After Ukraine: Russian Nationalists Return

By Richard Arnold
Russia’s Neo-Nazi racist threat has not been in the news recently, but an attack on January 17 showed that the movement is far from toothless. According to reports, a group of young people burst onto a Moscow metro train at the station Biblioteka Imeni Lenina and beat a group of migrants in their 30s and 40s from Central Asia. One man fell to the ground and was kicked and punched repeatedly. Most of the attackers fled the train at the next station, although police did manage to arrest one of the youth. The unfortunate victim of the attack was taken to the hospital (, February 5). The incident is notable not so much for its occurrence—such attacks have been common in the past—but for its occurrence now, especially in light of the Russian state’s effort to fight domestic neo-Nazi ideology.
First, although Neo-Nazi attacks had been declining slowly since 2009 (due mostly to better police enforcement), their fall became precipitous following the Kremlin’s annexation of Ukraine and championing of the rights of ethnic Russians outside the country. According to the SOVA center, there were 525 violent attacks on ethnic minorities in 2009—a number which fell to just 168 in 2015 (, February 2016). Such a decline can be attributed to the exodus of ethnic Russian neo-Nazis to fight for their brethren in the “Near Abroad” (see EDM, June 11, 2014). With the fighting in Ukraine declining from its highest levels, it is a plausible hypothesis that many neo-Nazis are returning to Russia and renewing the fight against domestic “enemies” once more. It is worth noting that this exactly parallels the official putative Russian justification for intervention in Syria—fighting Islamic State terrorists in Syria would stop them returning to Russia to continue the fight for Islamic radicalism in the North Caucasus. Of course, in the above-mentioned case on the train, the attackers were teenagers and young people rather than hardened combat veterans, although sociological studies of skinhead groups have shown that gangs of youth tend to be organized around an “old” skinhead in his mid- to late-twenties (Sergei Belikov, “Britogolvye: Vse o Skinheadakhi” [4th Ed.] Moscow, Ultrakultura, 2011). Should 2016 indeed witness an increased level of skinhead violence, there would be support for the “return” hypothesis.

Second, the January 17 attack was particularly notable for its brazenness despite the considerable efforts of the Russian state to combat racist attitudes. The metro station where the attack occurred—Biblioteka Imeni Lenina—is right in the heart of Moscow and close to the Kremlin. Such an attack is thus a symbolic refutation of the state’s campaign against neo-Nazism. Indeed, the Russian state has launched a number of legal and administrative cases against the display of racist symbols on the Internet and in public. For instance, a court opened a case under article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code (incitement of hatred on grounds of nationality) against a 19-year-old inhabitant of Kursk for posting racist videos to VKontakte (, February 12). And a bookstore in Moscow was fined 30,000 rubles ($387) for displaying bags with the official stamp of the chief of the Wehrmacht on them, in contravention of laws prohibiting the open display of Nazi symbols (, February 11). Many more such cases exist of the Russian state clamping down on the open display of racist symbols and attitudes. While the January 17 attack does not mark the outright failure of this policy to create a more tolerant society, it does indicate that, by itself, the approach will not be sufficient. This is an even more urgent task as Russia gears up to invite thousands of non-white foreigners to the country to celebrate the 2018 World Cup.