CST Blog

Hate crime murders in Russia

22 September 2009

The Huffington Post reports on a trial in Russia of a group of neo-Nazi youths, accused of a series of racist murders:

A prominent trial in Saint Petersburg risks going all but unnoticed, yet deserves all the attention it can garner because of its profound implications for Russia. Fourteen neo-Nazi youths are on trial for deliberately and systematically killing eight people, most of them not ethnic Russians. The victims range from a Jewish shop clerk to an internationally known ethnographer who served as a court expert on extremism and race studies. The verdict on the accused and, just as importantly, the overall conduct of the trial will tell us much about the Russian legal system's ability to respond to a surge in racially motivated attacks that bodes ill for the health of the multi-ethnic Russian state. Over the last several years, the government has failed to bring justice in hundreds of cases of hate crime murders throughout the country.

So far, this landmark trial in the country's second-biggest city is proving to be a showcase for neo-Nazi solidarity as much as a venue for examining the facts in the case. Friends and relatives of the accused routinely arrive at court sessions wearing Nazi paraphernalia, from belt buckles to swastika tattoos, according to observers from the human rights organization Memorial. Yet, lawyers representing victims say that repeated complaints to bailiffs about the intimidating atmosphere fall on deaf ears.


Why is this trial so crucial? For one, the sheer number of accused and their ability to carry out these violent attacks underscore the danger posed by neo-Nazi groups in Russia. The diversity of targets - from five countries and six ethnic groups - also suggests that nobody who appears to deviate from the "Slavic norm" is safe. This threat is especially relevant in St. Petersburg, Russia's renowned "cultural capital" and leading tourist destination with 2.3 million foreign visitors last year.

Secondly, the outcome of the trial will signal the Russian justice system's ability to send a strong message that it will not tolerate violent hate crimes against the country's minorities and those who speak out on their behalf. That important message has been largely muted.

Finally, the trial is taking place at a time when human rights defenders - including those who defend the rights of minorities - in Russia are facing extraordinary challenges. The July murder of Natalya Estemirova is just the latest in a series of politically motivated murders of those investigating human rights abuses in the North Caucasus Russian republic.

According to the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, whose director co-authored the Huffington Post article, 525 people were victims of racist or xenophobic violence in Russia last year, of whom 97 were murdered. They conclude:

Racist and neo-Nazi violence continues to escalate [in 2008], although it is becoming more difficult to uncover information about this. However, Russian society is clearly losing interest in such crimes and media coverage of them has decreased, the political authorities remain uninterested in making this information available, and often the ultra-right activists themselves do everything they can to disguise their racist activities as ordinary crimes, thereby ensuring they go unnoticed by outside observers.

The nature of racist attacks is clearly changing: we are more often seeing the use of explosives and firearms. Religious and ideologically-motivated vandalism is becoming more aggressive – perpetrators are more often turning from the drawing of insulting graffiti to arson and explosions. We have also witnessed the increased use of diverse provocations to fan xenophobic hysteria in society and to provoke discriminatory actions from the authorities. The number of xenophobic attacks committed by ordinary people (as opposed to organized groups) has grown, as has the number of mass fights which have grown into (or which have threatened to grow into) ethnic pogroms.

The main victims of xenophobic aggression are natives of Central Asia (49 dead, 108 injured) and of the Caucasus (23 dead, 72 injured). However, practically no one with non-Slavic features is immune to assault by racists, nor are representatives of leftist youth movements and alternative youth subcultures (punks, Goths, emos etc) whom neo-Nazis consider ‘traitors to the white race’.

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