Inside Russia's Racism Problem

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The blast that ripped through a small cafe in the Cherkizovo market in eastern Moscow Monday morning killed eight instantly, including two children aged four and five. Two more victims died in a hospital, and the death count may yet grow: eleven of 35 wounded are in extremely grave condition. It was a brutal attack, and many Westerners acquainted with the Chechen rebels' tactics over the years might at first simply conclude it was yet another front in the war on terror — a random act of violence perpetrated by Islamic militants bent on inflicting as much carnage as possible on the West, be it George Bush's U.S. or Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Except that most of those who were killed are Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chinese and Vietnamese — the "blacks" or "churki" (wooden stubs), as Russian Nationalists derogatively call non-white foreigners, and as the increasing number of average Russians casually echo them. On Tuesday, law enforcement officials said they identified the bombers as three young ethnic Russian students of Moscow colleges. The suspects believed, Moscow's Prosecutor Yuri Demin told the press, that "There are too many Asians" here.

As repugnant as that may sound, it is becoming an increasingly popular view in today's Russia. Which is why even if the two suspects arrested are indeed guilty, they might get away with the crime. With 52% Russians supporting the slogan "Russia for Russians," and with many increasingly sympathetic to those who attack immigrants, the courts may well be lenient. "Racist attacks happen with shocking regularity in Russia, and the government is shirking its responsibilities and failing to confront the problem," Amnesty International said in its May 2006 report on hate crime in Russia. According to the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, racists murdered 10 people last year and 18 in the first half of this year, not incluing the ten people killed by the Cherkizovo market bomb.

Last September, a St. Petersburg court heard the case of a neo-Nazi group, known as Shultz88, accused of multiple racial assaults. The leader got six years, while three storm troopers got three years of suspended sentences each. One was let go as underage. And storm trooper Alexei Vostroknutov was let go for the lack of proof.

I met Shultz88's storm troopers in July 2004. One of them introduced himself as Alexei, but would not give his last name because he was facing that same trial. He had spent six months in pre-trial detention, but was set free. Alexei boasted about the number of the "churki" and "yids" he assaulted — "And I don't care how many of them died." There wasn't another Alexei at the Shultz88 trial, so it must be he whom they let off scot-free. He knew he could afford to boast.

A day before that encounter I talked with Yuri Belyayev, leader of the neo-Nazi Freedom Party, based in St Petersburg. As we talked, he leaned over my recorder to make sure his quote would not be missed and said very distinctly: "Let me report: that Syrian who they say died in a Subway accident — it was not an accident at all. My skin-group leader, the nickname of Valtroon, pushed him."

Belyayev also knew he did not risk anything. He supported Putin and believed the President shared some of his goals. "He is for rubbing the churki out, and for a strong Russia, and so are we," Belyayev said. Back in the fall of 1999, in the wake of terrorist apartment bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities, then-Premier Putin pledged "to rub out the terrorists on the john." Neo-Nazis — along with many Russians who would genuinely feel insulted if they were called Nazis — interpreted this statement in the same way Belyayev did — as a virtual license to attack. I heard it from officers who fought in Chechnya often enough.

It is true that on the eve of the G-8 Summit, Putin's government had to show that it had cleaned up St. Petersburg; the police shot dead a 22-year-old skinhead, named as a neo-Nazi leader, charged with a blatant murder of an African student and resisting arrest. But despite that show of force, hate assaults did not cease either in St. Petersburg or elsewhere. A week after the G-8 summit, the jury at the St. Petersburg City Court acquitted four nationalists charged with the deadly assault of an African student. The gallery applauded and shouted "well done" and "thanks" to the jury.

About a week ago, a band of skinheads beat to pulp a Tajik boy in a dacha Moscow village where I live, while another gang badly stabbed two Dagestanis on a suburban train. And many of these cases will never even be registered with the authorities.

What many Russians do not understand is that once they use the hate vocabulary of "churki" and "blacks," they feed the specter of fascism even if they do not fully support it. And yes, this specter is getting out of hand.

Back in July 2004, Alexei of the Shultz88 group told me: "The time of our shahids, and our bombings, has come." He was talking of groups or individuals who would create a Nazi al-Qaeda by linking through the Internet. Two years ago, I thought that the government could still roll all this scum back within a week. Monday's bombing seems to indicate that it might be too late — even if the government actually wanted to.