By Irina Sheludkova
Racism in Russia is on the rise. If you happen to be black, Asian, or Jewish you don’t need to be told this. However the situation is complex; and difficult to analyze due to lack of statistics and the position adopted by many that there is, relatively speaking, no problem at all.
According to a survey of the Levada Center, as of August 2005, 18% of respondents [Russians] support the idea that there should be restrictions for Jews to live in Russia. Jews occupy sixth place on this list, behind Caucasians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Asians and Gypsies. The Levada Center is one of the largest research institutions in Russia; it operates on the basis of VTsIOM — All-Russia Center for Studies of Public Opinion, founded in 1987. These are statistics. There are real stories behind them.
On January 11 of this year, 20 year old Alexandr Koptsev attacked people at the Moscow synagogue on Bolshaya Bronnaya during a service. Shouting nazi slogans he injured 8 people with a knife (citizens of Russia,the USA, Israel, Tajikistan). Five people were seriously wounded and spent many days in hospital. Koptsev was declared sane by medical expertise, and now is about to face trial for attempted murder based on racial and religious hatred. It has been proven that Koptsev was reading extremist and anti-Semitic literature, most of which he found on the Internet. The prosecutor’s office has opened a related criminal case to investigate dissemination of extremist information over the net.
During the past year, the Jewish community at Saltykovka village in the Moscow region has been a target for nationalist attacks a number of times. On the night of January 1 2005 the synagogue was set on fire. In February the whole village was plastered with anti-Semitic writings; the synagogue’s fence was covered with swastikas. At the Right March in November 2005, attended by about 4000 supporters in the center of Moscow, representatives of NDPR (Natsionalno-Derzhavnaya Party of Russia) were carrying anti-Semitic slogans.
Internet sites of Jewish communities are regularly broken into by hackers with extreme nationalist views. The latest such attack took place on January 27, the day when the liberation of the Auschwitz camp is celebrated. The site of the World Congress of Russian Jewry was hacked into, and electronic bandits pasted logos of their organization (Slavysnskii Soyuz) all over the site. These are not isolated events, there seem to be regular attacks on Jews or Jewish property, however we do not hear about all of them.
There is some evidence to support the view that political parties are supporting racism to boost their membership.
According to a report from the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, there are a minimum of 7 parties and political movements which use xenophobia and racism as a background for their ideology. There are quite a few examples. On May 16th, the State Duma held a round table discussion ‘National Issues of Russia’s Development Strategy’. This discussion was organized by the LDPR fraction, whose leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky insisted that “90% of art, jurisprudence, business spheres are dominated by Jews”.
In January 2005, a number of mass media publications reprinted the text of the so-called ‘Letter of 500’ which appealed to Russia’s Prosecutor General, asking for the banning of all Jewish organizations as extremist. It was composed by publicist Mikhail Nazarov and signed by 19 State Duma deputies, among others. This letter featured all the standard anti-Semitic myths which have been around for decades, such as the view that ‘the democratic world is now under the financial and political control of international Jewry’. Even though many of the deputies withdrew their signatures from this document because of the scandal it provoked, seven (mostly from the Communist Party) did not. Russia’s Ministry of International Affairs sharply criticized this letter and its authors. In February the State Duma adopted a statement which denounced the letter. But in March of 2005, this document, which now had 5000 signatures, was re-submitted to the General Office of the Public Prosecutor, and the document was printed in many regional publications.
In January 2005, presentations of several anti-Semitic books were made. Authors included the co-chairman of the NDPR Aleksandr Sevastyanov and NDPR ex-leader Boris Mironov, who at that moment was subject to federal investigation for his radical nationalistic activities. Anti-Semitic books are regularly published by Vityaz, Russkaya Pravda, Peresvet, Algoritm, Yauza and other publishing houses. In 2005, xenophobic broadcasts were broadcast regularly by Narodnoye Radio. Newspapers with anti-Semitic and racist propaganda are freely published and their circulation ranges from 3,000 to 100,000 copies. Available punitive legislation for punishing such propaganda does not seem to be being used extensively. In the past year, the Federal Service for the Monitoring of Legislation Observance in the Sphere of Mass Communications and Protection of Culture Heritage issued only nine warnings to the mass media for publications which were recognized as extremist.
Vladimir Putin in his meeting last year with Ben Lazar, the head rabbi of Russia, said that the Russian authorities intend to continue fighting anti-Semitism, as well as chauvinism and anti-Russian tendencies.
When qualifying crimes based on nationalistic views, law enforcement bodies are not eager to apply article 282 (arousing of national or religious hatred) of the Criminal Code. The reason behind such reluctance seems to be lack of precedence and unwillingness in dealing with such hard-to-prove cases, when there isn’t enough staff available for investigating more ordinary, grave crimes. Law enforcement bodies simply prefer to change the article to 213 (hooliganism).
Some high-ranking officials even try to present the issue of ethnic-based hatred as a non-issue in Russia’s society. Vladimir Pronin, head of the capital’s police, said that there are no organized skinhead groups in Moscow, but only hooligans. But according to various statistics, including data from the police itself, over 50,000 people participate in the skinhead movement in Russia. Its members are organized into thousands of small groups.
Amendments to the Criminal Code and particularly to the law on counteracting extremist activities have been drafted and were sent for review to the Supreme Court and the government. The amendments define a much stricter approach to requests from the public to carry out extremist activities and for actions which are intended to arouse hatred by religious, racial and gender motives.
“I have seen the draft. Unfortunately, the new amendments do not clarify existing law, but do just the opposite; making it less clear precisely what crimes are extremist in character”, said Aleksandr Verkhovskii, Director of Sova Center (an information and analytical center which studies issues of nationalism, xenophobia, religious radicalism), at a press -conference where an annual report on radical nationalism was presented. Galina Kozhevnikova the deputy director of Sova Center, said that ideological activity and coordination of radical nationalist groups has increased, which is a worrisome trend. At the same time, Kozhevnkova said that law enforcement practice has shown a tendency towards improvement.
Society as a whole holds a lot of responsibility for preventing hate-based crimes. The Russian mass media, like the mass-media in any country plays a very important role in forming public opinions. The Sova center has a separate project which monitors ‘hatred language’ in the media. Kozhevnikova said that this monitoring has shown that the word ‘migrant’ has acquired a clearly ethnic meaning, which is absolutely wrong.
According to statistics from the Levada center, in August 2005, 37% of Russians agreed with an opinion that ‘people of non-Russian nationalities are guilty of many of Russia’s misfortunes’. This opinion comes up so often in contemporary Russia that one hardly even notices it.
“Xenophobia is archaic – in pre-historical societies people clearly drew lines between aliens and members of the group”, said Vladimir Novitsky, attorney and President of the Russian Section of the International Society for Human Rights. “But we live in modern times. Vast migration processes and inter-ethnic contacts take place in modern society. A reverse process happens also as people strive for their national identity. But there is also radical nationalism, when love for the motherland acquires paradoxical forms”. He mentioned radical Islam in this context, as well as a great number of ultra-right organizations which are active at the moment.
Novitskii is sure that sanctions alone will not solve the problem. It is very important to overcome the cult of violence, which is still so strong in Russian society. That is, to overcome the idea that criminals are more successful than non-criminals.
The whole issue is very complicated and ambiguous. Making hard and fast conclusions is difficult. Many established social and political reasons lie behind emerging xenophobia and hate-based crimes. Some say that a weak state migration and labor policy is to blame. The population structure of large cities has greatly changed over the past 15 years. Colossal illegal labor markets have emerged. Active ethnic groups are dominating spheres of certain businesses, because traditionally these groups are strong in certain type of activities, e.g. selling vegetables at the markets and so on. “But migrant inflow is good for Russia. There is also a serious demographic decline in Russia. Without migrants, Russia will not be able to support the load of economic development”, says Novitskii.
“The number of nationalistic crimes has grown 3-4 times in the last decade, but amounts to 0.01% of the total number of crimes. Russia is overflowing with criminal activity”, Novitskii says. Even accounting for this, according to Novitskii, investigation of cases of a racist nature is insufficient. Many also say that the real scale of attacks is larger than available records show. On many occasions, people are simply too intimidated to make appeals, and there is no information on the legal aspects of such situations. The criminal approach to the law by some of those who are supposed to defend it does not help much either.
Emmanuel has lived in Moscow for 14 years already and was attacked a number of times because of the color of his skin. He was seriously injured 3 years ago at Metro Kurskaya: a crowd of skinheads knocked him down, beat him severely and even tried to push him under a train. The attack was so violent that Emmanuel came back to consciousness only in hospital. He still suffers from pains in the back. This year in January he was going home by metro alone around midnight. He found himself alone in a carriage with 2 young men who attacked him when the train was traveling from Metro Elektrozavodskaya to Baumanskaya. “They were not drunk. I could hear them conspiring that they could attack me easily while nobody was around”. He was lucky to be in the first coach, because he ran towards the wall separating the coach and the driver’s compartment. The driver heard him, called the police, and did not open the doors until police came. A criminal case was filed and investigation is now in process.
Emmanuel told me this story when I met him at the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy, where he teaches English. 2.5 years ago the Chaplaincy started the ‘Racial Attacks Task Force’ with a purpose of assisting victims of racial attacks and to record information about them. Reports are being sent to NGO’s and newspapers. Since October 2005, four incidents have been reported to the Task Force. Roney, who is managing the Task Force, admits that the number of reported attacks has declined. But he noticed: “Police are not ready to assist”. In another brutal attack which happened this January, the victim and skinheads were taken to the police station, but later the victim refused to proceed with the case, reportedly because the attitude adopted by the police was serious. He said he was even asked (by the police) why he came to Russia at all.
Unfortunately for all of us, reports of this kind are all too often treated as the kind of thing that have no meaning – ‘unless it happens to me’. Indeed for most of us, there seems to be little danger right now. As foreigners in this land, perhaps we should not be concerned at all, unless it affects us directly. The only thing is that xenophobia, once started, can get out of control.