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Across the Former Soviet Union Nationalist Youth Group in Russia Stages Event to Mark Holocaust Day

A Kremlin-backed youth group that previously alarmed human rights watchers with its attacks against liberal politicians has held a Holocaust-remembrance event. About a dozen of young men clad in red white-sleeved nylon jackets spent several hours near the Moscow Choral Synagogue last Friday quietly handing out leaflets with “6,000,000” on top to passers-by.

The leaflets listed the names of the Nazi concentration camps and Jewish ghettos during World War II and contained a text urging people to never forget the victims of the Holocaust.

The young men are members of Nashi, or Ours, the well-funded pro-Kremlin youth movement that claims 150,000 members nationwide.

The group was created last March, and its mass events — including a 50,000-strong “patriotic” youth rally in Moscow last May — have attracted wide, mainly negative, media coverage.

By holding the event, the group insisted it was very concerned by the rising tide of xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Russia and wanted to use the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz to raise public awareness about the issue.

“Recent events in Russia have shown that a nationalist card is being played,” said Boris Yakemenko, the group’s deputy leader for ideology and brother of Nashi leader Vasily Yakemenko, a former Kremlin official.

Yakemenko said the group was concerned by racially motivated murders of foreign students that occurred in Russian provinces and by this month’s attack on a Moscow synagogue that left eight people injured.

To make the message look more emotional, the group installed a large poster, a replica of its leaflet listing places of mass extermination of Jews. Next to the poster, Nashi activists put a life-size installation: an entrance to a pre-war Soviet apartment, purportedly once occupied by a Jewish family. A door of the apartment was left half-opened; a long black coat and a black hat hang on the coat hanger. A handwritten note pinned to the door said “Don’t forget us.”

It remained unclear how many of the 3,000 leaflets printed for the event were handed in the few hours activists spent in a quiet Moscow street outside the synagogue braving the cold and heavy snowfall.

Yet, the event was widely covered by all major Russian media outlets. As with all Nashi events, this one drew a huge television and print media presence.

Nashi bills itself and an anti-racism patriotic youth organization that supports the Kremlin.

But liberal media and human rights community had been often described the group as the Kremlin’s “rent-a-crowd” against street revolutions, similar to those that took place in 2004 in Ukraine and Georgia.

In speeches and pamphlets, Nashi has previously attacked liberal politicians as agents of Western influence. The group has also targeted business tycoons and bureaucrats.

A spokesman for the Choral Synagogue said the institution did not object to the event because of its positive message.

“When we say similar things, the voice of Jewish organizations is hardly heard,” said Vladimir Pliss of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia, an umbrella group that has its offices inside the Choral Synagogue.

“We can only convey our message through non-Jews,” he said referring to the Nashi initiative.

But not everyone in the Jewish community agreed.

“This organizations stands for everything I oppose,” said Alexei, a Moscow Jewish student attending a study group at a Moscow Jewish community center last Friday.

“Nashi are just using the banner of anti-fascism, in reality they would do whatever Kremlin tells them to,” said Alexei, who asked that his last name not be used. “A public group that gets its inspiration from the Kremlin administration doesn’t look very trustworthy to me.”

A leading human rights activist also said such events should not necessarily be taken at face value.

“Undoubtedly we are talking about a Kremlin project,” said Alexander Brod, director of the Moscow Bureau on Human Rights, a group that monitors anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Russia.

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