The latest “attack of the aliens” happened in St. Petersburg on January 14.
Ivan Yelin, an anti-fascist activist, was on his way home that evening from a regular charity event organized every Sunday by the Food Not Bombs group. Yelin was attacked by a gang of youths. He suffered over 20 stab wounds; his liver and diaphragm were damaged, and he lost a great deal of blood.
Lenta.ru reports that observers are focusing on one theory about the attack: it was the work of very young neo-Nazis, probably of the kind known as “boneheads.”
Lenta.ru explains: “Boneheads are a neo-Nazi variety of the skinhead subculture, which is usually catetorized into apolitical skinheads, neo-Nazi boneheads, and anti-fascists known as sharps or rashes (SHARP – SkinHeads Against Racial Prejudice, RASH – Red and Anarchist SkinHeads).”
But pro-Nazi websited deny that any fascist activists were involved, claiming that the attack could have been the work of anyone at all. Lenta.ru notes: “Young anti-fascists have an established grim joke on that topic: after each incident of this nature, their blogs and forums talks of ‘another attack by the aliens.'”
One member of Food Not Bombs told the Novaya Gazeta newspaper that their group isn’t strictly organized. It’s just a group of young people, motivated by their own beliefs, who distribute food to the homeless on weekends. They have engaged in this form of charity in St. Petersburg for two years, and almost from the very start they have been the target of close attention from St. Petersburg’s neo-Nazi gangs.
A St. Petersburg observer interviewed by Lenta.ru described the weekly Food Not Bombs events as a “suicide club,” since neo-Nazis watch the food handouts and occasionally attack Food Not Bombs activists, sometimes using knives.
Novaya Gazeta reports that St. Petersburg University student Timur Kacharava, 20, was murdered in November 2005. He was also distributing food to the homeless. He died of a stab wound to the throat, attacked on the street in central St. Petersburg.
“The murder of Timur, who made no secret of his anti-fascist views, became a significant crime,” says Lenta.ru. “Regional politicians (St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko) and federal politicians (Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov) made statements about this case.”
But the criminal investigation they promised to monitor went nowhere. Skinhead attacks died down for a few months, then picked up again.
About 15 Food Not Bombs activists have been attacked by fascist gangs, according to Novaya Gazeta. The Yelin stabbing is the third attack in the past two months.
The Novye Izvestia newspaper says that besides anti-fascist views, there’s another reason behind the attacks: the victims are helping the homeless. “The anti-fascists feel sorry for the homeless – unlike the skinheads, who maintain that all the homeless should be wiped out.” According to Novye Izvestia, “this difference in attitudes to the homeless has caused many fights, and in recent months these clashes have often led to serious crimes.”
Lenta.ru names another “hate factor”: most members of Food Not Bombs come from the punk subculture (murder victim Timur Kacharava was not only a member of AntiFa, but also a guitarist with a punk band called Sandinista). As a rule, members of this subculture “hold anti-war, pacifist, anarchist views – most of them believe in non-violence.”
Lenta.ru goes on to say: “These people also tend to be feminists and tolerant of individual non-violent lifestyle choices, including unconventional sexuality. In short, it would be hard for neo-Nazis to find a better target – after foreigners and ‘non-Slavs,’ of course.”
The St. Petersburg Prosecutor’s Office has opened a criminal case regarding the attack on Ivan Yelin, identifying it as “attempted murder.” After the case was opened, it turned out that investigators had no proof that Yelin belonged to any organization. As Novye Izvestia reports, this is because AntiFa is not an officially registered organization; it’s just a group of people with similar views.
Novye Izvestia also reports the opinion held by Yelin’s friends: that he may have been attacked by mistake. Skinhead websites post lists of their “enemies” – the most active anti-fascists. Yelin wasn’t on any of those lists. He never took part in pickets, protests, demonstrations, or fights; he only worked to help homeless people and stray animals.
According to Lenta.ru, besides the potential involvement of larger forces, “another reason behind all this is the everyday aggression displayed by teenage gangs from the outer suburbs of major cities, which has now become interlinked with informal neo-Nazi propaganda.” Youth neo-Nazism in Russia, says Lenta.ru, isn’t always clearly structured, but does have specific hatred targets and its own program of destruction.
Novaya Gazeta presents some research from the Sova Center, indicating that radical right-wing youth groups (fascists, skinheads, various neo-Nazis) have 60-70,000 members across Russia. These are people who “sympathize” with nationalist ideas: some are fans of particular bands, some fight their battles online, some fight on the streets. They have their own websites and publications, sympathizer lawmakers in the Duma and local governments, and other sympathizers in the police force and special services, who sometimes use the youth groups for political provocation purposes.
The Sova Center predicts that nationalist hate crimes in Russia will not decline; on the contrary, they will increase. “According to our statistics, there are one or two attacks somewhere in Russia every day – and those are only the attacks we hear about,” said Sova Center Deputy Director Galina Kozhevnikova in an interview with Novye Izvestia. “Attacks have become an everyday event. There will be more of them. These crimes are becoming more brutal: attackers have started using explosives and firearms.”
Most attacks happen in Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to Novaya Gazeta. These cities also have the greatest number of active ultra-radicals: about 1,000 fighters in Moscow, and 3,000 nationwide. They are armed and trained; they have their own intelligence and counter-intelligence networks, along with protectors and informers. They have developed their own tactics and strategies, and a signature style of murder: stabbing the victim in the throat.
In 2006 alone, 54 people were killed and 520 injured in fascist attacks. These figures are high enough to show that murder on the grounds of ethnic hatred is becoming widespread in Russia, and thus requires a different attitude from the authorities.
Novaya Gazeta emphasizes that since the Kondopoga riots, ethnic nationalism has become a fashionable topic in politics: the anti-Georgian campaign is an example of this. Radical organizations are allowed to hold events on the Duma’s premises (book launches, neo-Nazi lectures on youth policy – in the presence of a deputy Duma speaker); and some Duma members (Nikolai Kurianovich) intervene to assist arrested street-brawlers.
As Novye Izvestia reports, Deputy Duma Speaker Sergei Baburin said recently that his party, People’s Will, might cooperate in the 2007 election campaign with the nationalist Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI).
Novye Izvestia warns that the nationalist issue will be brought into play more and more often as elections approach – by all kinds of forces. Galina Kozhevnikova told Novye Izvestia that while radical right-wing groups use nationalist propaganda directly, moderate and pro-Kremlin parties prefer to use veiled rhetoric: starting from talk of “our people” and “outsiders,” traditional and non-traditional values, and so on. Kozhevnikova said: “The use of nationalist rhetoric by moderate politicians is a response to public demand. Opinion polls show an intolerance level of over 50%, so politicians obviously won’t ignore this demand – they’re tacticians, not strategists. They don’t care about the long-term impact.”
In an interview with Polit.ru, Lilia Shevtsova from the Carnegie Moscow Center warns that “with the assistance of the authorities themselves, a wave of ethnic nationalism is rising – a larger wave than ever before in Russian history.” Shevtsova notes that certain circles in the Kremlin administration have been developing Russian fascism for a long time: “If that were not the case, a number of programs on national television would never have gone to air. I get the impression that they have let the genie out of the bottle.”
Moreover, according to Shevtsova, other groups in the Kremlin fear that this genie will become uncontrollable.
“Be that as it may, even if the authorities are aware of the threat posed by the nationalist storm that’s bound to sweep away Kremlin pragmatists along with everything else, they are still powerless to eliminate the sources of this wave,” says Shevtsova. In her view, the sources can be found in the helplessness of ordinary citizens – their sense of instability: “If 70% of citizens don’t believe that their lives will be better in the future, they become ready fodder for nationalist-ethnic unrest. If there are no solutions to many problems – from pensions to youth unemployment – then people will seek the simplest solution, naturally: identify an enemy and use violence.”
Shevtsova does not share Yegor Gaidar’s conviction that Russia’s citizens and elite are set to repeat the Weimar Republic’s history; but she maintains that the threat of a nationalist-ethnic storm should not be underestimated.