But is the growth of skinhead violence in Russia a more or less spontaneous manifestation of socioeconomic dislocation and ethnic tension, as in other countries? Or is it something more Byzantine?


Russia’s leading Communist says the latter. The day after Putin’s national address, Gennady Zyuganov claimed that media reports on the skinhead threat were part of an organized campaign of “hysteria” designed to guarantee the passage of a restrictive Kremlin-backed law on extremism aimed, he alleged, at weakening “organized opposition forces”–meaning, of course, his own Communist Party of the Russia Federation (KPRF).

If Zyuganov’s comments could be dismissed as the kind of conspiratorial ranting one would expect from the leader of the “national-patriotic” opposition–particularly since the KPRF was kicked out of its leadership posts in the State Duma earlier this month–the same could not be said about a pair of articles that appeared in two leading Russian publications. Echoing Zyuganov, the daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda said that one possible explanation for “the antiskinhead outcry” was the need “to scare public opinion” and thus ensure passage of the anti-extremism law. For its part, Profil, the weekly magazine published in conjunction with Business Week, noted the authorities could no longer rely on anticommunism to rally voters, as in 1996. With parliamentary elections set for 2003 and Putin up for re-election the following year, Profil wrote, the fight against extremism could provide the incumbent authorities with a compelling argument to the electorate voters on why they deserved four more years.


Whatever the case, the feared skinhead pogroms did not take place on the Hitler birthday anniversary this year. But while some attributed this to the heightened police and Interior Ministry troop presence in Moscow and other Russian cities, other observers, including the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomlets, warned that the skinheads had merely postponed their Gotterdammerung plans. In addition, and more sensationally, that paper’s reporter Svetlana Meteleva was able to hang out with one of the capital’s skinhead groups for a week in mid-April. She described firsthand how its members received military-style training in the headquarters of the Moscow OMON special police unit, from OMON instructors.

If such official collusion with the skinheads has been authorized at high–or even the highest–levels, it is a dangerous game. “If this genie is let out of the bottle, it will not go back,” Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote. “The seeds of nationalism may be spread by the skinhead gangs throughout the country, to create some horrifying offshoots. We do not know what Russian nationalism is, and God help us if we should find out.”


Those seeds may already be sprouting. Cossacks in Rostov Oblast called for the expulsion from that region of foreigners and people without local residency registration, and demanded that the authorities deputize armed municipal Cossack detachments to battle illegal migrants. Meanwhile, Bishop Jerzy Mazur–a Polish citizen who is one of four Catholic bishops in Russia and whose diocese is in eastern Siberia–was refused entry into Russia on April 19. His visa was canceled, effectively banning him from Russia. Earlier this month, Russian immigration officers at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport confiscated the visa of an Italian priest, who had been working in Russia for more than a decade, as he was catching a flight to Italy. In what is clearly part of the escalating battle between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church over the latter’s activities in Russia, both men were told they were on a Russian special services’ blacklist.


While there is no obvious link between the Russian president and any of the more blatant xenophobic tendencies increasingly manifest in Russian society, Putin showed that he was not insensitive to the new mood by publicly taking the side of those seeking to outlaw land sales to foreigners. “I understand the concerns of those who think that probably at the current stage we should not allow foreigners to legally buy land,” he said. “I admit that for a time, until we understand what is going on, maybe we should not act hastily.”

Compared with the skinheads’ shenanigans, a ban on land sales to foreigners, and even the expulsion of foreign clerics and Draconian measures against illegal aliens, seem almost like reasonable measures. Precisely the point, the conspiracy theorists would say.

This Issue of Russia’s Week was written by Jonas Burnstein.