Skinheads have killed 57 people in Russia in 2008. Why are citizens of former Soviet republics afraid to walk Russia's streets?
Continuation. Read the first installment in KP's April 28 issue
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.
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.
Read the final installment in tomorrow's KP.
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