Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Window on Eurasia: A Mid-Sized Russian City Becomes a Hotbed of Skinhead Activity

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 20 – Ulyanovsk, the birthplace of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin, has joined Moscow, St. Petersburg and Voronezh as a center of skinhead activity, an indication that the xenophobic sentiments Russia’s invasion in Georgia has stirred up are leading to more violence by Russian extremists against minorities and foreigners.
According to an article in today’s “Novyye izvestiya,” law enforcement personal acknowledge that a series of violent attacks, including the murder of a man from Africa, are the work of skinheads, a development that has left human rights activists there and elsewhere “shocked” by the implications (
On the same day the skinheads killed the African, a prosecutor there told the paper, they then roamed the town and attacked “three local people,” who “fortunately remained alive.” Now, he said, “the law enforcement organs [are working to] establish whether these crimes were committed on the basis of racial hatred,” an indication that the victims were not ethnic Russians.
Regardless of what the prosecutors ultimately decide – and Russian prosecutors and courts are loathe to classify most xenophobic attacks as animated by racial hatred – the suspects arrested so far “have acknowledged that they are skinheads” and searches of their residences have found Nazi materials of various kinds.
Igor Kornilov, a Ulyanovsk human rights activist, said that his city, “which had always considered itself a place which showed tolerance to representatives of different nationalities was rapidly being transformed into one of the most aggressive nationalistic centers in the country,” something officials there ignored despite earlier attacks on a Vietnamese and a Russian Jew.
“Not so long ago,” Galina Kozhevnikova, the deputy director of Moscow’s SOVA Analytic Center which tracks hate crimes, said that in Ulyanovsk, members of the extremist group Russian National Unity (RNE) marched through the city, but the militia there denied that participants were nationalists or extremists.
And now she added, that in that Middle Volga city, “a heroic aura has frequently been created around the skinheads,” something that has brought them “a multitude” of followers and will undoubtedly ensure that those now in jail will have “top lawyers” and that “in the city will begin a campaign to collect money to support them.”
Aleksandr Brod, who directs the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, told the paper that no one should be surprised by the recent rise in skinhead activity in places like Ulyanovsk given both the ideological climate and the failure of law enforcement and other officials “for several years to do anything,” even in the face of “regular” attacks on the city’s Jewish community.
The paper concluded that all the experts with whom it had spoken agreed that “nationalist attitudes in Ulyanovsk almost certainly will continue to increase,” even and perhaps especially if there is little or no coverage in the central media of developments there and if the government and Russian citizens do not demand that the authorities act with greater vigor against this plague.
What is taking place in Ulyanovsk almost certainly is taking place in other middle-sized Russian cities, a development that is especially troubling not only because the actions of skinheads there are likely to pass unnoticed at the center or abroad most of the time but also because that is where a far larger percentage of Russians live than in the two capitals.
Meanwhile, however, St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko said this week that the situation with regard to skinheads in her city was improving. “During the first half of this year, she told the National Anti-Terrorist Committee in Moscow on Tuesday, “there was not one case of a crime of an extremist nature” there.
Her statement says more about how crimes are classified than it does about what skinheads in the northern capital are doing. And indeed, she appears to recognize that fact even if she isn’t saying so in public: Last week, she met with leaders of the non-Russian diasporas there to reassure them that they would be protected (

UPDATE for August 21: The SOVA human and religious rights center says that its data show that Governor Matvienko is incorrect when she asserts that the number of ethnically motivated crimes has declined in St. Petersburg (

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