The glorious nation of Russia is not only renowned for being one of the most corrupted countries in the world. Its human rights track record has also been seriously stained by the likes of Putin’s behaviour in Chechnya and Georgia; but now, as Russia is trying to survive the economic crisis, racism adds to wall of shame.

It’s no shocking news that in times of dire unemployement and lack of trust in leadership, the social fabric seems to rip itself apart – but Russia has been taking it to a medieval level. Lately, Moscow has been the theater of aggressions, assaults, and often murders of immigrants by self-proclaimed nationalist groups.  On December 24th, eight skinheads stabbed a cleaning man from Uzbekistan and left him for dead. A few days before that, two bodies were found, of a 20 year old Azeri and an 18 year old student from Kazakhstan, stabbed in the stomach. (1) A group calling themselves a “combat organization of russian nationalists” had decapitated a young Tadjik, thrown the head in a trash can and sent a letter threatening Russian leaders to take responsability. “Civil servants, if you do not evacuate the foreigners, we will take revenge upon you for their crimes!” read the letter.

A local NGO, Sova, tried to poll the racism-based aggressions and murders taking place in the capital city – 368 have been recensed for 2008, compared to 86 deaths and 600 assaults in 2007. But Sova insists on mentioning it is only the tip of the iceberg. Alexandre Verkhovski, talking to French newspaper Libération, stressed that the reality may reach twice the statistics they managed to round up.  Observers noticed that the killers are often young, in their late teens to mid-twenties, in bands of four or five, trained by charismatic leaders in their late thirties. The schema is painfully close to the rise of neo-nazism in Eastern Europe in the early 1980s or the white supremacy movement in the United States at the same moment: a disoriented youth taken advantage of by nationalist movements basing their hatred on foreigners and immigrants allegedly living off governmental aid. Using the internet to spread their message and rally other youngsters to the cause, nationalists are organizing “raids”  against foreigners with knives, baseball bats and steel bars.

It’s only recently that the Russian justice decided to take action on those despicable acts. In Moscow, nine skinheads were just trialed for 20 murders (!) and 12 attempted murders. The culprits were aged 15 to 20. The leaders, smart enough not to take part in the effective action, were sentenced to 10 years; the executive members of the group received sentences ranging from 6 years (for the minors) to 20 years in prison. If the government seems to be taking what can be qualified as a grassroot attempt at ethnic cleansing seriously, the phenomenon is far from new. The association Law and Migrations has been recensing similar attacks since 2004. There has yet to be a nationwide concern and a global scheme implemented by the Russian leadership in order to track down the nationalist movements that are said to be growing through networking. In the last couple years, attacks have ceased to be marginalized and isolated and grew to become organized and conspicuous. A rise in nationalism is  a severe symptom of a very sick nation.

(1) Source: Libération, December 27/28 edition.