Valentina Shur, a middle-aged employee in a small shop near Moscow, was shocked recently by a young customer with a shaved head who was “educating” a fellow vendor.
“I am a skinhead. We are those who want to drive the Asians and the Jews out of Russia. Only Russians should live in Russia,” the teen-ager said.
Shur, who is married to a Jew, says she had never heard such comments in her town before.
The rise in activity by skinheads — who espouse a racist, neo-Nazi ideology — isn’t limited to words.
Last October, three Asians died when 300 skinheads attacked a market in Moscow in an incident that shocked the city.
In the latest incident, a 25-year-old Afghan was beaten to death on April 15 by a gang of skinheads near a downtown Moscow subway station after he tried to defend an African who had been attacked.
Skinheads show little tolerance toward Jews. But there has been little serious skinhead violence on Jews reported, although last Friday a homemade explosive device went off near a synagogue in Krasnoyarsk, a city in Eastern Siberia.
Onlookers reportedly noticed two youngsters running away. No one was injured.
“Right now we are only warning the Jews, ‘You have a chance to get away to Israel.’ We have higher priorities now — the Caucasians, the Asians, the Africans and other blacks. But the time will come and we will get to the Jews,” Sergey, 18, a skinhead in the town of Krasnogorsk near Moscow, told JTA.
Caucasians refers to people from the Caucasus Mountains — Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan — who generally are darker-skinned than Russians.
Organized groups of young extremists have no more than 1,500 members in the Moscow region and roughly 10,000 across the country, according to official statistics.
But they are becoming more and more active, perhaps because hate crimes in Russia often go unpunished.
There reportedly have been nearly 100 racially motivated attacks in Moscow, many of them involving foreigners, since the beginning of the year, an increase from 2001.
In the face of perceived indifference from police, officials at Russian universities say they are employing security guards and even forming self-defense teams to protect their 70,000 foreign students from racist attacks.
Over the weekend, Moscow police took special security measures to prevent potential violence around Hitler’s birthday on April 20.
Police reinforcements were brought to Moscow from other cities to protect synagogues and marketplaces. In the city’s eastern neighborhoods, home to many people from the Caucasus, a police patrol was posted on every apartment block.
The day passed with few disturbances, however.
The Russian president last week personally declared war against racially motivated violence.
“The growth of extremism is a serious threat to stability in the country,” Vladimir Putin said in his state of the nation address April 18. “I am referring first of all to those who under extremist and fascist slogans and symbols organize pogroms and beat people.”
Putting Putin’s words into practice on the local level has proven to be difficult.
On the whole, Russian analysts agree with professor Lev Gudkov from the VTSIOM public opinion center. Gudkov believes that the general level of anti-Semitism in Russia remains unchanged, but the level of xenophobia and anti-Semitism among the younger generation is rising dramatically.
The recent attack by local skinheads on the Brodsky Choral synagogue in Kiev, and the ongoing growth of young extremist groups in the Baltics, western Ukraine and Belarus shows that a similar process is taking place in many parts of the former Soviet Union.
But there is no consensus on the roots of the phenomenon.
Alexander Axelrod, director of the Anti-Defamation League office in Moscow, blames the inactivity of the authorities against hate crimes and the influence of Russian media for fomenting racism and anti-Semitism.
Other analysts say there are deeper psychological and sociological reasons.
Alexander Buzgalin, a Moscow-based political analyst, says Russia’s social structure has been shattered over the last decade.
Russian youth have lost the values of the older generation but have not yet worked out their own, which makes them fodder for extremists, Buzgalin said.
Russian Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin prefers a more traditional Russian way of explaining the problem, placing the blame on malicious foreign influences.
“Foreign funds are sure to be involved here, and it is possible that the young skinheads have patrons and well-wishers outside Russia,” Chekalin told reporters last week.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.