Daily Archives: May 2, 2008

The Sunday Apocalypse

Paul Goble reports:

Only days after Russian officials celebrated an uptick in the number of births in that country in 2007, demographers there have warned that this much cited figure does not constitute a trend and that “the depopulation of Russia will accelerate,” a development that threatens its economy, its ability to field an army, and even its hold on its current territory. In the April 29th issue of Vedomosti, journalist Olga Kuvshina cites the views of the members of that expert community that Moscow’s upbeat projects are “unrealistic” and that “after 2012, the country will face a new and rapidly deepening demographic “crisis” those in denial are doing little to prevent. “From 1992 through 2007,” they note, “the difference in the number of deaths over births totaled 12 million people,” a figure whose enormity is obvious if one thinks that this means that in the first six years of this century, Russia annually lost the population of Novgorod oblast or Krasnodar kray. And the 2007 increase in the number of births was, Vladimir Arkhangel’sky, a demographer at Moscow State University, argues, the produce of the mini-baby boom in the 1980s, something that has not been repeated anytime since and means the size of the prime child bearing age group will plummet after about five years.

But what is especially critical is that these declines in the overall population will be exceeded by declines in the working age group, with the “cadre deficit” amount to 22 million total by 2020. And that in turn will “put under threat the development of the country,” especially since it represents a major shift from the past. “In the last several years, the overall decline in the number of the population has been accompanied by [what demographers call] a ‘demographic dividend’ – a growth in the number of working age people.” But beginning this year, that dividend disappears, and in the future, the country will have fewer workers relative to other age groups. Last year, there were 0.6 children and pensioners for every worker, but by 2025, that ratio will be 1 to 0.8 and by 2050, it will be one to one.” That is not a projection or estimate, the scholars insist: “’the people [being counted] are already born, and we know how many of them there will be.’” (The decline of Russia’s working-population is exacerbated by alcoholism and a rising tide of industrial accidents which this year killed 180,000 Russian workers and seriously injured more than 200,000 others, according to statistics published in Moscow’s Utro yesterday.)

Moreover, the demographers say, Russia will continue to lag behind countries at similar levels of economic development. Men in countries with similar GDPs per capita now live three to eleven years longer than in Russia, and women there live one to five years longer than Russian women. According to Anatoly Vishnevsky, a leading Moscow demographer, the Russian government’s projection that life expectancy in Russia will be 75 by 2025 is without foundation. And another demographer who works in Germany noted that life expectancy in other countries is increasing by 0.22 years annually, while “in Russia it is falling.” The “chief” causes of that, the demographers say, is “the low value of human life in the eyes of the [Russian] state … and of [Russian] society itself. … Every year, about 200,000 [Russians] die from preventable causes, of whom two thirds pass away because of insufficient medial and social support.” More than 425,000 die from alcoholism, and deaths from high blood pressure is 4.2 times higher in Russia than the average of 15 countries in the European Union, the U.S. and Japan. These are problems the Russian government, given its income from the sale of gas and oil, could address but has chosen not to.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that this week, one branch of the Russian government decided to try to do something about this looming national tragedy: a new proposal has been taken up in the Duma that would increase the age for the legal purchase of alcohol from 18 to 21. That legislative step by itself will not reverse Russia’s demographic decline, but it is more significant than any now on offer by the Kremlin and the Russian executive branch more generally, both of which seem largely content to offer upbeat assessments very much at odds with unpleasant realities.

The Sunday Film Review

The JB Spins blog reviews the new film Refusnik:

The words “Next Year in Jerusalem” have always been rich with meaning but for Soviet Jewry, they took on even greater significance during the stark years of Communist oppression. Soviet Jews who dared to apply for exit visas were dismissed from their employment, harassed by the KGB, and often imprisoned or exiled to Siberian. Filmmaker Laura Bialis documents the inspiring story of the so-called Refuseniks in the new film Refusenik (trailer here), which opens in New York May 9th.

The film starts with a quick and lucid recounting of Soviet anti-Semitism, ranging from discrimination in university admissions to Stalin’s Doctors’ Plot, the invented conspiracy used as a pretext to persecute Jewish doctors. Although Stalin was an initial supporter of the State of Israel, anti-Semitism would become systematized to such an extent during the Stalin years that many were honestly expecting to be swept up in another Holocaust.

Called a “renaissance of hope,” by historian Sir Martin Gilbert, Refusenik identifies the stunning Israeli victory in the Six Days War as a pivotal moment for Refuseniks. Israel’s battlefield triumph, despite all Soviet state media predictions to the contrary, provided an inspiration and a hoped for destination.

As a matter of course, the Soviets denied all emigration requests, often on the pretext of the applicant being an important specialist. Then these irreplaceable specialists were summarily fired, forced to live uncertain hand-to-mouth existences. Yet an extraordinary refrain is repeated by many of the Refuseniks Bialis interviews. Regardless of the desperate circumstances they faced as a result, they never regretted their actions, because it was through their defiance of the Soviets that they first felt free.

Perhaps the most celebrated Refusenik, Natan Sharansky is one of the film’s lead voices. His story is nothing less than heroic, having served nine years in a Soviet prison on trumped up charges. However, some of the lesser known Refuseniks are equally remarkable. Vladimir Slepak was actually the son of a loyal party member, but when told by his father it was preferable to arrest one hundred innocent people rather than allow one enemy of the party to go free, his response was: “I’ll never be in your party. It’s too much blood on your hands.”

Refusenik also chronicles the worldwide movement on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and is laudably bipartisan in who it credits in the struggle. The passage of the Jackson-Vanick amendment requiring countries observe emigration rights to qualify for favored nation trading status is presented as a principled coalition of liberal and conservative congressional representatives over a détente-obsessed Nixon administration.

Of American political leaders, two stand above all others. One is a Democrat, Sen. Scoop Jackson. The other is a Republican: Pres. Ronald Reagan. It is clear from interviews that he made Soviet human rights a priority like none of his predecessors had before him. It is not just summit anecdotes from George Shultz that make the point.

Refusenik Ari Volvovsky tells a story that powerfully illustrates Reagan’s commitment. While serving his sentence in a prison camp, Volvovsky was called into the commandant’s office and asked if he was friends with the American president. He was then shown a letter from Reagan to Gorbachev pressing for his release. Probably Gorbachev’s reputation will suffer most from the film, as it is made clear he resisted releasing the Refuseniks and actually tells his interviewer: “Many of them were my friends.” Right, some of his best friends were Refuseniks.

Refusenik is structured as a traditional documentary, proceeding in chronological order and relying on interview commentary to provide narrative and context. However, the refuseniks’ testimony is very compelling stuff, which elevates the film above standard doc fare. It also benefits from some knowledgeable interview subjects, like Gilbert and Richard Perle, who served as a young aide to Sen. Jackson.

By exposing the abuses of Soviet Communism, Refusenik makes points that are still salient today. The courage and sacrifice of the Refuseniks profiled really are an inspiration. The film makes the point that they were not just defying the Communists on occasional basis, but over the course of decades, without respite. This is an area I thought I was fairly well informed in, yet I still learned quite a bit from Refusenik. It is an often moving film that deserves a wide audience. It opens in New York on May 9th, (which coincidentally was Soviet Victory Day) at the Quad, and in Los Angeles on the 23rd. It is highly recommended.

The Sunday Funnies

On the back of Putin’s suit jacket is written: “Prime Minister.”

Source: Ellustrator.

May 2, 2008 — Contents


(1) Annals of the Neo-Soviet Gulag

(2) The Kremlin Still Loves Hamas

(3) NATO, EU Blast Russia on Georgia

(4) KP on Hate Crimes: The Horror of Russian Racism Unbound

NOTE: We are pleased to announce that our translation of Boris Nemstov’s white paper on the Putin years has been referenced in a major review of Nemtsov’s work by the New York Review of Books, a highly prestigious publication. Congratulations once again to our brilliant translator and columnist on his wonderful work on the project; without Dave, this masterful analysis might never have seen the light of day in English.

Annals of the Neo-Soviet Gulag

Transitions Online reports:

One Sunday afternoon in the early days of spring, Dmitry Smekalov was taking a stroll in northern St. Petersburg. By chance he came across a protest rally by farmers and vendors who were campaigning against the closure of a local marketplace. Although he had nothing to do with the demonstration, Smekalov said he suddenly found himself face to face with a squad of riot police sent to disperse the protesters. The businessman, apparently mistaken for a protester, was grabbed and beaten by the squad and then, he alleges, thrown into the Neva River.

Smekalov said he fell onto the ice, suffering injuries to his ribs, but managed to crawl to the nearest steps and back onto the embankment. Smekalov believes that had the incident occurred a month or two later, after the ice has broken up, he might easily have drowned.

So shocked was Smekalov by the assault that he refused to be taken to the hospital, fearing he might suffer further harm there at the hands of police. Instead he sought treatment from private doctors. He has also been too scared to press charges, he said.

A police spokesman said he had heard about the claims but that the police never received a formal complaint from Smekalov.

But Smekalov’s case has been taken up by St. Petersburg politician Sergei Gulyaev, one of the organizers of the market workers’ rally who said he witnessed the assault on Smekalov. At one stage, he said, officers kicked Smekalov for nearly 10 minutes in a police van.

Worried about his condition, the politician later sought him out and heard the full story. Gulyaev’s hope is that publicity about the case will help to prevent similar attacks in the future, but recent history is not encouraging on that score.

Severe police violence against peaceful street protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg over the past year has led to international criticism of President Vladimir Putin’s government. But not a single police officer is known to have been disciplined or punished over the violence.

Many people have alleged that Russia’s law enforcement staff are beyond the law in such matters, and human rights advocates across the country face long odds when they try to conduct their own investigations into such claims. A thick, seemingly impenetrable, cloud of secrecy seems to envelope what happens to a detainee during arrest, detention, and imprisonment.


A series of violent riots erupted in Russian jails during the past year, and the lack of transparency within prisons and the penal system was one of the main reasons for the unrest.

A bill that would have allowed independent organizations to conduct investigations into claims of abuse in the penal system came before the State Duma in 2002 but died after its first reading.

Human rights organizations are pushing for the measure to be re-introduced. They say that had it reached the statute book it could have helped to prevent the prison riots.

Last autumn the Committee For Civil Rights was apparently warned that serious trouble was brewing at a prison camp in the settlement of Metallostroi, on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. Several prisoners and their relatives had told the committee the situation was explosive. But when the activists informed the colony’s management and the federal penal service and asked to be allowed to investigate and to help resolve the crisis, their request was rejected. And sure enough, says Boris Panteleyev, a human rights advocate with the committee, a riot broke out at the colony in October within three weeks of the warnings.

“The prison authorities simply told us to hand over whatever evidence we had to the prosecutors, and they promised the situation was under full control,” Panteleyev recalls. “As we later saw, they failed to prevent the riot.”

Russia’s penal system has been criticized for human rights abuses, the use of torture, and repressive conditions, with inmates sometimes having to sleep in shifts in their cells and being allocated less than 0.7 square meters of private space per person.

Repression has been increasing over the past decade, according to Yakov Gilinsky, a leading crime analyst with the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Gilinsky was lead researcher on a survey of torture in Russia published last year.

The government does not collect statistics on abuse in prisons. Gilinsky’s group conducted research among prisoners in the city of Chita and the Komi Republic. Thirty-nine percent of respondents in Komi said they were tortured during investigations.

“We didn’t ask the inmates if they had been tortured in prison because if those questions had been on the list we would have been denied access to the prisons,” Gilinsky said. “And even if we did get access, the inmates would have been too scared of possible retaliation to admit [they had been subject to] torture: if their prison got unfavorable statistics, the officers would have come after the interviewees.

“While torture flourishes, anyone who works for the [penal] system is protected by an unwritten rule of impunity,” the researcher said.

What happens behind prison walls remains hidden from the general public. And human rights advocates find it difficult to investigate the complaints they receive from prisoners. Often they are denied permission to visit a prisoner. And if they do get into a prison they say they are strictly monitored, which can cause the complainant to clam up.

Attempts to publicize violence perpetrated by police or prison staff may lead to serious problems for those who go public. Take the case of human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, leader of the Moscow-based Movement for People’s Rights who has been trying to draw attention to the plight of imprisoned ex-Yukos executive Vasily Alexanyan.

Alexanyan, who suffers from cancer and AIDS, had been chained to his hospital bed and denied medical care he urgently required. During his campaign Ponomaryov claimed that Yury Kalinin, head of the Federal Penal Service, was responsible for the widespread and deliberate inhuman treatment of prisoners, including torture.

Now Ponomaryov, is under investigation for “insulting the honor and dignity” of Kalinin. He has been charged with slander and is not allowed to leave Moscow for the duration of the investigation.

Prison officials accuse human rights groups of seeking to create confrontation and being uncooperative. Elena Kuznetsova, a human rights official with the St. Petersburg branch of the Federal Penal Service, says that human rights activists often fail to give her the full names of prisoners who report torture, abuse, corruption, or violations of their rights. She says it’s essential to identify prisoners correctly in order to launch an investigation into their claims.

But given the nature of the allegations, the high levels of corruption in the prisons, and the invisibility of the inmates, disclosing the names of complainants at an early stage would surely put their safety and even their lives at risk.


The major problem is the continuing lack in Russia of any law enabling civil society to monitor and investigate the country’s prisons, investigative agencies, or police. The authorities continue to paint a rosy picture of prison conditions and the standards of police work while preventing independent experts from mounting any kind of effective investigation.

As one human rights advocate puts it, “If you compare the reassuring reports prepared by officials and the stories that we hear from the inmates, a very contradictory picture emerges.

“When I get a phone call from a prison telling me that the inmates were rushed out of their cells to the courtyard just before sunrise, forced to undress and kneel down for many hours, with the riot police officers beating them and urinating on them, I have no way of knowing whether this is true,” St. Petersburg human rights advocate Yuly Rybakov said. “Maybe the riot police presented the prisoners with flowers and were extremely courteous, but the inmates were saying otherwise.”

We need a law that will give Rybakov and others like him the right to check prisoners’ and detainees’ stories and to collect evidence. Until this right is granted – and respected – the risks remain high that police units can, when the mood takes them, become death squads, as in Dmitry Smekalov’s case, and that jails can be used as torture chambers despite all the fearless campaigning of Lev Ponomaryov and others.

The Kremlin Still Loves Hamas

Did you ever notice that the Kremlin expects the West to treat all those it designates as terrorists (for instance, the Chechen rebels) as such, even as it rejects and refuses to respect the West’s designations? Russia, for instance, couldn’t care less if the whole world thinks Hamas is terrorist, it goes its own way. AFP reports:

Russia will continue to maintain ties with Islamist group Hamas to foster Palestinian peace despite its designation in the West as a terrorist organisation, Russia’s foreign minister said Wednesday. Speaking after talks with Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kurbi in Moscow, Sergei Lavrov said relations with both Hamas and its more moderate rival Fatah were essential to push the Middle East peace process forward “Russia has very good relations with Fatah, and its leader Mahmud Abbas as the overall Palestinian leader,” Lavrov said.

“Russia has relations with Hamas and we use these, and we will actively use these, to help move towards the Yemeni initiative” to foster Palestinian peace, he said. “It is impossible to resolve all of the problems without the unification of the Palestinians as a single people and as a single political-legal space,” he said. He said those taking part in the peace process should not try to “drive a wedge” between the two groups.

Fatah and Hamas penned a deal in Yemen last month to open their first direct talks since Hamas drove Fatah forces from the Gaza Strip in June. However, the two factions started bickering about the meaning of the agreement within hours of signing it. Russia has carved out a unique position in Middle East diplomacy by maintaining contacts with both Fatah and Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the European Union, the United States and Israel.

NATO, EU Slam Russia on Georgia

Once again, Russia’s “president” has managed to polarize the entire world against Russia and convinced it that Russia is engaged in naked acts of barbaric, bullying imperialism. The BBC reports:

NATO has warned Russia that its recent troop build-up in Georgia’s two breakaway regions undermines its neighbour’s territorial integrity. Russia’s moves in Abkhazia and South Ossetia were raising tensions in the area, a Nato spokesman said.

Moscow has accused Georgia of preparing to invade Abkhazia, and says it is also boosting Russian peacekeeping forces there and in South Ossetia. Tbilisi has described the Russian move as “irresponsible”.

“The steps that have been taken [by Russia] and the rhetoric have increased tensions and undermined Georgia’s territorial integrity,” Nato spokesman James Appathurai said. He also urged both Moscow and Tbilisi to avoid harsh rhetoric. US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe on Wednesday said Washington was “concerned abut reports from the region”. The European Union has appealed for caution, saying to increase troop numbers would be unwise given current tensions.

Over recent weeks Russia appears to have been significantly turning up the pressure in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus says. He says that many Western diplomats see these moves as part of a more assertive Russian policy in the wake of Western recognition of the independence of Kosovo in February. The row over Moscow’s support for separatist enclaves in Georgia now threatens to provoke a more serious strain between Russia and the West, our correspondent adds.


Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that Moscow would take “retaliatory measures” if Georgia used force against its breakaway regions. Russia said Georgia was massing 1,500 soldiers and police in the upper Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia which remains under government control. In response, Moscow said it was increasing Russian peacekeepers in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Mr Lavrov said that Russia had to protect Russian-passport holders in the two regions. Georgia denies any build-up of its own forces in the area, and says that Russia is taking provocative action. “We think that this step, if they take it, will cause extreme destabilisation in the region,” said Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze. “From now on, we consider every [Russian] soldier or any unit of military equipment coming in [to Abkhazia and South Ossetia] as illegal, potential aggressors and potential generators of destabilisation.”

Kosovo precedent

Russia has kept a peacekeeping force in Abkhazia and South Ossetia under an agreement made following the wars of the 1990s, when the regions broke away from Tbilisi and formed links with Moscow. There are around 2,000 Russians posted in Abkhazia, and about 1,000 in South Ossetia. Tensions between Russia and Georgia have flared up recently, despite Russia lifting economic sanctions against Georgia earlier this month. Last week, Georgia accused a Russian plane of shooting down an unmanned Georgian spy plane – which Russian authorities insisted was shot down by Abkhaz rebels. And on Tuesday, Georgia said it was blocking Russia’s entry to the World Trade Organization.

Many in Abkhazia believe that Kosovo’s announcement of independence from Serbia in February provides a precedent for it to be recognised as an individual state. Although it has its own flag and postage stamps, it is not internationally recognised.

RIA Novosti adds:

The European Union’s foreign policy chief has warned Russia that its decision to send more peacekeepers to a Georgian breakaway region could prove counterproductive. Russia’s Defense Ministry announced on Tuesday it would expand its peacekeeping contingent in Abkhazia, a separatist Black Sea province bordering on Russia, saying Georgia had amassed troops on Abkhazia’s border in preparation for a military operation. Speaking after talks in Luxembourg with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Javier Solana told reporters: “It is not wise to increase the number of Russian peacekeepers in Georgia right now.”

“Even if the increase in peacekeepers is within limits, if we want to diminish the perception of tensions, I don’t think it is a wise measure to increase now.” Lavrov gave assurances that Russia was not seeking war with Georgia, and was seeking purely to “prevent frozen conflicts from entering an active phase.” He also reiterated the Defense Ministry’s warning that any attacks by Georgia on Abkhazia or the country’s other rebel region, South Ossetia, would be met by a military retaliation from Russia.

The ministry said in a statement on Tuesday: “Any attempts by Georgia to use force to resolve the conflicts, or to employ violent measures against Russian peacekeepers or Russian citizens living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia will encounter an appropriate and tough response.” Russia’s Foreign Ministry released a statement on Wednesday defending the peacekeeping move. “It is perfectly clear that the Russian steps are aimed at ensuring the basic rights of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s residents, and not at establishing any kind of control over the territories of the unrecognized republics,” the statement said.

Georgia has condemned Russia’s move as an act of aggression, and urged the international community to prevent an escalation of tension in the region. Prime Minister Vladimir Gurgenidze said on Tuesday: “We condemn Russia’s decision to increase the number of peacekeepers in the conflict zones as an extremely irresponsible move, especially against the background of Russia’s latest statements about Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”

Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Georgia in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Georgia is looking to regain control over the two republics. Russian President Vladimir Putin called earlier this month for closer ties with the breakaway republics. Putin’s statement provoked an angry response from Tbilisi, which accused Russia of attempting to annex the two republics.

KP on Hate Crimes

The Russian-language newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda (“Young Communist Truth”) ran a three-part article in English and Russian versions on April 28, April 29 and April 30. Here is the article in full:

Naziq Eygesheva is slight at only 58 centimeters with a scratch across her nose. She’s sitting in the thick of a large armchair staring at me frighteningly. There’s another scar on her temple, 6 more on her hands and one more on her left breast. The doctors say she was lucky. The knife got stuck in her jacket and missed her heart by half a centimeter. Naziq is a 20-year-old Kyrgyz girl who was attacked by skinheads in Moscow.

Naziq lived in Russia’s capital for nearly a year. Her dream was to enroll in the Medical Academy. Naziq says she didn’t used to be afraid of living in Moscow. She thought skinheads only attacked foreigners who didn’t speak Russian, or dressed like villagers. In fact, she felt right at home. Naziq had graduated from a Russian school in Bishkek with perfect grades and could recite Akhmatova and Tsetaev by heart. Her mother, Pazilat Nasibova, was a Russian citizen and gynecologist with a 30-year history in the profession. Pazilat had always told her daughter: “We need to learn from the Russians! How they walk, dress, study and live. You can only expect kindness from them!”

Naziq knew something awful was going to happen on that fateful day in late January 2008, although she had never been the victim of an ethnic conflict before. She stood inside the entrance of the Kitay-Gorod metro station and waited. She desperately didn’t want to walk home alone. Naziq sent text messages to all her friends, asking if they could escort her home. Everyone was busy except Marat Akmatov. He probably had a bit of a crush on Naziq, even though they had only met once before. It took them nearly half an hour to make the 7-minute walk home. They talked about how Marat, who was 21, missed his mother who he hadn’t seen in almost a year. He said he planned on visiting her soon.

It was still early evening – around 20:30. All the sudden, a group of skinheads appeared out of nowhere with knives. Naziq fell to the ground almost immediately. Meanwhile, they dragged Marat into the bushes. He had no chance to survive. They cut his throat and stabbed him 62 times. Naziq lay there in the snow, closed her eyes and wondered why this was happening.

“Are you dead yet, bitch?” she heard one of the skinheads say. And the gang disappeared as quietly as they had arrived.

“Not all Russians are like this!” a friend of Naziq’s mother told her in the ambulance, crying and laying her coat beneath the girl’s bloodied body. Naziq would later hear this phrase on numerous occasions – from doctors, patients at the hospital and neighbors. Shortly after the incident, someone put an envelope in her mother’s mailbox with 1,000 rubles and a note reading: “We live in a neighboring building. A policeman came by and asked us if we saw what happened the night when two people were killed near our home. We didn’t see anything, but we’d like to give you our financial support. We were told you are relatives of the deceased.”

“Maybe we weren’t even attacked by Russians,” Naziq said hopefully. Although she wants to believe this is true, I know she asked her relative to hide the kitchen knife before we met as she feared skinheads had hired me to kill her.

“I thought I’d become a doctor, start working and come home when it was still light and nothing would happen. But now they’re even killing during the day! It’s just better to go abroad where there are lots of Asians,” she said. Her mother, who has helped hundreds of Russian women give birth, froze when she heard these words.

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.

Grave statistics

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.

A pack of young fascists

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.

Interestingly, Mongush didn’t reprimand the authorities as one would expect of an opposition journalist. But that’s not the point. The point is the boys who attacked her in the days before the State Duma elections had no idea Mongush was an opposition journalist. They didn’t read her articles or know if she was Tuvinian or Korean. And the boys were certainly too young to remember the early 1990s when many Russians were dealt a hard hand in Tuva. They simply beat her because she wasn’t Russian. The boys thought they were defending the Russian people, although no one had asked the favor of them. “Their mothers must have been about my age – 42,” Mongush wrote in her blog. “We watched the same films, studied the same lessons, went to the same camps and sang the same songs, got married and had children at about the same time… What happened to them?”

Bright orange targets

If you ask your non-Slavic friends if they’ve had a run-in with domestic nationalism, you’ll discover a great deal. I know I did. A frail Korean is remodelling my neighbor’s apartment. Every evening the owner drives him to his dormitory because he is too scared to walk home alone. Zaven, a Russian citizen and ethnic Armenian who lives in a neighboring building, applied for a handgun license at the police station after being attacked twice. The generous Ondar Chimir-Dorju, former chairman of the Tuvinian Soviet Council of Ministers, said he is often forced to ignore young boys who approach him in the metro and taunt him saying: “Would you like me to punch you?” He’s 72 years old and walks with a cane.

We shouldn’t pretend this isn’t everyone’s problem. This is happening everywhere in Russia – in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Voronezh and across the entire country. In one year alone, two yard-keepers were killed in my prestigious neighborhood. I recently visited the area where one of them had been killed. I stood there, thinking for a moment and imagining myself in his shoes. I probably came to Russia from Uzbekistan to support my wife, children and parents because we had little money. I arrived in Moscow, found a job and put on that old bright orange yard-keeper’s vest and unknowingly became the target of Russian nationalists. One winter morning, I woke up and saw Moscow covered in snow. I went outside to start shoveling so locals could get to work. And then I was attacked and killed – stabbed 42 times at 5 in the morning. Several days later a snowdrift mounted in the courtyard. And this was in my own neighborhood. Not far in the distance, I saw another bright orange vest rustling about. “I’m sorry!” I yelled. But he looked at me strangely. He didn’t understand. He had never those words in Russia before.

In which Russia do you want to live?

I know plenty of people will write me after reading this article that Russia is suffocating from all the emigrants, and migrant workers have taken over our markets, streets and buildings. “Do you want to live in that Russia?” they’ll ask. And I’ll answer them honestly. No, I don’t. I don’t want to live in a Russia where I’m afraid to leave my own home. But I also don’t want to live in a Russia where people get killed because of the color of their skin.

“I’m looking for the man who saved my life!” Mongush wrote in a Saint Petersburg newspaper not long after the attack. She published the photos she had accidentally taken of him in the metro car. His profile was clearly visible before he intervened and saved her life. The skinheads dragged him out of the wagon and continued to beat him as the train sped into the dark tunnel with Mongush on board.

Mongush was lucky to find him alive. He’s a Tajik – the son of a teacher. He wanted to become an engineer, but ended up working construction instead. He had already lived in Russia for 7 years – long enough to learn how to bear humiliation. Mongush’s colleague wrote a warm article about him in a popular magazine titled, “The Gentleman from Dushanbe.” The Internet audience’s reaction was predictable. “They should write about how Russians were killed in Tajikistan and Tuva in the early 1990s instead!”

We did write about what happened in Tajikistan and Tuva… And we will again. Indeed the Moscow Human Rights Bureau’s statistics show that more Russians were killed in Ingushetia last year than any other peoples in Russia. But why do we have to take this out on the Kyrgyz and Tuvinians? No one is keeping tally. One hate crime shouldn’t justify another. We must eradicate xenophobia from our society. We need to change the way we think to do so – as do the emigrants who visit our country.

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.

Conscious executioners

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.