Thursday, February 12, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russian Extremists Threaten to Kill Journalists, Lawyers and Rights Activists

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 12 – An anonymous Russian extremist has sent an email to a Russian human rights monitor saying that his people have decided it will attract more attention to their cause if they kill journalists, lawyers and human rights activists than continuing to murder “Daghestani or Armenian students.”
Galina Kozhevnikova, the deputy director of the SOVA Human Rights Center, said that after receiving this threat, which appears to have been timed to coincide with her organization’s release yesterday of a report on radical nationalism in Russi, she had turned to law enforcement officials and asked them to investigate (
Such a threat is disturbing in and of itself, but it is more troubling for three reasons. First, it suggests that radical nationalist and fascist groups in Russia are now carefully calculating how to attract the most attention to their cause rather than simply lashing out at easily identified members of particular non-Russian groups.
The attention that the recent murders of lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova as compared to the level of reporting about the beatings and killings in Russian cities of people from the Caucasus and Central Asia has apparently prompted these groups to draw that conclusion.
At the same time, however, it should be remembered that those killings were hardly the first murderous attacks on journalists and rights activists in Russia. In the last year alone, two activists of the Anti-Fascist Youth Movement have been killed: Aleksey Krylov in March 2008 and Fedor Filatov in October (
Second, the threat Kozhevnikova received – and its wording suggests that other rights activists will either receive such messages or will draw conclusions on the basis of the one sent to her – comes at a time when the Russian authorities are cracking down on those who challenge the powers that be in any way the government does not like.
Yesterday, interior ministry officials announced they would “preemptively” block protests lacking government permission ( and local officials took administrative actions against rank and file participants in one such meeting (
And third, Kozhevnikova’s disturbing report was nearly drowned out by discussions in the Moscow media of the Russian Orthodox Church’s campaign against “tolerance” following the publication of an open letter by Bishop Ilinarkh of Perm and Solikamsk calling on parents to oppose courses in tolerance in Russian schools (
In his open letter to his flock, Ilinarkh argued that under the pretext of the struggle against extremism, Western countries and their allies inside Russia are “attempting” to promote tolerance of ideas and actions that should not be tolerated and thus “to transform our national Orthodox culture” into one that resembles the West.
Indeed, the Perm churchman continued, “the true goal here consists not in the struggle with extremism but in efforts to exploit human sins and weakness through gaming clubs, slot machines and casinos, the porno-industry, drugs and other [undesirable] elements” and thus destroy and subordinate Russia’s unique way of life.
Consequently, the bishop said, Orthodox Russians must refuse to take part in conferences on tolerance lest they be infected by such ideas, and they must work to prevent the introduction of classes on tolerance into state schools or seek to remove such courses where they have already been introduced.
It would be tempting to dismiss Ilinarkh’s words as the outburst of a single church leader or to suggest that he is doing no more than complain about the moral degradation of Russian society in recent years. But there are compelling reasons to believe that he speaks for more than himself and is delivering a message many in Russia want delivered and want to hear.
Father Georgy Ryabykh, who works in the Patriarchate’s External Affairs Department which was headed by the new patriarch prior to his elevation, underscored that Bishop Ilinarkh was not speaking for himself but reflected the thinking of the Church as an institutional whole, although he pointedly refrained from endorsing Ilinarkh’s exact words.
Russia has “its own spiritual values and a centuries-long experience in cooperation of various faiths and peoples,” Ryabykh said, “and thus doesn’t need to borrow [from the West] such concepts as tolerance,” he told the media yesterday, or to promote them through the Russian educational system (
While Ryabykh said that the concept had “many meanings” and both “pluses and minuses,” he argued that often it involves “moral nihilism, indifference to various sins, religious truth, and those values which have taken shape in the country over the centuries.” Using this term in that sense, he continued, represents “a break with our national tradition.”
Russia, Father Ryabykh said, has “great experience in good neighborly relations, cooperation among people of different faiths, nationalities, and orientations to dialogue. Therefore,” he continued, it would be “more correct to use in the educational system terms which are more familiar and understandable to the citizens of Russia.”
But he then pointed out that in biology, “the term ‘tolerance’ designates the organism’s lack of reaction to its surroundings,” an idea that if extended to social and political life means that “when people become indifferent to any tasks, social, political or economic, this leads to atomization and the collapse of society.”
Such an argument, if delivered in the course of a calm discussion, may be one that some would take seriously even if most people of good will would reject all or parts of it. But in the current hothouse climate in Moscow, such an argument is likely to encourage both violence and the threat of violence against those who seek to promote the values of an open society.

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