ANTI-RACISM: A RISK TO LIFE AND LIMB (Russia)

June 2006 Searchlight Magazine

For the last two years Russia has witnessed a wave of nazi violence on a scale unimaginable to most people in Western Europe. This violence, which has accelerated since November 2005, is mainly aimed at foreign students and asylum seekers, citizens of the former Soviet republics, especially ethnic minorities, and active anti-fascists.

For the Russian authorities however, the nazis, who belong to groups with fancy names like “White Patrol” and “Schultz 88”, are generally classified as “hooligans” or vandals which only serves to conceal the specific racist motivation and anti-anti-fascist strategy that lies behind the violence.

Nazi violence, in the Russian context, is nothing new because ever since the collapse of the old “Communist” regime, nationalists of every stripe have had the wind in their sails and openly nazi parties have been able to gather tens of thousands of supporters and to organise official training in military camps for their strong-arm squads. Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) estimate that ultra-nationalist, racist, antisemitic and fascist organisations have as many as 50,000 members.

The nazi activity is brazen. In April, for example, police in Bryansk had to break up a nazi march on the anniversary of Hitler’s birth when drunken skinheads waving German flags paraded down a main road. Four of the youths were detained and charged with drunkenness and “minor hooliganism.”

For twelve years also, Russia’s bloody war in Chechnya has allowed free and open expression of anti-Caucasian racism from street level up to the highest echelons of politics and government. Some groups have latched on to this atmosphere to launch pogroms at street markets, where many traders from the Caucasus are to be found, in Moscow and St Petersburg while shops owned by Caucasians have been torched, with fatal results, in Moscow and Yekaterinburg.

It is not always easy to walk alone on the streets if one lacks a “European” face because racist intimidation and aggression are normal and frequently lethal. Foreign embassies and consulates are now giving their respective citizens advice to take care, to always go in a group or even to stay at home, for example, every 20 April, Hitler’s birthday.

Roma people are frequently targeted for assault. As recently as 13 April, a group of 20 youths armed with metal bars and spades attacked a Roma family and a visiting ethnic Russian woman as the group were sitting round a fire and talking, in the Volgograd region of Russia. A Romani man and the ethnic Russian woman were killed; others were seriously injured.

There has also been an increase in antisemitic attacks on persons and property in Russia. On 11 January 2006, a man described as a “skinhead” stabbed nine people at a Moscow synagogue. Four of those attacked were seriously injured.

Vandalism and desecration of synagogues and cemeteries have also been reported. In June 2005, antisemitic slogans and swastikas were painted on the walls of a synagogue in the Vladimir, near Moscow. The following month, there was an arson attack on a Jewish centre in Penza and the Jewish centre in Taganrog was vandalised. Vandals had attacked both buildings on previous occasions. In March this year, the Jewish centre in Penza was again vandalised.

The sheer extent of the harassment, violence and murder prompted the human rights organisation Amnesty International UK to issue a shock 35-page report titled Russian Federation: Violent Racism out of control in early May. The report shows that in 2005 at least 28 people were murdered and at least 366 assaulted on racial grounds in Russia.

Throughout 2005, one racist attack followed another, but such incidents tended still not to be regarded so by the Russian authorities even though, in September 2005, three young men were convicted for racist murder after shooting Amaru Antoniu Lima, a medical student from Guinea-Bissau, in Voronezh in February 2004.

On the other hand, the trial of five people who had taken part in a violent onslaught. in 2001, by more than 100 skinheads against mainly ethnic minority market traders in Moscow ended up in acquittal of two of these alleged attackers, while another two were handed a suspended sentence and the fifth was given a derisory six-month sentence.

Likewise in February 2004, Khursheda Sultanova, a nine-year-old Tajik girl was knifed to death in St Petersburg while on her way home with her father and cousin. Several young people were subsequently arrested in connection with this killing but, in the end, the public prosecutor’s office excluded any racist motive for the attack even though the alleged attackers had screamed racist insults before stabbing the little girl eleven times.

It should be noted that the government of Vladimir Putin (and others before him) has used chauvinism and patriotism to ease the transition towards post-Communist society without worrying about the consequences. Now, faced with rising extreme right-wing violence, Putin has reacted by establishing his own “anti-fascist movement”, a youth organisation called Nashi which he hopes will gather young people behind him.

Fixing the exact date when the wave of targeted nazi violence began is not easy, however the brutal murder on 19 June 2004 of Nikolai Girenko, an eminent defender of human rights and an expert in the struggle against racism and discrimination in Russia, was probably the turning point because of his official role.

This murder made it difficult for the Russian authorities to drag out the usual explanation of the killing being the outcome of war between rival gangs of hooligans because Girenko was president of an official commission on the rights of minorities and had several times attempted to warn the public of the mounting danger from the bands of nazis and skinheads that he had spent so much time researching.

So far, police inquiries into the murder have availed nothing. Neither the perpetrators of the crime (who were not seen because they fired bullets through the door), nor the weapon used (an old gun of World War II vintage) have been found.

It should be noted that this killing took place just days after the release of a nazi arrested for wrecking the premises of the human rights and anti-fascist association Memorial and for having attacked and bound its president.

Death threats, nightly telephone terror and graffiti on her apartment door were registered, after this attack, at the home of another Memorial official. Incredibly, a man purportedly belonging to the FSB (the new name of the KGB secret police) was arrested inside the prison where one of the attackers – a neo-pagan – was being held. The reason for the arrest was that he was trying to give the detained man a list of names of people who might provide him with a false alibi.

It should be noted that Russian anti-fascists are very divided and isolated and consist of a few grass roots activists, human rights campaigners, activists belonging to parties that are both politically and economically liberal, traditional anarchists and a radical alternative social, cultural and musical movement which is mistrusted by all the political forces previously mentioned. This radical alternative scene, which has no hesitations about confronting nazis in the street, at least organises a militant anti-fascist response, sometimes successfully by working together with experienced activists whose focal point is research an analysis.

Targeted violence: Anti-Antifa murder

Towards the end of 2005, violence specifically aimed at anti-racist and anti-fascist activists underwent an acceleration and was concentrated on three cities: Moscow, St Petersburg and Voronezh, which is south of Moscow.

The opening of this killing spree started on 13 November 2005, when Timur Kacharava. a young militant punk musician in St Petersburg was stabbed through the throat in front of a bookshop by a dozen nazis who knew his face and his name. He was killed in front of his friend Maxim Zgibay who was also seriously injured.

The two young musicians, who had just taken part in an event organised weekly by the group Food not Bombs, belonged to the radical anti-fascist scene in St Petersburg, and had already been threatened by nazis a month previously. Kacharava, aged 20, was dead even before the ambulance arrived, leaving Maxim, who fortunately escaped death, as the sole witness of his friend’s murder. He was invited by the police to take part in an open, face-to-face, identity parade of arrested skinheads. Knowing that witness protection in Russia is virtually non-existent, this amounts almost to a death sentence for this 20 year-old lad. Up to now, Kacharava’s killers have all been arrested, with the exception of the leader of the gang who, though his name is well known to the police, has gone into hiding.

The next calculated murder of an anti-racist was on 7 April this year when Lamsar Samba Sell, a Senegalese student, was shot in the neck by a nazi skinhead. Samba was actively involved in an NGO called African Unity and had taken part in the organisation of intercultural festivals together with the pro-Putin self-proclaimed anti-fascist movement Nashi. This, it seems, was enough to get him killed because, on his way home after attending an intercultural friendship evening at a discotheque, he and other African students were ambushed by a nazi gunman concealed in a doorway. Running out into the street and screaming slogans, the assailant caused the students to panic and make a run for it. A shot rang out and the man seen to have opened fire legged it after throwing away a gun engraved with a swastika.

Up to now the police probe is still going on but the prosecutor has declared the crime a murder of racial character and has said it should be given priority. The reason for this urgency, compared with what happened in the case of Timur Kacharava, is that the murder of Lamsar Samba Sell gained widespread international media coverage.

None of this has deterred the nazis who, on 16 April this year, added another murder to their grim tally when a group of six skinheads in Moscow stabbed to death a 19-year-old anti-fascist punk musician, Alexander (Sasha) Ryuhin when he was on his way with a friend to a concert. Ryuhin was stabbed through the heart and in the neck. His nazi attackers made a point of wearing rubber gloves to avoid leaving telltale fingerprints. The police said they found anti-fascist stickers in Sasha’s pockets and his friends are convinced that the nazis had planned his murder in advance. Information on the police probe into this killing is still limited but the fact is that the situation in Russia for anti-fascists is worsening every day.

The deliberate murders of Nikolai Girenko, Timur Kacharava, Lamsar Samba Sell and Sasha Ryuhin taken together with the frequent racist crimes against African students, immigrants, Roma and other minorities show that the nazis have identified anti-fascist and anti-racist activists as enemies to be got rid of by all means up to and including murder.

Faced with this threat, activists who live in St Petersburg, Moscow, Voronezh or anywhere else in Russia, have to be able to count on their anti-fascist and anti-racist comrades throughout Europe to support them and to spread information about what is going on in Russia.

Nashi: Putin’s “anti-fascist youth”

Nashi is more or less a reincarnation of the old Young Communist League established by President Putin to rally young Russians.

The significance of the organisation’s new name (translated “ours”) is that it evokes a kind of exclusive identity and suggests that involvement by young people is very progressive.

Nashi is self-proclaimedly anti-fascist after having had its tasks set out for it by Putin, the first of which was to fight Edouard Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party which Putin had declared an enemy of his regime. Nashi, however, has also from time to time taken up the fight against drugs, campaigning especially amongst school students. It has been able to do this because of its official character and the links that bind it to Putin’s government. These connections open all doors to Nashi and enable it to obtain funds even in war torn Chechnya where Nashi has splendid premises in Grozny.

Beside its latest adoption of an anti-fascist guise, Nashi doesn’t think twice before protesting against human rights activists opposed to the actions of Putin and his government in Chechnya.

Thus, in February this year, Nashi was mobilised at the time of a man’s trial for publishing an appeal against the war in Chechnya, not to support him but to express the regime’s disapproval of such activities. Incredibly, the anti-war activist was convicted for inciting racial hatred and given a two-year suspended sentence.

After the murder of Lamsar Samba Sell, whose African Unity organisation worked together with Nashi to co-organise inter-cultural events, Nashi called for a gathering in Samba's memory.

This provoked a discussion amongst anti-fascists in St Petersburg about whether or not to take part in such a gathering with a governmental organisation that had declared itself in favour of the conviction of a human rights anti-war campaigner for inciting racial hatred.

In the end, about 2,000 young people aged 18 to 19, belonging to Nashi went to a gathering but there was little real emotion despite all the candles, flowers, Nashi T-shirts and the black and white anoraks worn for the occasion. Nashi’s slogan was “Putin help us !”, a slogan that presents Putin as a kind of long-awaited saviour… a typical characteristic of all cults of the personality.
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