Nikolai Girenko

Ethnographer and human-rights campaigner

Testifying in court against skinhead, fascist and racist gangs can be dangerous in modern Russia. Nikolai Girenko, a St Petersburg-based academic ethnographer by day and in his spare time an investigator and expert on such gangs for human-rights groups and the prosecutor's office, had received his fair share of death threats. But, unlike others, Girenko did not back away from what he considered vital work. He was shot dead through the wooden front door of his communal flat in central St Petersburg.

Nikolai Mikhailovich Girenko, ethnographer and human-rights activist: born Leningrad 31 October 1940; married (two daughters); died St Petersburg 19 June 2004.

Testifying in court against skinhead, fascist and racist gangs can be dangerous in modern Russia. Nikolai Girenko, a St Petersburg-based academic ethnographer by day and in his spare time an investigator and expert on such gangs for human-rights groups and the prosecutor's office, had received his fair share of death threats. But, unlike others, Girenko did not back away from what he considered vital work. He was shot dead through the wooden front door of his communal flat in central St Petersburg.

With 50,000 skinheads in Russia and racist attacks killing two dozen people per year and rising (St Petersburg being a particular hotspot), Girenko had plenty to do. He had angered many, testifying in the past two years alone in more than 20 cases against racist publications and gangs. One of those he testified against, Dmitry Bobrov of the Schultz-88 group, described Girenko as a "Russophobe" and an agent of the "Zionist New World Order".

As Pamyat and other nasty Russian nationalist groupings emerged in 1986 with the liberalisation unleashed by Mikhail Gorbachev, Girenko became concerned and began his investigations into the fringe movements.

In the messy early 1990s he was elected to St Petersburg city council, where he was a member of the committee on human rights and ethnic minorities. He worked tirelessly to help the city's minority communities organise cultural centres and protect their rights in a sometimes hostile environment. He helped write a manual for the police on racist crimes.

Born in Leningrad in 1940, Girenko survived the 900-day blockade of the city by Nazi German forces. He graduated in African studies from Leningrad University's Oriental Institute in 1967, then worked for three years as a translator for Soviet specialists working in Tanzania. In 1970 he began working for the Institute of Ethnography in Leningrad, where he would remain until his death.

Modest and humorous, Girenko was cool in the courtroom, intervening against bombastic defendants to devastating effect. "Nikolai Mikhailovich was a highly experienced expert," his fellow human-rights activist Alexander Brod declared,

and a specialist on the ideology of Nazism. The fascists knew who they were killing.

"Why did he get involved in this issue?" asked another colleague, Vyacheslav Sukhachev:

Because he, more than anyone else, truly understood the danger of national extremism. Because he didn't want people in Russia to start to be calibrated by the shape of their skull.

Felix Corley



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