The Guardian reports on the pandemic racism that is sweeping Russia, being fanned by the Kremlin as a basis for whipping up imperial hysteria against Georgia so as to justify taking all possible measures to prevent it from joining NATO and the freedom of the West. The Guardian draws parallels to German fascism; perhaps what will ultimately distinguish the Neo-Soviet Union from the USSR is fascism replacing communism.
Pogroms, commonplace in Russia from 1880 to 1921, have started again. In the past such attacks focused on the Jewish community, but now they are targeting people from the Caucasus, central Asia and Mongolia, and Roms. Until this spring murders of non-Slavs (33 in the first nine months of 2006) were just part of the everyday xenophobia of modern Russia. But now things have taken a turn for the worse.
In May, in the town of Kharagun (in the Chita region), fighting broke out between Russians and Azerbaijanis, causing one death. A month later, in the village of Targuis (Irkutsk) an anti-Asian pogrom ended with 75 Chinese being driven out. A few days later the inhabitants of Salsk (Rostov) turned on the local Dagestani population, resulting in another fatality. From the far east to the south a wave of hatred is sweeping through the Russian Federation, where 50 nationalities coexist along with ethnic Russians and 17 million immigrants. “Ethnic intolerance, fear and hatred of immigrants have increased so much since the second Chechen war  that Russia has become the most xenophobic country in Europe,” the sociologist Lev Goudko says.
For five days from August 31 to September 4, Kondopoga, an industrial town near the Finnish border, was the scene of an orgy of anti-Caucasian hatred, with violent demonstrators chanting racist slogans, starting fires and looting shops. An unruly mob vented its rage on anything belonging to the “chorny” (blacks), attacking shops, garages and cars with stones, bottles and Molotov cocktails, while demanding their immediate deportation.
It all started with a fight between Russians and Caucasians at an Azeri-run café. There is not much to do in this gloomy town of 37,000, some 1,000km from Moscow. The only jobs are in a cellulose plant. On the evening of August 29 some young Russians celebrating a new flat got into an argument with a Caucasian waiter and his boss. Blows were exchanged and the two Caucasians appealed to their fellow countrymen for help. A call to the police went unheeded. In the subsequent fighting two Russians, Sergey Usin and Griogry Slezov, were stabbed to death.
The locals reacted promptly and two days later a crowd 2,000-strong gathered in the town centre, yelling: “The blacks killed our boys.” Militants from Moscow and St Petersburg, assisted by neo-Nazis, organised the demonstration, led by an ultra-nationalist group, the Movement against Illegal Immigration (DPNI). The extremists aim to “rid Russia” of its “chorny”, give precedence to ethnic Russians and send illegal immigrants packing. They make no distinction between foreigners – Azeris and Armenians – and citizens of the Russian Federation such as Chechens and Dagestanis. Everyone must go.
In Kondopoga foreigners account for just 1% of the population. As elsewhere in Russia a few Caucasians sell fruit and vegetables in the market and it duly became the prime target for the furious demonstrators, who overturned stands and looted shops. Seized by panic, 200 Caucasians took flight, with dozens of Chechens seeking refuge 50km outside the town.
The arrival of the special forces on September 3 made little difference. The next day a fire started at a sports academy run by a Chechen trainer and more racist graffiti appeared in the town. Yielding to pressure, the mayor, Anatoli Pantchenkov, offered to allow ethnic Russians to rent stalls previously run by Caucasians. The governor of Karelia, Sergei Katanandov, went further and denounced “these young people from the Caucasus and elsewhere” who behave “as if they owned the place”. He added: “Either they keep a low profile or they go.”
This view soon prevailed in the press, among politicians and, of course, ultra-nationalists. If trouble had broken out in the town it was not due to intolerance, but rather “social problems”. The Caucasians, everyone agreed, provoked the Russian population. There was much talk of their “ostentatious riches” and the regional governor referred to their “Mercedes travelling at breakneck speed”. Resentment also focused on their “criminal activity” and bribes paid to the police.
During five days of madness in Kondopoga not a single official, politician or cultural figure condemned the violence. National newspapers stirred up resentment. “The real reason for all this is that werewolves in uniform have allowed newcomers to behave as if they owned the place, without the slightest respect for local people,” wrote Izvestia.
However, it is not clear whether events in Kondopoga would have gone so far without the extremists. All the television channels showed young skinheads in the thick of the violence and Alexander Belov, the DPNI leader, yelling at the crowd through a megaphone. A few days later he organised a press conference with an MP, Nikolai Kuryanovich. The two advocated “complete cleansing [of] criminal elements . . . as the president promised”, a reference to Vladimir Putin’s remark at the start of the second war in Chechnya: “We will waste them. Even when they are on the lavatory.”
Because of his activities in Kondopoga, Belov claims to have been approached by the new Union of Trust party, one of whose leaders is the speaker in the Federation Council (upper house). Mark Ournov, a political analyst, says: “Organisations such as the DPNI could never survive without the backing of part of Russia’s political elite. There are differences of opinion, but some people think this sort of organisation is useful to the regime.”
For almost six years far-right organisations such as Slavic Union, Russian National Unity and the National-socialist party have operated openly. On November 4, 2005 – now celebrated as national unity day in accordance with the Kremlin’s wishes – more than 1,000 neo-Nazis paraded through Moscow, chanting slogans attacking the “Caucasian mafia” and “Tajik drug dealers”.
In Russia such organisations enjoy freedoms denied to NGOs, which have become subject to ever more regulation. In the centre of Moscow, a step away from the Tretyakov gallery, the bookshop of the Foundation for the Conservation of Slav literature is flogging a new bestseller, a eulogy of Adolf Hitler entitled What really happened on June 22, 1941? [the start of the German attack on the Soviet Union]. In June MPs invited its author, Alexander Ussovski, to present his work to the Duma. On the bookshop’s counter is a pile of the latest edition of the List of Hidden Jews, which includes the heroine of Ukraine’s orange revolution, Yulia Timoshenko, the human rights campaigner Dmitri Sakharov and General de Gaulle.
On the internet there are innumerable neo-Nazi sites, ranging from the forum of the church of Adolf Hitler to the national-socialist chapter of the Slavic Union. Internet chat sites are very successful, with people exchanging excited messages about the future of the “great Russian nation” and the exact design of SS-division Totenkopf’s colours.
It was while they were browsing websites such as these that the three young men behind the racist attack on the market in Cherkizovo, a suburb in northwest Moscow, on August 21 found instructions for making the bomb they planted in the Asian part of the market, killing 12 people. The bombers were students. They did not belong to any extremist organisations but read large amounts of neo-Nazi literature. Under police questioning, they admitted to wanting to punish “the area’s countless illegal immigrants”. On September 12 police arrested their ringleader, Nikita Senioukov, 18, a trainee at the Moscow police academy. It emerged that in April he had stabbed to death Viguen Abramiants, 17, in cold blood at Pushkinskaya metro station in central Moscow.
Few people express much concern about racist murders or the neo-Nazi craze. If we are to believe the Russian press, “fascism is in vogue”. The celebrity magazine Caravan recently put a picture of singer Irina Allegrova in SS uniform on its front page and apparently no one objected. In August Russian Newsweek ran a feature on “underground fascist culture”, embodied among others by Tesak (a nickname that means big knife), who produces sickeningly violent video-clips. Newsweek described him as the “Leni Riefenstahl of Russian Nazis”.
Among the videos on Tesak’s website is one showing the (fictitious) hanging of a “Tajik drug dealer” by hooded thugs, who then cut up the corpse and burn it. Under the heading “Do something practical” the site offers a pro-forma letter for budding informers, encouraging those spotting an illegal on their block to tell the police.
Dmitri Demushkin is one of Russia’s neo-Nazi ideologists. His own movement, the Slavic Union, has almost 5,000 members in the Moscow area alone. Thirtyish, with frizzy hair, suit and tie, he does not fit the skinhead stereotype, presenting himself as a “consultant for the presidential administration”. However, his flat has been raided twice in recent months and he has been denied a permit to organise concerts. Otherwise he is unruffled, claiming that “instructions have been issued at the highest level that I should not be disturbed”. He adds that he has “sympathisers all over the place, at the Kremlin and the Central Bank, at Rosoboronexport [which handles arms sales] and the FSB [the KGB’s successor], with the public prosecutor and the police”. He even has supporters in the Russian Orthodox church.
He is sure “national-socialist ideas will triumph in Russia”. He likens Russia now to the Weimar Republic. Demushkin maintains that “increasing numbers of young people think highly of Adolf Hitler”. Events such as the Kondopoga pogrom “are certain to recur. Lots of groups are working on it”, adding: “We were the ones that started it. Ordinary people support us. The authorities will have to accept our ideas or go.”
Nevertheless it seems ironic that far-right ideas should enjoy such widespread success in a country that paid so high a price – 27 million dead – in the war against fascism. “Many people do not connect these ideas with the Nazis and there are plenty more who don’t think Hitler did anything wrong, apart from attacking Russia,” says Alexander Verkhovski of the Sova NGO, which studies xenophobia. Nor is the craze for Nazi symbols a recent thing, he points out. A popular TV drama at the end of the 1970s, 17 Moments of Spring, told the story of a Soviet spy, Stirlitz, working undercover for the Nazis. His Waffen-SS uniform looked so smart it started a craze. Verkhovski recalls: “In school playgrounds all the kids would play at being Stirlitz, doing Nazi salutes.”