Russia's racist skinheads terrorise foreigners

It is increasingly dangerous to have a dark skin in Moscow, writes Phil Reeves
Click to follow
The Independent Online
RUSSIANS will today hold their annual Victory Day parade in Red Square to celebrate the fact that Hitler and his armies are dead and buried. Would that they could say the same of Nazi ideology and the violence it spawns.

A wave of racist attacks by neo-Nazi skinheads in Moscow is sowing alarm among diplomats and other foreign nationals, and has prompted several embassies to issue warnings to their compatriots.

The mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, was yesterday struggling to defuse an outcry over the more serious incident - the stabbing of an Azerbaijani trader, whose death on Thursday prompted 1,500 angry Azerbaijanis to bear his body through the streets, after wrestling it from ambulancemen and smashing the windows of their vehicle. The demonstration was broken up by the police.

Mr Luzhkov, an outspoken nationalist whose administration has a long record of mistreating ethnic minorities, blamed the killing on a business dispute.

The Russian capital was multi-ethnic and "has never resolved ethnic or religious conflicts in such a way," he said. But Azerbaijan's embassy has linked it to neo-Nazi skinheads. In addition, local Azerbaijani traders say the killing was witnessed by police, who did not intervene.

The incident came less than a week after a black US marine was badly beaten up by skinheads at a market in the city's Fili Park, a popular haunt among Muscovites who go there to buy bootleg CDs. Minutes after the attack, one of the assailants - the 22-year-old editor of a neo-Nazi newspaper - gave a television interview in which he bragged about beating up black people, saying they were "attracted to his fists like metal to a magnet". Russia's Foreign Ministry condemned the incident as "repulsive".

The assault prompted the US embassy in Moscow to repeat a warning to Americans of African and Asian ethnicity to be on their guard against Russian skinheads.

The embassy first drew attention to the problem after an even more sickening attack two weeks earlier, in which more than 20 skinheads were seen beating up two young Asian women near the Novy Arbat, a major thoroughfare in central Moscow.

Since then other reports have surfaced of other race- related attacks on foreigners, which may be linked with a threat by Russia's neo-Nazis to step up such assaults after Hitler's birthday on 20 April.

Neo-Nazi groups remain a brutish minority on the fringe of Russian politics, but they have taken root within a society in which there is a disturbing level of general racism.

Although Russians are often far more curious about, than hostile to, other ethnic groups, racist remarks and anti-Semitic abuse remain common.

Foreign students, several thousands of whom reportedly stopped attending classes following the latest attacks, have long complained of racism. They allege that the police are, at best, indifferent to it and, at worst, take part in beatings. "If you are black in Russia, hardly a day goes by without having to confront racism," wrote Kester Klomegah, a Moscow- based Ghanaian writer, in an article last November.

Officialdom, especially in Moscow, has tended to reinforce the public prejudice by harassing ethnic minorities, particularly those from the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Before Moscow's lavish 850th anniversary last year, Caucasian traders were harassed by the police in an effort to keep them off the streets.