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Moscow News
September 6, 2007
Skinhead Russia
By Anton Grishin

Few things can shock society today. One of them was a video recently posted on the Internet that appears to show the execution of two men. The three-minute clip, posted by a LiveJournal.com user, signed "antigipsyone," on August 12, shows a Dagestani (from the North Caucasus) and a Tajik (from Central Asia) kneeling on the ground with their arms and legs tied up. A swastika is displayed in the background. "We were arrested by Russian national socialists," they say in voices trembling with fear, after which one of them is beheaded and the other is shot in the back of the head.

Police investigators are currently examining whether the video showed a real or staged execution. Preliminary examination suggested that it was probably staged. Whatever the case, the video highlighted the neo-Nazi threat in Russia.

A Strange Legacy

Russia's skinhead movement appeared in the early 1990s, amidst that era's social and economic turmoil. As often happens, a subculture that comes from the West changes beyond recognition in Russia, and that was true for the skinheads.

The past year saw a record number of crimes that law enforcement agencies blamed on skinheads. An attack on an environmental camp in southeast Siberia, which left one person dead and seven injured, and that grisly video both occurred in the past two months alone. But during the year there other murders, pogroms, raids, and provocations. The authorities and society as a whole are confronted with the question of how to stop a force that is gaining momentum all the time.

Skinheads began as a working-class subculture in Britain in the 1960s. Originally it had nothing to do with color, race, religion, or national origin. In subsequent decades, the skinhead subculture spread to other parts of Europe, North America and other continents.

In the 1970s, both neo-Nazi and anti-Nazi organizations in the UK and the United States looked on skinheads as potential cannon fodder. Youth culture, unencumbered by any bans and ready to follow any shiny new idea, started developing along several lines. The Neo-Nazis came to be known as boneheads, while those skinheads who identified with the original 1960s skinhead subculture divided into anti-Nazis and anarchists.

The anti-Nazi movement became known as SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice). The anarchist movement developed into RASH (Red and Anarchist Skinheads), a left-wing anti-racist, anti-fascist skinhead group.

The history of the early skinhead movements shows that boneheads in particular became victims of political games. Exploiting youth culture's responsiveness to new ideas for political purposes is a common practice. And only fascists were able to unite a critical mass of skinheads under a single flag.

Today, proactive, assertive anti-Nazi propaganda in Europe and North America has had a positive effect: fascism as an ideology failed to acquire a following large enough to cause yet another social crisis.

Skinheads a la Russe

The breakup of the Soviet Union and the subsequent crisis created a generally negative psychological environment for many people but also an ideological vacuum that emerged with the collapse of the Communist ideal, which could be considered a national idea. Since nature abhors a vacuum, it was filled with trendy borrowings from the West. Young men with shaved heads appeared in Moscow together with the first democrats. In 1992, they numbered in the dozens.

Yet by 1994, there were already thousands of skinheads. The reason was not just the social crisis but also the position of the ruling establishment, which showed that violence is a legitimate option in any dispute. The start of the military campaign in Chechnya strengthened the nationalist mood among teenagers. An external enemy was found, and many thousands of school-age people were ready to follow the "Russia for Russians!" slogan.

Ignorance and resentment, as well as the scaling down of anti-Nazi propaganda, were major factors that contributed to the evolution of the "Russian skinhead." This type had nothing to do with traditional skinheads or SHARPs or RUSHes. The majority of Russian skinheads became boneheads - extremely nationalist skinheads, advocating violence and racial intolerance.

As in the UK, neo-Nazis needed a social group from which to recruit new members. Aggressive soccer fans were an ideal recruiting ground. First, many were already accustomed to violence. Second, educational levels among them are generally very low. Many soccer hooligans eventually to embrace neo-Nazi ideas.

Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies categorically refused to treat crimes committed by boneheads as ethnically motivated, or hate crimes. The opposing force - the Russian answer to SHARPs and RUSHes, which rallied under Antifa banner - was so small that it wasn't a threat. [In Europe, especially in the UK, militant anti-fascism advocates the use of violence against fascists. Within the anti-fascist movement, the term militant anti-fascism is often used in contrast to liberal anti-fascism; fascists often use violence and depend on a physical presence in the streets, and militant anti-fascists believe that an equal counterweight is essential to stop fascism, and that fascism should be tackled by communities rather than by the state. - Ed.]

When boneheads became aware of their strength, they launched large-scale actions. That included raids on outdoor food and clothes markets, street riots in downtown Moscow during a Russia-Japan soccer match, and an ongoing wave of violence and murders.

Antifa vs. Boneheads

Until recently, the government's efforts against the neo-Nazis produced almost no result. Putting a few dozen people behind bars is not effective. Meanwhile, representatives of the world's major racist and neo-Nazi movements, parties and groups, such Ku Klux Klan and the National Socialist German Workers' Party (a Nazi party) were freely coming to Russia to share their experience with local youth movements. The only organization that is officially outlawed in Russia is the Russian National Unity, which disappeared years ago.

The current stage of the struggle is linked with the implementation of the Law on Countering Extremist. The case of Maxim "Tesak" ("Hatchet") Martsinkevich, the leader of Format 18, a bonehead group, appears to demonstrate that Nazi slogans may not be chanted in public. Tesak was charged with inciting ethnic hatred and threatening to commit violence during a debate organized by democratic youth groups at a Moscow club in February. Martsinkevich arrived with about 20 followers, made Nazi salutes, and threatened "to slaughter the liberals." A Moscow court convicted three of his associates in June for the murder of a member of an anti-fascist organization.

The dual murder video footage shows that it is also against the law to spread materials fomenting ethnic hatred.

But does the realization of the extent of the problem come too late? How did Tesak's arrest affect the boneheads? They regard him as a hero who suffered for the truth. As for the grisly video, quite a few people saw the brutal murder as a positive step in the struggle against illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, Format 18's Web site, which featured much illegal material, was shut down through the efforts of the Antifa movement, not the authorities. But the anti-fascist movement is still regarded as unpredictable and uncontrollable, and therefore, the authorities refuse to notice it or use it in fighting neo-Nazism.

Even worse is that often it is hard to tell a bonehead from an anti-Nazi. The only distinguishing features of Antifa skinheads are an image of a Trojan warrior's helmet on the jacket and red boot laces. As for the boneheads, they use white laces and WP (White Power) and 88 (Heil Hitler) patches. It can be difficult to see these distinctive marks, especially from a bureaucrat's armchair.

It is noteworthy that neo-Nazis in Russia are not declaring their political ambitions or attempting to put themselves on the map. Perhaps they realize that their time has not come yet. They will not have to wait very long, however, unless new, effective anti-fascism laws are adopted.

Here is yet another dark touch to an already grim picture: according to Oleg Yelnikov, the head of the Interior Ministry press service, his agency does not have reliable data on the number of skinheads in Russia. Unofficially, however, at the start of 2007, there were believed to be at least 100,000 skinheads in the RF.