The Kremlin is today accused of having presided over a nation in which racist violence has spun out of control, and of quietly "deferring" to far-right groups who appear able to attack and murder non-white foreigners at will.
The damning allegations are contained in a report on the subject from Amnesty International and are likely to anger President Vladimir Putin, whose country is chairing the G8 group of nations this year for the first time, a role he had hoped would win Russia greater respect.
The timing of the report is also likely to be controversial in the extreme since next Tuesday is Victory Day in Russia, when the country will mark the 61st anniversary of the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany.
Russia believes that the USSR, and by association Russia, did more than any other country to defeat the scourge of fascism and is reluctant to face accusations that six decades later it may have become a potent breeding ground for neo-Nazis itself.
Amnesty suggested that was exactly what Russia had become, however, and accused the Kremlin of failing to protect its own citizens, and of not doing nearly enough to combat the problem of racism.
"Racist attacks and killings of foreigners and ethnic minorities are reported with shocking regularity in Russia and, disturbingly, their frequency seems to be increasing," the report said. "Anyone who does not look typically ethnic Russian... [is] at risk. The attacks are unexpected and almost always unprompted. The attackers usually attack in large groups, are often armed, for example with baseball bats and knives, and often choose targets who will not be able to defend themselves. Children, people asleep, and people on their own or in a small group have all been targets."
The report said that most of the attacks took place in Moscow, St Petersburg and the university city of Voronezh, and described the victims as students, asylum-seekers, people of Jewish origin, and refugees from Africa and Asia.
It said people from the Middle East, from Latin America, and from former Soviet Central Asia had also been subjected to racist attacks, as had dark-skinned residents of the volatile Caucasus region of southern Russia, notably Chechens.
Human rights activists seeking to prevent such attacks or merely publicise them had, it added, also become targets.
According to the Moscow non-governmental organisation Sova, there were 28 racist murders and 366 racist assaults last year, though Amnesty said it believed the real figures were likely to be much higher due to the authorities' preference for classing racist violence as "hooliganism".
The report attacked the Russian government's response to the problem and suggested that officials were guilty of discrimination and racism. "The response of the Russian authorities to the problem of violent racist attacks has been grossly inadequate. The failure of the state to exercise due diligence in preventing, investigating and prosecuting race-hate crimes seems to have only encouraged the growth of extreme xenophobia and neo-fascism in Russia."
Amnesty called for politicians to speak out more, and said there seemed to have been a strange conspiracy of silence on the issue. "Politicians have ignored the issue and law enforcement officials have either failed to investigate attacks at all, or investigated them inadequately."
In remarks that are certain to incur the wrath of Moscow, the report also repeated hard-hitting allegations by Russia's own human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, accusing the authorities of "demonstrating a degree of deference that is hard to understand, to pro-fascist, extremist nationalist groups" and of deliberately covering up racist crimes.
Such allegations chime with claims from liberal Russian politicians who allege that the Kremlin has deliberately allowed racist violence to spiral out of control so it can pose as the nation's saviour in elections in 2008 and 2009.
The Kremlin dismisses such talk - it believes Russia is facing a smear campaign from the Westto prevent it becoming too strong.
A family outing that ended in brutal murder
Khursheda Sultanova, 9, race victim
Khursheda Sultanova, an ethnic Tajik, was living with her family in St Petersburg when she was murdered in a racist attack two years ago.
She was returning home from an evening ice-skating with her father and 11-year old cousin when a group of teenagers armed with knives, metal rods, chains and baseball bats approached. The attackers chanted racist slogans, such as "Russia is for Russians".
Khursheda was stabbed nine times and died at the scene from blood loss. Her father and cousin both suffered severe head injuries. The initial investigation into the attack failed to acknowledge the racial aspect to the case. As late as February 2005, the chief prosecutor Sergei Zaitsev told The St Petersburg Times that it was "an ordinary crime linked to unemployed youths, who were excited after drinking alcohol".
A month later, one individual was charged with murder motivated by racial hatred, while seven others were charged with hooliganism. But when the case finally came to court in March this year, the racial motive for the murder went unrecognised. The jury found the main defendant and six others guilty of hooliganism alone, carrying a maximum sentence of five and a half years' imprisonment.
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