with a serious head trauma. The result was a vicious hatred for non-Russian peoples. This may be true. But his roommate Misha Sagnadji-Goryachev, a Kalmyk, said he never felt that Ryno discriminated against him.
“If we ever argued, it was only about who would do the dishes,” Misha said nervously.
Statistics show that in 99 of 100 cases, violent nationalists do not have a history of conflicting with other peoples, and have no personal motives for revenge. The days when skinheads felt justified as saviors of Russia’s national integrity are also long gone. Numerous individuals have been sentenced for committing hate crimes. Ideologists receive 3-6 years in prison, while murderers are sentenced to 8-17.
Is a “skinculture” to blame? It turns out there is an entire skinhead culture with its own poetry and music. Ryno listened to Russian nationalist music between painting icons. The songs are girlish and sound similar to children’s propaganda music at Soviet youth camps.
Is the Internet the heart of the problem? The Internet plays a tremendous role. Most skinheads learn the ABCs of street fighting on the Web. Some skinheads take advantage of video streaming, uploading footage of Moscow’s latest executions onto nationalist Web sites. The films are shot using mobile phones. However, I found no evidence that the footage brings revenue to nationalist groups. Skinheads are somehow inspired to make the films through daredevil fervour and persuasion. But who is inspiring them?
Is the press to blame for its negligence or lack of insight? I know I made a grave error 6 years ago. I thought an up and coming nationalist leader was a clown. I didn’t report how he was meeting with a prominent Russian nationalist at a vacant lot near his work. Today he’s conducting nationalist marches filled with extremist speeches followed by shouts of: “Glory to Rus!”
Today’s youth are suffering from a bad case of aggression. If they didn’t have the opportunity to become skinheads, then what would they do? Go to the army? That doesn’t seem like an original-enough option. The Sova informational and analytical center reports there are over 60-65,000 skinheads in today’s Russia.
The wave of radical nationalism in Russia isn’t just the result of marches. That would make things too easy. Nationalists recruit everyone who attends the marches regardless of age, teach them to throw their arms in the air like the Hitler-Jugend and send them off to battle. The young boys who go hunting at metro stations in the evenings don’t genuinely understand what nationalism means.
Let’s take young Aleksandr Seregin for example. Today, Seregin is an inmate at Ikshanskaya Children’s Prison. He was convicted last year of killing a Kyrgyz yard-keeper. Seregin had never attended any nationalist marches. The evening of the murder, he met friends at a local metro for a beer. Initially, the boys decided they would beat up a gay man. But they couldn’t find one in the vicinity. So they opted for an African. He was too fast. So all 10 boys attacked a 30-year-old Kyrgyz yard-keeper who worked at a daycare center. He was stabbed 42 times. The yard-keeper was only two steps away from safety. He almost made it to the entrance of the daycare center. Seregin remembers screaming, “Beat the blockhead,” and kicking him. But the court was able to prove that he had stabbed the Kyrgyz man at least once. He was sentenced to 9 years in prison.
Seregin had never left Moscow before being sent to jail. He had never had any problems with Kyrgyz people. He also didn’t have a computer or Internet access where he could read nationalist propaganda. It turns out his friends had taken him to meet an older man who taught the boys how to fight and promised to take them to the shooting range. He also issued them ID cards – assistants of State Duma deputies. Seregin was sent to a children’s prison because of his young age. One friend was sentenced to 14 years in jail, and another to 3 years. The older man wasn’t indicted.
Psychologists have identified a common trait in all these young boys. The majority don’t have fathers which is why they are attracted to gang leaders. Seregin, though, was an exception to the rule. He was also a student at a polytechnic institute.
The tide is changing. Poor uneducated children are not the only ones susceptible to bouts of radical nationalism. More and more middle-class children are engaging in hate crimes. They’ve never had the problem of not being able to go to expensive sports clubs, and they’re certainly not competing with migrant workers for jobs. They can pick any profession they choose, but instead they indulge in radical nationalism.
Interestingly, I found the following text on the Web site of the Russian Movement for Combating Illegal Immigration: “Every Russian nationalist must be a shining example. Go make a career for yourself. If possible, enroll at an elite university. A degree and knowledge will open doors for you. Get a high-paying job and take on an influential role in society. Russia needs elite leaders.”
It seems more like a conspiracy than anything else. The atmosphere is changing in Russia and taking hold of the entire country. The problem isn’t computer games, or the violent TV our children watch before dinner instead of cartoons. It’s today’s heroes. Today our children look up to people who take the law into their own hands, like Ossetian Valeriy Kaloev or Saint Petersburg boxer Aleksandr Kuznetsov who killed a pedophile on New Year’s Eve who allegedly touched his son. But when people take the law into their own hands, it means they don’t believe the state will protect them.
In the two earlier segments of our story, we tried to understand why citizens of former Soviet republics fear Russia’s streets, and why Russia is suffering from a bout of radical nationalism.
“Go ahead and write it!” said Nikolay Bondarik, commander of the Saint Petersburg Russian Guard. “I wouldn’t intervene if I saw skinheads attacking a Tajik! It would be stupid for me as a leader of Russia’s nationalist and patriotic movement to suffer at the hands of skinheads!”
I went to see Bondarik because the only way to stop skinheads from acting out against non-Slavs is to ask nationalists who are recognized by the movement to appeal to the masses. It would have been wonderful if Dmitry Bobrov had made the announcement, but he’s in prison. His contacts were frightened when I explained the situation over email, so we had to go with the most available option.
We chose Bondarik from those who aren’t in jail. He’s a nationalist with a long history of “patriotism.” He was one of the first people convicted of a hate crime in Russia in 1994.
Our operation was surprisingly easy. Bondarik was very composed, likely because he planned on being sent to jail the following day for holding an unsanctioned “Russian March.” This is what he asked us to pass along to the skinheads:
“Dear Friends! If you are genuine Russian patriots who care with all your heart about the fate of the Russian people and our country, then quit the foolishness! Russia will be no better off should you attack a Tajik with your friends and get sent to prison for 10 years. If you want to help your people, then join patriotic political parties. Yes! You must take part in meetings, pickets and distribute leaflets. I am speaking to you as my brothers. I will be sorry if your fate is ruined and you end up spending your near future in prison. No one will be any worse off but you.”
Maybe his message will affect someone. But that’s unlikely. The young boys who go hunting for non-Russians at local metro stations don’t want to get organized or attend meetings. They have a different mentality than the police force, which consolidated its efforts to catch Bondarik the following day in Saint Petersburg. The number 6,000 policemen comes to mind… Heavy jeeps lined up along Nevsky Prospect. Small “State Electrics” vans hid in the alleys. Armed police were packed inside. Bondarik wanted his arrest and trial to be a loud scandal, but things didn’t go his way. He was caught so quickly the telephone operators didn’t have time to turn on their cameras. There were about 12 policemen for each participant in the Russian March.
Standing there, waiting for the participants to be dispersed, I thought that if so many policemen monitored the metro we’d have no problems with skinheads attacking non-Slavs.
An elevator, Akhmet and a dog
It’s impossible to send all skinheads to jail, just as it’s impossible to kill all foreigners.
“There are 25 million of us non-Russians here,” Tuvinian journalist Sayana Mongush said. “What are they going to do with us all? A long time ago I could have complained to the District Communist Party. But what can I do now?”
The problem has nothing to do with the lack of a complaint book. The Strasbourg Court could easily serve as a substitute for the District Communist Party. But Russia no longer has a governmental organ that focuses only on ethic-related issues. After the Ministry of Ethnic Affairs was dismantled in 2002, the Ministry of Regional Development began to handle these issues.
Tolerance is the polar opposite of xenophobia. It’s a unfortunate concept as discredited as the words “patriot,” “liberal” and “democrat.” Of course, it’s impossible to force a nation to fall in love with foreigners over night, but there are solutions. For three years a special program has operated in Saint Petersburg — one of Russia’s most xenophobic cities — encouraging tolerance. The program has printed posters with calenders about how to live peacefully. Maybe that will help.
It’s wrong to think that nothing is being done to promote tolerance in Russia. An entire state program existed until 2005 that was managed by top European specialists from the European Commission (TASIS). I took a look at their textbook. It was sadly upsetting.
For example: “A young boy named Akhmet moved to Moscow with his parents not long ago, and became friends with a local girl named Vera. They visited each other at home and drank tea. Several days later Vera greeted Akhmet in the elevator after returning home from walking her dog. But Akhmet didn’t respond. Instead, he crowded into the the corner of the elevator and stood there quietly. Reason: Akhmet’s religion considers dogs to be dirty animals. Lesson: Vera should have left the elevator right away so as not to offend Akhmet.” They don’t mention that Akhmet lives in Moscow and needs to get used to the Russian way of life.
This option might suit the British, but certainly not the Russians. The British went as far as refusing to use “The Three Little Pigs” at schools to appease their large Muslim minority. That’s how most programs work in the West. But that simply won’t pass here.
We can’t fight xenophobia on separate streets or cities. We need to clean the air throughout the entire country. First, we need to solve our problems with migration and crimes against ethnic Russians. We can’t sit back and rely on the government to fix the situation. Xenophobia is growing like a cancer. It’s so widespread in Russia it’s difficult to determine where it starts and where it ends. What’s the solution? We need to educate ourselves and our youth. This goes for everyone — our policemen, teachers, judges, journalists and doctors. We need to set daily limitations for ourselves to change the way we think and the situation at large.
Neo-Nazi guinea pigs
How can we teach tolerance to people like skinheads who are so greatly infected with xenophobia?
We need to teach children while they are young and still don’t know anything about nationalism. The older generations still remember Soviet internationalism. They’re not the problem. When we look at the problem from this angle, it doesn’t seem so bad. There may be hope after all.
1. “Only with the help of athletics!” said State Duma Vice Speaker, Olympic champion Svetlana Zhurova. That’s a spectacular idea! So I asked young Aleksandr Seregin what he thought, who was convicted of killing a Kyrgyz yard-keeper together with his friends. If you had been playing sports everyday, would you have searched the streets so adamantly for non-Russians? He raised his head and asked sincerely: “What else would we have done on the weekends?”
2. What if we take a group of skinheads to Uzbekistan or the Kyrgyz Republic to see how locals treat Russians? Greeting them with open arms, feeding them local dishes and joyously showing them around…
It’s useless, I was told at the Israeli Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. A group of young neo-Nazis were brought to the museum from Austria. The exhibitions had absolutely no effect — the pictures of dead Jewish children and their burning bodies. The whole week they were laughing about how they had gotten a free trip to Israel on Jewish money.
3. Should we return to our Soviet past and children’s camps when we learned about other peoples and skin colors? Seregin only spoke with one non-Russian his entire life before the murder. Should we create multinational schools? Pedagogues learned, interestingly enough, that children from normal schools are far more tolerant than their peers at specially integrated schools. Thus, multinational schools aren’t a panacea. Xenophobia can only be conquered by culture.
4. Here’s a good idea that’s popular in Latvia and Estonia. Russian children are sent to camps in the summer to study the local language. This could work someday, but personally I don’t know a single family that would send their child to Ingushetia or Chechnya.
5. “We need to write more about outstanding members of other nationalities,” said Tuvinian Ondar-Chimit. That’s not a bad idea. But I don’t know any newspapers that would print the materials free of charge. I also don’t think skinheads would read the articles.
6. What about cinema? Director Tatyana Lioznova said in an interview that she included positive images of Germans in the classic film “70 Moments of Spring”, depicting them as kind and sharp people so the audience would realize Nazis and Germans were not one and the same. Only one film in recent years has made audiences feel for a victim from the North Caucasus, Mikhalkov’s “12.” Other modern hits like “Brat” have depicted non-Russians in a negative light.
This is why the formula for tolerance as presented by Director of the Ethnology and Anthropology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences Valeriy Tishkov is too far outside our realm of comprehension. But who said we need to aspire to it? (“Tolerance isn’t when the residents of a city or village are OK with a mosque or synagogue being built near their orthodox church, it’s when they build the temple together with the members of the other faith.)
Turning back the clock
Last summer I had a strange conversation in Tatarstan. It was quite an idyllic moment. It was evening by the river. We were all sitting and laughing and eating shashlyk.
“Everything’s great, a Tatar was made head of city TV!” my colleague in Kazan said gleefully. He thinks that he’s an internationalist.
“And why would it be so bad if a Russian had been appointed?” I asked surprised.
“Well it’s our home here!” he said.
My next question caught him off-guard. “And ‘our home’ is where?” I asked.
This is a difficult question to answer.
This year we approached the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Armenian-Azeri conflict over Nagorniy Karabakh sparked a cycle of xenophobia that hasn’t yet passed.
It’s no longer important what sent the empire tumbling down. Those days are behind us. Today Russia stands on a new threshold. And what’s happening today could lead to another dreadful collapse. The anger felt by non-Slavic peoples grows with each coffin sent home from Moscow or Saint Petersburg, as does the anger of Russians who live in national republics and are forced to play second fiddle in society due to the color of their skin. The technologies of the collapses coincide to the very last detail. A country is only as strong as its weakest link. Is this just another virus of instability injected into Russia by evildoers in the West?
Let’s leave the conspiracy theories to the political scientists. It’s not important who’s responsible for our current bout of radical nationalism. What’s important is that a country that once conquered fascism wasn’t prepared to fight the rhetoric again.