When Katya Girenko answered the door of her family's rundown St. Petersburg apartment early one Saturday morning in mid-June, she saw two teenagers through the peephole. They asked if they could speak to her father, Nikolai Mikhailovich. When he went to the door and asked what they wanted, a gunshot rang out. The bullet smashed through the flimsy door and ripped into Girenko's chest, killing him almost instantly.
At first glance, Girenko might seem an unlikely target for assassination. A tall, somewhat fragile 64-year-old with a bushy gray beard, he was an ethnographer and anthropologist who earned his reputation as an academic specializing in Swahili studies and research on kinship. But he was also the leading expert on an indigenous Russian tribe the country's growing band of neo-Nazis. As founder of the Group for the Rights of Ethnic Minorities (GPEM), Girenko had been a key adviser in 15 Russian ethnic hate-crime trials, including the current prosecution of six members of the St. Petersburg neo-Nazi group Schultz88 for violent assault. Girenko's work has been crucial in ensuring that racially motivated assaults are classified as hate crimes, rather than mere hooliganism, and therefore warrant harsher sentences. He was gunned down as he was preparing for another trial, this one on charges of inciting racial hatred and violence involving a regional branch of the neo-Nazi Russian National Unity (RNE) party in nearby Novgorod. Police cite Girenko's expert advice as the most likely motive for the hit, but are tight-lipped about possible suspects. No arrests have yet been made.
"Pity they didn't knock off that bastard sooner," says Alexei, 22, one of the Schultz88 members being prosecuted in St. Petersburg. "He really tried to put me behind [an error occurred while processing this directive] bars." In May, Alexei was released from six months in pretrial detention, but still faces the charges of violent assault. He says he had nothing to do with Girenko's murder.
A squat, powerfully built man bristling with barely contained aggression, Alexei is part of a new wave of nationalism that's sweeping through Russian society. As democratic reforms have foundered and living standards plummeted since the collapse of communism in 1991, the country's latent xenophobia has morphed into a more radical, virulent form and more and more young people like Alexei are coming under the sway of neo-Nazi ideology as a way to reassert lost national pride.
Girenko's "assassination came as a catastrophe we had long been dreading," says Alexander Vinnikov, a friend and colleague who's also a member of the GPEM. That sense of dread is spreading among members of Russia's ethnic-minority communities. Just four days before Girenko's assassination, a group of neo-Nazis killed an Azeri passerby in Saratov, some 1,400 km south of St. Petersburg; and in May, human-rights groups claim a neo-Nazi gang beat a Pakistani student to death in Ulyanovsk, 350 km northeast of Saratov. According to the Moscow-based daily Izvestia, neo-Nazis have violently assaulted at least 15,000 people over the past seven years. A recent report by the Moscow Bureau on Human Rights says 20 to 30 victims a year die from such assaults, which are increasing at an annual rate of 30%. And according to Alexei, Girenko's murder marks a turning point for Russia's neo-Nazi movement. "[We are] a white man's al-Qaeda," he says. "We don't care how many [ethnic minorities] end up dead. The more, the better. The time of our jihad has come."