Brutally violent expressions of bias and nationalism gain acceptance in land where Nazis killed millions
St. Petersburg, Russia — During rare moments of clarity, Leandre Sawadogo recalls the man who assaulted him, smashing his skull, injuring his brain and dimming his mind: a young, white man with a shaved head.
But most of the time Sawadogo, a 39-year-old former tutor of French from the small West African nation of Burkina Faso, is unconscious, or moaning in his sleep on a fold-out couch in a stuffy room that smells of sweat, medicine and urine. A piece of skull the size of a fist is missing above his right temple. His left arm is paralyzed. His left eye does not open. He cannot sit, stand or walk. He rarely recognizes his visitors or his girlfriend. It is not clear how much longer he will live.
In early May, someone struck Sawadogo on the head with a heavy object as he crossed the dusty courtyard of his apartment building in southern St. Petersburg. The doctors who treat Sawadogo, his African friends and his Russian girlfriend say he fell victim to Russia’s increasingly violent neo-Nazis.
In a country that lost at least 26 million people to Nazi Germany 60 years ago, tens of thousands of young people are embracing the beliefs their grandparents fought against, attacking foreigners, especially anyone with dark features hailing from the Caucasus, Asia or Africa.
Driven by the combination of outrage over terrorist attacks by Chechen insurgents, rising nationalism and inequitable economic conditions, they are turning to a savage blend of Nazi ideology and Russian chauvinism, say Russian and Western human rights activists and neo-Nazis themselves.
“We must fight ethnic groups that threaten our state and destroy the Russian national culture,” said Oleg, 27, a St. Petersburg member of the ultra- nationalist Russian National Unity movement. Dressed in a black shirt and suit and tall black boots, Oleg, who refused to give his last name, wore a band with a large swastika on the ring finger of his right hand.
Asked whether he had ever attacked or killed anyone personally, Oleg was evasive. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a law that would allow us to take up weapons to fight this scum,” he said.
The majority of Russia’s ultra-radical nationalists — anywhere between 100,000 and 500,000 people, by the estimates of human rights groups and the radicals themselves — manifest their views by publishing xenophobic and racist newspapers and shouting anti-Semitic slogans at Communist rallies.
A growing number of neo-Nazis are turning to violence, human rights groups say. Nearly half of the world’s skinheads — about 50,000 of them — live in Russia, according to a January report by the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights. In St. Petersburg, where a brutal, 872-day blockade by Nazi troops killed 1.7 million people during World War II, there may be as many as 5,000 skinheads, the report said; an estimated 10,000 skinheads live in Moscow, up from a dozen a decade ago.
In 2004, neo-Nazis killed 44 people across Russia — more than double the previous year, Amnesty International reported. One of the victims, 9-year- old Hurshida Sultanova from Tajikistan, was stabbed 11 times in front of her father and older brother by about 10 neo-Nazis in St. Petersburg. Another Tajik girl, Nikufar Sangbaeva, 5, died when skinheads beat her and her relatives with brass knuckles and metal rods at a train station. Last month, a dozen skinheads beat a Vietnamese man to death in a Moscow park, chanting, “Russia for Russians!”
Boris Prolorov, 28, a member of the ultra-nationalist Russian Thought movement, said the victims were to blame for their own deaths.
“Those Tajik girls should have stayed in Tajikistan,” said Prolorov, who shaves his head and, like Oleg, wears all black. “Tell me, where do all these uncontrollable blacks come from?”
Prolorov said he frequently meets with members of other radical groups to discuss what he called “the problem of nonnatives in Russia.”
No one knows how many groups like Russian Thought and Russian National Unity exist in Russia today. Prolorov estimates that there are “dozens.” Some, like Russian National Unity, publish weekly newspapers their members sell off cardboard boxes by subway stations in St. Petersburg and Moscow; others have Web sites. They get their money from donations and the sales of their newspapers, and use online chat rooms to communicate with each other.
While ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians make up 80 percent of the nation’s population of 145 million, Russia is also home to hundreds of ethnic and religious minorities. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people from the impoverished former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus come to Russia each year to look for odd jobs.
Prolorov is one of the suspected accomplices in the slaying of Nikolai Girenko, one of Russia’s leading experts on skinheads who frequently acted as a special adviser to the public prosecutor in St. Petersburg in high-profile hate crime investigations. A teenager shot Girenko through the door of his St. Petersburg apartment with a sawed-off shotgun in June of last year, and prosecutors believe the attacker wanted to punish him for his work in helping convict young neo-Nazis. Prolorov claims Girenko was killed on behalf of Russian authorities who wanted to frame neo-Nazis.
Law enforcement officials have repeatedly promised that they would crack down on hate crimes. Instead, police routinely arrest darker-skinned people and sometimes beat and torture them while in detention, turning a blind eye to the skinheads, according to organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Sawadogo’s girlfriend, Yelena Kovshova, said the police refused to investigate Sawadogo’s beating because he cannot stay conscious long enough to file a complaint. The police refused to comment.
Many hate crime victims are as suspicious of the police as of their attackers, said Ali Nassor, 40, a freelance journalist from Tanzania who said he has been assaulted by neo-Nazis “so many times I’ve lost count” during his 19 years in St. Petersburg.
“Not just the police, the system itself is racist, from top to bottom,” said Nassor, who remains in Russia to be close to his son, Norman, who is 13.
Racism has permeated Russian society, said Yuri Vdovin, an expert on hate crimes at the Citizens’ Watch human rights group in St. Petersburg.
In a June survey of Russians by Moscow’s Yuri Levada polling center, 58 percent of those polled approved of the “Russia for Russians” slogan, almost twice the level recorded in 1998. One out of 5 of those polled said all non- Russians should be evicted from “traditionally Russian territories.” Landlords in St. Petersburg and Moscow refuse to rent apartments to people from the Caucasus or “the South.” It is hard for darker-skinned people to find jobs or even receive medical care, said Deni Teps, head of the Chechen diaspora in St. Petersburg.
“We have to fight this, but how?” Kovshova said as she gently moved Sawadogo’s injured head to its side, fixing his pillow.
“They are fascists,” she said. Tears pooled in her eyes. “I am ashamed of them.”
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