rather more unexpected subject in Putin’s annual address to the nation was, as he put it, “the rise of extremism.” This, he said, was a “serious threat” to Russia’s stability and security. It was expressed, he continued, “above all in slogans and fascist and nationalist symbols that lead to pogroms, people being beaten up and killed.” While “bands of extremists” were acting essentially as organized crime groups and should be treated accordingly, he said that prosecutors and police did not have “sufficiently effective instruments” to bring the organizers of extremist crimes to justice.

The reason this section of the presidential address was something of a surprise was that Putin’s accession to throne following the mercurial Yeltsin was supposed to mark the advent of relative political tranquillity and predictability. So, at least, went the conventional wisdom. Now, all of a sudden, Russia’s head of state was confirming what newspapers were declaring in boldface headlines: The country was under threat from young white supremacists sporting swastikas and buzz cuts. Indeed, last week Muscovites and foreigners alike nervously awaited April 20, Adolf Hitler’s birthday, with foreign embassies receiving emails from “Ivan,” a self-proclaimed skinhead leader, warning that foreigners would be attacked, even killed, in memory of the Nazi dictator.

The skinhead movement in Russia, in fact, is not new. Indeed, as the newspaper Moskovskie Novosti noted last week, it was alive during the Soviet era and has been growing steadily ever since. In April of last year, about the time of that Hitler birthday anniversary, skinheads stabbed a Chechen man to death in central Moscow. Last October, two “non-Slavs” were murdered during a large-scale skinhead rampage on the Russian capital’s outskirts.