Unlike a decade ago, today’s Russian Neo-Nazis are now a real threat to Russian society and the Russian powers that be, the result both of the evolution of this group and of Moscow’s unsuccessful effort to control them by drawing off some of their membership into quasi-government youth movements, according to a Polish commentator.
In an essay in Warsaw’s “Dziennik” newspaper, Stanislaw Rajewski notes that Russians – and by implication, many others – do not appear to understand just how different the Neo-Nazis of today are from those of a decade ago and how much greater a threat they represent (www.dziennik.pl/swiat/article498086/Neonazisci_w_Rosji_grozniejsi_od_Czeczenow.html, available in Russian translation at inosmi.ru/social/20091207/156874778.html).
“For the majority of Russians,” Rajewski continues, the neo-Nazis are viewed as “bands of skinheads sitting in courtyards, drinking beer and painting uncensored slogans on stores where Armenians or Georgians sell shashlyk” or youngsters who “greet one another with the Nazi salute” or who occasionally beat up “a student from Liberia.”
Because most Russians like the powers that be view them in this way, the neo-Nazis of the Russian Federation are seldom equated with terrorists, but that may be changing. Not only have the powers that be declared victory over this group, but as in the case of the Nevsky express explosion, on occasion neo-Nazis have claimed responsibility for violent acts.
While the Russian media in the early 1990s sometimes had stories about the neo-Nazis, especially after the beginning of the first Chechen war made their attitudes less offensive to many, they did not emerge in the minds of many until 1998 when Semen Tokmakov of the small right-radical group “Russian Chain” beat a Black American Marine guard at the US Embassy.
At his trial, Tokmakov shouted out his group’s slogan that “Russia for the Russians, America for the Whites, and Blacks to the jungles.” His victim, “fearing for his life,” Rajewski says, fled the country. But despite his obvious involvement in this crime, Tokmakov was not convicted of anything.
In the following years, the Polish journalist writes, “the growing forces of neo-Nazis [in Russia] were underestimated because of the dual attitude toward the skinheads.” On the one hand, he notes, some Russian officials and citizens had “a positive” view of them. And on the other, most ignored them altogether.
Two years ago, the Moscow city authorities decided to “cleanse” the capital of neo-Nazis, but it was “already too late,” Rajewski argues. “Part of the organizations in exchange for promises of loyalty to the Kremlin received the chance to act feely, and others [which Rajewski suggests were the majority] were able to go underground.”
The precise number of neo-Nazis in Russia is unknown, but some rights activists have suggested it may be as many as 70,000. One of their number, SOVA Analytic Center director Aleksandr Verkhovsky, told Rajewski that “a distinctive aspect of Russian ultra-right groups” is the relatively small size of independent cells, many of which do not have more than 15 members.
Consequently, Verkhovsky says, “even if FSB agents try to penetrate their ranks, the task is complicated by the fact that they must track at one and the same time hundreds of groups which are not connected one with another.” That in turn means that any victory over such groups is likely to be incomplete at best, especially since neo-Nazism in Russia is changing shape.
In the 1990s, most skinheads were between 13 and 19 and only “from time to time” interrupted their self-dramatization to “beat refugees from Tajikistan, dark-skinned people and Hindus.” And the militia largely ignored them, saying the neo-Nazis “did not represent a major social danger” or arguing that the “racial motivation of such crimes” was lacking.
But about a decade ago, the neo-Nazis began to be older – most are in their 20s or 30s – and are interested in promoting the idea that the Russian people had fallen “into slavery” as a result of its own alcoholism and the actions of the government, and especially the security agencies, and that those agencies rather than immigrants were what the neo-Nazis should attack.
“Such actions,” as Rajewski points out, “were a rarity,” all the more so because “the radical organizations preferred to act behind the scenes even as they became ever more cruel.” According to some “unofficial statistics,” skinheads are killed “15 people a month in Moscow” alone and placed bombs in front of buildings and on railroad branch lines.
Moreover, Russia’s neo-Nazis, like other political groups are increasingly turning to the Internet to spread their views. On one YouTube clip, for example, a neo-Nazi asks his Russian audience: “You know why we are losing the war to the aliens? Because the Caucasians are outstanding sportsman and Russians are drunken degenerates.”
“Stop drinking vodka,” the neo-Nazi continues, “and go to a sports facility.” Such attitudes are to be found on the Combat 18 group’s website as well. That group, which claimed responsibility for blowing up the Nevsky Express, features a banner reading: “Your chief enemies are vodka and the FSB.”
Aleksandr Cherkasov of the Memorial Human Rights Center told Rajewski that this claim may not have any foundation, but it does have consequences: Russians are now being forced to ask themselves whether the skinheads might do this. “And to the surprise of most, the answer to this question is positive,” something that boosts the radical right even if it is not true.