It's a spring afternoon in downtown Moscow. Pushkin Square, a major hub of the Russian capital, is as vibrant as ever. Even those who hurry along on urgent errands steal a second to stop and enjoy the sunshine after weeks of rain and snow. But the atmosphere in one corner of the square is more menacing. A crowd of about 80 teenagers is chanting "Kill the U.S.A.!" and raising their arms in the Nazi salute. Zakhar, aged 15, with shaved head and camouflage shirt, is reluctant to talk to a journalist, but makes an exception to explain that the rally is "all about exterminating the Jews, Americans and other scum."
Immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Russians in their thousands brought flowers, wreaths, lighted candles and icons to the U.S. embassy wall. Something of a rapprochement between Russia and the West followed. But those feel-good days are gone. In a poll by the Public Opinion Foundation last month, 70% of those surveyed regarded the U.S. as a hostile country. And earlier this month, the U.S. embassy in Moscow received an e-mail in broken English that read: "We are to kill all the foreigners we see, marking the birthday of Hitler [April 20]. Send your citizens back or else. Russia is for Russians." It was signed: "Ivan, President, Skinhead Group of Russia." The embassy took the threat seriously enough to alert all Americans in Russia to the increased risk over the next several weeks.
For members of extremist and neo-Nazi groups, Hitler's birthday has become an occasion for venting their anger. And not just against the Americans. On April 20 last year, Moscow skinheads launched attacks that left a young Chechen killed and more than a dozen badly injured. Why do they do it? "Because [Hitler] gave us the holy idea of National Socialism," says Zakhar.
Moscow police have promised to take "necessary measures" to prevent skinhead violence on Hitler's birthday. But one policeman, who impassively observed Zakhar and his friends hoist "Skins against Bush" posters near the McDonald's in Pushkin Square, didn't seem too worried. When asked why no "measures" were being taken against this group, he shrugged: "Where do you see any skinheads here? It's a rally to support domestic chicken producers against American imports."
Ten years ago skinheads numbered no more than a few dozen in Moscow. Now the Interior Ministry estimates that there are 10,000 skinheads and other neo-Nazis in the country. Independent analysts put the figure at closer to 50,000. No official data on skinhead violence exist, but an estimate by journalists and foreign embassies suggests that skinhead assaults have left more than a dozen foreigners dead and 100 hospitalized in Moscow since May 2000. Similar attacks have taken place in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Novgorod. Russian officials dismiss these incidents as simple hooliganism but can't deny that they have become more common. "There is a sharp increase in physical and verbal attacks against foreigners," says a senior U.S. embassy official.
The situation has become so bad that last month 18 foreign students, mainly from African and Asian countries, studying at Rostov Medical University chose to leave Russia for good. They had been subjected to repeated beatings and insults by local skinheads, while the police turned a blind eye. At a conference held last week in Moscow to discuss dangers to foreign students, representatives of Russian universities said that in the face of police indifference they would have to hire private guards and form self-defense teams to protect their 70,000 foreign students.
The skinheads also target non-Slav minorities from the Caucasus, whom Russians disparagingly refer to as "blacks," and Jews. Last October, a crowd of 300 skinheads smashed a market in south Moscow, beating the "black" merchants, then moved on to the Sevastopol Hotel to attack Afghan refugees staying there. Four people were killed and more than 20 badly injured.
Dressed in bomber or camouflage jackets and heavy steel-tipped boots, skinheads prowl in packs of three to five "fighters" armed with clubs and steel rods. These groups can merge quickly to form mobs of several hundred for major assaults, which seem too well-organized to be spontaneous.
Many Russians hold politicians accountable for skinhead violence. "Why blame the kids?" asks Sergei Antonov, an unemployed Moscow economist in his early 40s. "Blame the government, which has condemned Russians to poverty while the blacks and foreigners are lording it over us." Today, most skinheads are still in their teens, warns Antonov, but soon "they'll take dominant positions as they become adults. You'll see their impact a decade later." In fact, their impact is already clear in Pushkin Square.