Russian Trial to Bare a Face of Nationalism

MOSCOW — It once seemed as if Nikita Tikhonov was positioning himself to join this country’s political elite: he attended the prestigious Moscow State University, founded a right-wing political magazine called The Russian Way and worked as a campaign aide for a parliamentary candidate.

A self-declared patriot with a passion for Russian history, Mr. Tikhonov refused to smoke or drink alcohol, insisting that a blend of temperance and civic engagement might help revive his country.

Now, Mr. Tikhonov is on trial for murder.

Prosecutors contend that his right-wing intellectual pursuits mutated into nationalistic hatred that led him to kill a prominent human rights lawyer and a young journalist two years ago. Mr. Tikhonov initially confessed to the crime, though he now says he is innocent. Testimony in his trial, which includes his wife as a co-defendant, is scheduled to begin on Monday.

Whatever his original path, Mr. Tikhonov has now come to embody the increasing radicalization of Russia’s nationalist movement, his true nature, perhaps, revealed more in the tattoos covering his body, including one on his left shoulder of a cross ringed with swastikas.

Like Mr. Tikhonov, 30, many of the extreme nationalists are young, educated and middle class. They are angry at myriad enemies, real and perceived, and are earning a worsening reputation for widespread political violence.

One of the most widely publicized cases came in December, in the wake of the fatal shooting an ethnic Russian soccer fan here by a man from Russia’s North Caucasus region. Thousands of young people began an extended riot close to Red Square, chanting “Russia for Russians” and racial slurs. They threw rocks at police officers, and then scattered. Later, groups of ethnic Russian men and some women attacked non-Slavic minorities on side streets and subways. Several people were reported killed.

Ethnic Russians make up about 80 percent of Russia’s 142 million people, sharing the country with more than 100 ethnic groups, many of which make up Russia’s large Muslim community. Russia also has the largest immigrant population in the world after the United States, numbering as many as 10 million, mostly from former Soviet republics in the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

Nationalists have taken responsibility for kidnappings, beheadings and a 2006 bombing that killed 10 at a Moscow market operated mostly by immigrants. At least 37 people were killed and more than 300 injured in xenophobic attacks in 2010, according to the Sova Center, a Moscow-based organization that tracks such violence. Many more cases go unreported.

Nationalists have also singled out those considered sympathetic to ethnic minorities or opposed to right-wing ideas and deeds. They have killed several members of an anti-fascist group called Anti-Fa, which arose in response to growing xenophobic violence. In the past year, nationalists have been linked to the murders of several police officers and a judge.

Aleksandr Belov, a nationalist leader who once worked with Mr. Tikhonov, blamed the government for the recent violence, saying Russia’s leaders ignored the interests of ethnic Russians, favoring well-organized and influential diasporas while squeezing nationalists out of power. This, he said, has prompted some to take up arms to stave off perceived threats against Russia’s culture and traditions.

“It is becoming an armed struggle,” Mr. Belov said. “You can call such people terrorists, but there is another name: these are partisans who are fighting a war of liberation.”

Based on testimony from Mr. Tikhonov’s friends, prosecutors contend that he considered himself a part of this struggle.

“In conversations, he expressed intolerance toward immigrants in Russia and non-Slavs, and expressed racist ideas,” a friend, Sergei Yerzunov, also an avowed nationalist, told investigators, according to court documents. “He said that the main goal, not only of his activities, but of the whole nationalist movement, should be the struggle against ideological opponents.”

Mr. Tikhonov is accused of killing two such enemies. One, Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer, for years pressed the authorities to have perpetrators of hate crimes brought up on charges, leading to the imprisonment of several. The other, Anastasia Baburova, a freelance journalist with Novaya Gazeta, the country’s leading opposition newspaper, wrote about nationalists.

They were shot to death together at close range in January 2009 in a brazen, daylight attack just a short walk from the Kremlin. Prosecutors have charged Mr. Tikhonov’s common-law wife, Yevgenia Khasis, with aiding the attack, and she is also now on trial.

The killings were met with satisfaction if not outright jubilation in some nationalist circles. One nationalist carried Champagne to a makeshift memorial a day after the shootings, placing the bottle amid the flowers in the still-red snow.

Investigators say that Mr. Markelov was the intended target. His investigation into the 2006 stabbing death of an anti-fascist activist led to Mr. Tikhonov being named a suspect. Though Mr. Tikhonov denied involvement — and prosecutors later dropped the charges against him — he fled.

For three years he lay low in a rented Moscow apartment. Using an alias and fake documents, he left Russia for a time, possibly living in Ukraine, friends and relatives said. He used pay phones to make sporadic calls, though he avoided revealing his whereabouts.

His lawyer, Aleksandr Vasilyev, said Mr. Tikhonov made a living selling weapons on the black market. The police discovered an arsenal stashed in his apartment upon his arrest in November 2009; among the weapons confiscated was the Browning pistol used to shoot Mr. Markelov and Ms. Baburova.

Despite the evidence against Mr. Tikhonov, his family and friends contend that he is innocent, describing him as a convenient suspect because of his earlier ties to Mr. Markelov, but ultimately the victim of a government crackdown on nationalists.

Though nationalists tend to portray themselves as oppressed, the government’s treatment of them has been more ambivalent. While Russia’s leaders have vehemently condemned xenophobic violence, they also have at times seemed to try to co-opt nationalist sentiment.

The Kremlin has allowed right-wing groups to hold rallies in Moscow, where participants have made Nazi salutes, even as it blocks protests by the liberal opposition.

Perhaps under different circumstances, Mr. Tikhonov, with his college degree and passion for history, might have become a conservative politician or joined the group of right-wing commentators who have become a force in Western Europe.

“I tried to raise him as a patriot,” said his father, Aleksandr Tikhonov. “He always said it was necessary to revive the nation, to take pride in your nation and take pride in your people and your ancestors.”

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