Russia sees rise in hate crimes

February 9, 2007

Warwick study at centre of discussion on rising xenophobia and intolerance among young, says Nick Holdsworth.

Racism in Russia and a wave of xenophobic murders and attacks on students and immigrants that has left more than 50 dead and hundreds injured in the past year will be under the spotlight next week at an international workshop in St Petersburg.

Research into the rapid rise of neofascism, intolerance and racism across Russia - including the latest field studies of extreme right-wing skinhead gangs, conducted jointly by Warwick University and Ulyanovsk State University - will be aired during the two-day workshop at St Petersburg University's Centre for German and European Studies, on February 16-18.

The Moscow Sova Centre, a monitoring group that works with Britain's Amnesty International, logged 54 murders and 478 attacks in 2006. This represents a sharp increase over 2005, when 31 murders and just over 400 attacks were recorded.

April 2005 was the worst single month on record, seeing eight racially motivated murders. The victims included a Senegalese student shot dead on his way from a nightclub in St Petersburg and a 17-year-old Armenian student at Moscow State University who was stabbed to death by skinheads on a Moscow metro platform.

Elena Omelchenko, director of the Region Research Centre at Ulyanovsk, who has been studying Russian racists and skinheads for the past five years, said the workshop came at a critical point.

"Russia is at a sharp cultural and political point in its history. The country is experiencing immigration and territorial changes, and young people are reacting in acute ways. It is essential that we understand not only extreme groups, but also the foundation and basis for the racism and intolerance that exist generally in Russia and the political uses to which this is being put."

Academics from across Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, the Baltic states and Germany are expected to give papers at the workshop, which will be open to an audience of graduate students, members of non-governmental organisations, journalists and officials.

An exhibition of photographs of recent events will serve as a graphic reminder of the results of racism in Russia, Dr Omelchenko added.

Hilary Pilkington, a professor of sociology at Warwick and a former director of the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at Birmingham University, has been conducting field research among skinheads in a decaying northern Russian industrial town over four years.

Professor Pilkington, whose fieldwork in association with Ulyanovsk is part of a wider European Union-funded framework project into subcultures and lifestyles, said that understanding the political and transnational influences on Russian skinheads provided a clearer picture of some of the reasons for the explosion in racist and xenophobic violence.

"Our understanding of skinheads as part of a working-class resistance in Britain does not apply; the kids we have been talking to are more closely related to white supremacy and the US model of skinheads."

She said political and legal factors in Russia, such as the introduction of tough new measures against race-hate crimes, had led to a reduction in many of the outward stylistic manifestations of skinhead culture - displays of swastikas and Nazi slogans - but an increase in internalised self-identification as racist neofascists.

"At the level of political discourse, this raw nationalism is getting a lot of support in Russia. The kids we know are very aware of this and play along with it, getting involved, for example, in the RNE (far right Russian National Unity group) because it offers them a platform and it is a source of money."

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