With their tousled hair, button-down shirts and V-neck sweaters, the young men sentenced this week in Moscow for 20 murders and 12 attempted murders don’t look like traditional skinheads. But the group of seven, who received between six and 20 years each, apparently targeted non-Slavic migrants in the 2006 and 2007 attacks, confronting Central Asians, Caucasians—as one correspondent put it, “people who did not look white”—in streets and pedestrian tunnels, often videotaping and posting the events online.
Though the brutality of the hate crimes perpetrated by this gang is remarkable, their existence is anything but. In Russia, xenophobic violence is becoming increasingly commonplace, and ultra-nationalist organizations are often to blame. According to the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights, between January and October 2008 there were 113 racist murders nationwide, up from 74 for all of 2007. Just last week, the severed head of a Tajik worker was found in a dumpster outside a council building in western Moscow. A group calling itself the Militant Organization of Russian Nationalists took responsibility for the crime in an email, reportedly billing it as “a warning to officials that the same will happen to them if they do not stop the flow of immigration.”
Part of the problem, say human rights groups, is the hesitancy of authorities to classify offences as hate crimes, and of judges to issue significant sentences. And in the face of the economic downturn, some experts predict the situation could get even worse. Recessions have a tendency to increase ethnic tensions, but in Russia, “the institutions that would restrain racist violence are much weaker than they are here,” says University of Toronto professor Matthew Light. “It’s a kind of multiplier effect.”