Since the Beslan school siege tragedy, levels of racial violence in Russia have spiralled. Six racist murders have taken place in the last few weeks.
If your name has an ending which says you’re from the Caucasus, if you are recognisably Muslim, if you have darker skin, if you are from Africa or south-east Asia, or if you are in any other way seen to be foreign, you are in danger in Russia today.
Racial violence has been on the rise since the break-up of the Soviet Union and the mass migrations from the former republics to Russia, in the wake of unemployment and economic problems. But the decade-long war with Chechnya has fuelled ethnic tensions. And now the Beslan school siege and the downing of two planes, allegedly in terrorist incidents, are leading to extremely serious attacks on innocent civilians on an unprecedented scale.
In the weeks since the siege, an Uzbeck migrant worker in Dolgoprudny, north of Moscow, died after a street knifing on 14 October. A Vietnamese medical student was stabbed to death outside his dormitory in St Petersburg. An Indian businessman was shot dead outside his Moscow office. A Muslim woman in the eastern city of Asbest was raped and tortured to death. The 45-year-old mother of three had the words ‘death to terrorists’ written on the back of her naked body. In Vladivostock, the weekend after the siege, a North Korean was beaten to death. In the Urals, a group of youngsters attacked Armenian and Azeri cafes and a relative of one owner was burned to death.
These are the reported fatalities. In other attacks – on Armenian cafes – people have ended up in hospital with brain injuries, their properties burned to the ground. Mosques have been attacked and daubed with racist slogans. An imam in the Bashkiria Republic was battered around the head. A Kenyan student was beaten up in Voronezh, just yards from the scene where Amaro Lima (from Guinea Bissau) had been stabbed to death earlier in the year. A Syrian family were attacked in their own home by a gun-wielding gang. Four men of Caucasian descent were attacked by skinheads on a Moscow metro train and left with fractures and knife wounds.
The Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, which monitors the far-right, estimates there are at least 50,000 skinheads in Russia, with concentrations of over 1,500 in large cities like Moscow and St Petersburg. It believes there are around 20 to 30 racist murders each year and estimate that the number is increasing, as the authorities fail to deal with the problem.
One obvious stumbling block is the police force itself. In a significant number of the cases cited above, police describe the motive as hooliganism and not racism. Nor are police officers themselves free of guilt for such attacks. On 9 September, two Moscow policemen beat up a man they stopped at a metro station for a routine document check, because his name suggested he was of Caucasian Muslim descent. Probably something of a daily occurrence. But the man they had stopped, Colonel Magomed Tolboyev, happened to be a famous, somewhat revered, former cosmonaut. The case attracted media interest and the Moscow interior security directorate has been forced into instituting an official inquiry.
The police by-and-large are distrusted by campaigners and human rights organisations, and considered to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. When the Interior Ministry announced plans in June to assign police representatives to all rights associations (allegedly, so as to deal more swiftly with complaints) Human Rights Watch denounced the initiative as smelling ‘of old Soviet times’. In July and again in August the Moscow police raided the offices of Moye Pravo (My Right). This had been set up to protect people from police harassment after German Galdetsky, a student campaigning against police sexual abuse of illegal immigrants, was shot. ‘People are scared’, said the chair of Moye Pravo. ‘they feel the need to protect themselves from the police instead of the police protecting them.’
Lone, brave individuals like Galdetsky, who try to expose organised racism and fascism, are at particular personal risk. And it is not at all clear that the risk comes entirely from within neo-Nazi circles. On 19 May, a gang (of people who refused to identify themselves) raided the home of Aleksei Cherepanov – an anti-fascist journalist who had written about the persecution of illegal immigrants in Krasnodar. He had earlier been arrested on charges of drug possession. He denies ever having used drugs.
A month later, Dr Nikolai Girenko, a 64-year-old scholar, was gunned down as he went to answer the doorbell at his St Petersburg apartment. He had devoted himself to eliminating racism and fascism and had worked as an expert witness in many criminal cases.
Alexander Brod, head of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, predicts that the number of skinheads will grow to 100,000 if the authorities do not take measures to combat extremism. ‘Racism isn’t unique to Russia, I know it exists in Europe and America’, an Armenian singer, who was almost beaten to death in the New Year, told a US reporter. ‘But unlike Russia, in those countries it is prosecuted and the state pursues specific policies to combat it.’
More information on developments in Russia will be included in the IRR’s European Race Bulletin no 49.