An extreme nationalist group has claimed responsibility for the murder of St. Petersburg ethnologist Nikolai Girenko. On June 19, the 64-year-old expert on ethnic and racial issues, who has provided expert testimony for prosecutors in cases involving racially motivated attacks, was shot through the door of his apartment by an unknown gunman who had rung his doorbell. As Amnesty International noted in a June 22 press release deploring the murder, Girenko headed the Minority Rights Commission at the St. Petersburg Scientific Union, had conducted several studies for Moscow and St Petersburg authorities on neo-Nazi and skinhead groups, and “had repeatedly warned that such groups were on the rise.”
The group that claimed responsibility for Girenko’s murder, Russkaya Respublika (Russian Republic), did so in an announcement posted on its website, Rusrepublic.ru, on June 24. The announcement was posted under the heading “Verdict No. 1” and signed by Vladimir Popov, a 36-year-old Novosibirsk native identified as the group’s “Supreme Leader.” The document, which was dated June 12 — that is, a week before Girenko’s murder — claimed that as a result of Girenko’s expert testimony, “Several dozen Russian patriots have been sentenced on false charges, but in fact they were punished for fighting the discrimination against the Russian people and genocide organized by foreigners.” Popov’s statement concluded, “I consider Girenko N.M. to be a dedicated and incorrigible enemy of the Russian people and sentence him to the maximum punishment — execution by firing squad.”
The “death sentence” noted that Girenko had most recently assisted the St. Petersburg prosecutor’s office in investigating a local skinhead group called Shultz-88, and in prosecuting three skinheads for the murder of an Azeri street vendor in the autumn of 2002. It also referred to Girenko’s book, Sociology of Tribes, and several of his other academic works, calling them “scientific works for organizing the genocide of the Russian people.” Ironically, Lev Borkin, co-founder with Girenko of the St. Petersburg Association of Scientists and Scholars, noted that Girenko had spoken out for the rights of the Russian-speaking population in the Baltic states (Izvestiya, June 25).
One newspaper said that the biography of Russkaya Respublika leader Vladimir Popov — which is posted on the group’s website — is the story of an “average fascist.” He was, as the paper put it, “born to a family of lumpen,” studied at a vocational school to be an assistant diesel locomotive engineer, served in the army, went through various jobs, including stints in a car factory, at the Novosibirsk locomotive depot, and selling books, and got involved in politics during perestroika (Moskovsky Komsomolets, June 28). According to Russkaya Respublika’s website, in 1990 joined Popov joined with Russian liberals in opposing communism, but by 1991 he had adopted “resolute patriotic and nationalist positions.” He was involved with the ultra-nationalist Russian National Unity (RNE) party in 1992-93, after which he went off to form several inconsequential far-right groups. Popov was elected Russkaya Respublika’s Supreme Leader during its founding meeting on December 1, 2003.
While the story of Vladimir Popov is hardly unique to Russia’s post-Soviet history — his early years spent in Uzbekistan and his brief flirtation with Russia’s pro-democracy movement during perestroika are reminiscent of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s background — what is noteworthy about him and his party are their brazenness. After Girenko’s death sentence was posted on Russkaya Respublika’s website, Ren TV broadcast segments of an interview with him standing across the street from the Federal Security Service headquarters on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square. In it, he produced a copy of the death sentence and confirmed its contents (Ren TV, June 27).
Moreover, Russkaya Respublika’s website purports to present not the statements of a political group or party, but rather the demands of Russia’s legitimate government — specifically, the legal successor to the Provisional Government of 1917, and “the sole legal state formation of the Russian people.” It demands amendments to the Russian Federation constitution recognizing “the fact of the existence of the Russian nation,” the immediate nullification of all laws “limiting democracy and the passage of new laws that take into account the Russian Republic,” and President Putin’s immediate resignation, with new elections to be held before the end of 2004. The website also includes a Russian Republic constitution and a decree ordering the creation of a tribunal for “the genocide of the Russian people.”
The controversial anti-extremism law passed by both houses of parliament and signed by President Putin in 2002 bans inciting “ethnic or religious discord or social discord in connection with violence or calls for violence” and “undermining of the security or the assumption of the governing powers of the Russian Federation.” These provisions would appear to apply to Russkaya Respublika. Thus far, the St. Petersburg prosecutor’s office has announced that it is investigating the group’s claim of responsibility for Nikolai Girenko’s murder (Strana.ru, June 24). Meanwhile, a group of human rights activists has begun collecting signatures for an appeal to President Putin that characterizes Girenko’s killing as “the first political murder of a Russian human rights activist.” The appeal calls for the murder to be investigated fully and the use of all legal means to “get rid of the wave of nationalism and neo-fascism sweeping over the country” (Hro.org, June 24).