Beheadings posted on the Internet used to be a trademark of Chechen separatists in this part of the world. But on August 12 a video surfaced on several neo-Nazi Russian websites showing the brutal execution of two men from ethnic groups frequently targeted by Russia’s ultranationalists–one of whom had his head sawn off with what appeared to be a Russian army knife.
Both victims came from southern Muslim regions: one from Tajikistan, the other from the Russian republic of Dagestan, which borders Chechnya.
The video marks the first time that neo-Nazis–in this case, a previously unknown group calling itself the National-Socialist Party of Russia–have turned to copying the sorts of radical-Islamist beheading videos that have come out of Chechnya, Pakistan and Iraq in recent years.
The three-minute clip, accompanied by a heavy metal soundtrack, was a grisly late-summer addition to what has been a banner year for skinhead violence in Russia. According to Sova, a Moscow-based organization that tracks hate crimes in Russia, the recent executions push the number of race murders to more than forty. This is twice the number of race murders at this point last year.
To give another example of how racial violence has grown, as late as November 2001, the Moscow branch of the Anti-Defamation League estimated that there had been a total of twenty killings by skinheads in recent years.
Along with targeting dark-skinned people from Central Asia and the Caucasus, Russia’s neo-Nazis have increased their assaults on Russian antifascists and other associated progressive activists. Last month, gangs of pipe-wielding skinheads attacked a peaceful antinuclear camp protesting in Angarsk, Siberia, resulting in the death of a 21-year-old environmental activist and a number of injuries requiring hospitalization. Some suspected that local authorities may have helped organize the attack, although others claim it was just another round in local skinhead versus AntiFa (antifascist) gang fights that ended up deadlier than usual.
The big question here is whether the rise in skinhead violence is a strictly organic phenomenon or whether it is being manipulated or even encouraged from above. Russia is holding parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections next March, and with President Vladimir Putin preparing to step down, the battle among various clan elites is turning increasingly nasty. The website kavkazcenter.com isn’t alone in suggesting that the FSB (formerly the KGB) may have had a hand in the beheading video with the aim of destabilizing the political situation, which presumably would empower the siloviki, or security services, who form one of the two most powerful clan elites. Alternatively, the Kremlin could be trying to discredit extremist nationalists beyond its power, in order to draw voters closer to the Kremlin’s brand of somewhat more staid nationalism.
Such plots aren’t that farfetched. Going back to Yeltsin’s and even Gorbachev’s time, neo-Nazi organizations like Pamyat and Russian National Unity have been manipulated by (and in some cases invented by) Russian security organs to serve as convenient bogeymen who scare both the West and the local population into supporting the government in power.
Others see a more insidious link between the spike in racist violence and the Kremlin. By fostering a xenophobic mood and passing increasingly harsh antiforeigner legislation, the Kremlin may allow skinheads to feel more comfortable, even justified, in their violence.
“The skinhead violence has clearly gotten worse with the rise to power of Putin and his team,” says Alexander Vinnikov, of the St. Petersburg-based group For Russia Without Racism. “Since 2000 there has been an increase in xenophobia and nationalist propaganda in the media at every level. It’s created a favorable atmosphere for the development in young people of a chauvinistic worldview. For Putin the question is not how to fight racism but how to use it as a political tool without letting it slip from the Kremlin’s control.”
Indeed, it can be confusing. Officially, the Kremlin is taking an increasingly hard line against racially motivated hate speech and crimes. Some members of the ruling party in the Duma have drafted a law that would make it illegal to mention “in mass media and on the Internet any details concerning the ethnicity, race or religion of the victims, perpetrators, suspects and accused of crimes.” In theory, the law is meant to ban race-based criminal stereotypes from the media, but many fear that it will serve as just another way to manage coverage of rising hate crime or that it will be loosely interpreted to target a broad range of articles and reports unfriendly to the Kremlin. Even without the law, say observers, coverage has dropped way off. State-run Russian media have reported far less on hate crimes over the past year, even as their numbers have risen, forcing observers like Sova to rely increasingly on witness and victim accounts.
Meanwhile, the Russian government continues to play the populist race card. In recent months, nonethnic Russian migrants have been banned from selling produce and other goods in Russia’s outdoor markets–which have traditionally been dominated by immigrants from Russia’s southern border regions. A pamphlet published in June by a Moscow city government-affiliated youth group, Mestnie (or “Locals”), urged ethnic Russian women not to accept taxi rides from dark-skinned drivers (many immigrants moonlight as gypsy cab drivers).
And then there is Nashi, the thousands-strong Kremlin youth movement that professes to fight against fascism yet attacks liberal dissidents and puts on mass parades of youths marching in uniform Putin T-shirts and doing calisthenics, in scenes reminiscent of the 1930s. A few years ago, the muckraking newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an investigative report detailing links between skinheads, Moscow police and Nashi’s previous incarnation, a pro-Kremlin youth organization called Walking Together.
And yet the skinhead problem is not a manufactured phenomenon. Nationalism and xenophobia have a deep and broad appeal, particularly to the three-fourths of the country that hasn’t yet entered the emerging middle class. Over the past few decades, Communism and Western-style liberalism have been thoroughly discredited, first by the collapse of the Soviet Union and then with the collapse of the Russian economy by the end of the 1990s. Christianity has never recovered from the Bolshevik Revolution. All of this, put into the context of social, economic, cultural and geopolitical decline, has helped foster growing ultranationalism, including neo-Nazism–which seems strange in a country that lost 27 million people to the Nazis.
Since Putin came to power in 2000, Russia has experienced an unexpectedly rapid yet uneven revival, and his government’s overt patriotism, as well as its ambivalent attitude toward Western liberalism, reflect and enable the growing appeal of ultranationalism.
The Kremlin has thus been working not simply to manipulate ultranationalism but also to control it, though its motivations are not always clear. In recent years, several major pieces of legislation have been passed to address the problem. Article 282, for example, criminalizes the incitement of “ethnic, racial, or religious hatred” and has led to the successful prosecution of more than a dozen distributors of neo-Nazi literature. But these laws, ostensibly passed to control hate crime, are often used for anything but. Just this week, a member of the right-wing Rodina party threatened to bring Article 282 against Issa Kodzoyev, a novelist from the southern region of Ingushetia. The writer’s crime? A character in his novel The Landslide, which is set in the 1940s, calls on the Ingush people to resist Joseph Stalin’s persecution of them.
And early in 2005, several members of the Duma petitioned to have Judaism banned in Russia after accusing the religion of preaching ethnic hate.
“The truth is that many Russian politicians believe in a ‘cultural racism,'” said Alexander Vinnikov, of For Russia Without Racism. “And even if extremist activists are from time to time arrested, on the whole racist ideas do not meet the rejection of the Russian population. This problem is not going away.”