Pogroms Return to Russia
The other two popular theories both hold that the attacks were organized by small extremist groups who themselves were manipulated by larger government forces. One of these theories holds that the groups are being used as part of a new terror policy actively being instigated by the Putin administration; according to the other theory, groups within the government who oppose Putin are orchestrating the attacks in order to sabotage the president's new pro-Western policies by tarnishing Putin's reputation in the West.
The Islamic leader Jamal ascribes to the former theory. He believes that the attacks were organized by Russian secret services, perhaps by the FSB, the successor to the KGB, as part of a new method for ridding the capital of "persons of Caucasian nationality."
"Something on this scale could not have been done without the secret services," he said. "The object is clearly to incite the population against 'guests of the capital.'" Sergei Mitrokhin, a Duma deputy for the liberal Yabloko party, agrees that he, too, cannot exclude the possibility that the skinheads are being used by the government "to undertake unusual political objectives." He sees disturbing historical precedents for exactly these kinds of tactics.
"It is very convenient for an authoritarian government to have at its disposal these crowds of willing, young violent youths who will do just about anything you tell them to do," he said. "The same kinds of people were used for similar political ends in Germany in the 1930s."
Mitrokhin, however, is more inclined to believe the last theory, that the attacks were evidence of an attempt to discredit Putin at a time when he will be very much under the microscope in the West.
"Obviously, the fact that the pogroms took place on the last day of the Davos conference suggests that there was an attempt to make some kind of statement to the international community," he said. "And Putin is about to travel to the United States to meet with Bush in a critical and highly publicized meeting. It would seem significant that the attacks would be intensified exactly at this moment."
Regardless of who was actually behind the attacks, the rise of the skinheads does appear to represent a disturbing trend in the larger population. After two years of an unusually bloody war in Chechnya, and now in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, resentment toward Caucasian peoples--who, owing to their reputation as marketplace racketeers, were never popular in this city, even in the best of times--appears to be at an all-time high. Last week, the television show Catastrophes of the Week on the TV-6 network, in conjunction with the news program on the TV-Center network, conducted an informal call-in poll which found that 87 percent of Muscovites supported the actions of the pogrom participants. Only 7 percent of callers said they would have attempted to stop the attacks if they had been there.
The support for the skins doesn't stop at the general population. One of the main reasons they have risen to such prominence is the fact that the police are at best indifferent to them and, at worst, actively sympathize.
"Groups like the RNP, Russian Goal and the RNE have their roots in cells that were formed way back in the days of perestroika," Mitrokhin said. "To date, not one of them has ever really been the focus of any serious campaign by the police. That's because the police tend to sympathize with their goals, which was aptly demonstrated on the night of the October 30 'pogrom.' when a mass of 300 armed teenagers, not exactly a stealthy gang, was allowed to wander the city committing mayhem. There is no love lost between the police and the Caucasians."
Russia would appear to be a prime candidate to drift into fascism. It has an impoverished native population that feels itself to be victimized by Caucasians who dominate their street businesses; by Jews who are prominent in government and banking; and by the influence of the West and in particular the United States, whose commercialistic values are a dominant factor in daily economic life and in pop culture. It has a popular nationalist leader who does not hide his great-power ambitions. Whichever side of the emerging movement Vladimir Putin is actually on, he may soon find himself forced to explain the behavior of his countrymen to the world--perhaps even beginning this week, to President Bush.