From Russia with hate

Angry young men are joining a growing legion of skinheads, and the police are doing little to halt their violence

Globe and Mail/April 26, 2006
By Graeme Smith

Krasnoyarsk, Russia -- Before the street battles, before the killings, before watching his best friend bleed to death from a knife wound in the neck, Timur Kazantsef's career as a skinhead started with a shopping trip to buy slippers for his grandmother.

The heavyset 16-year-old accompanied his mother on the errand, which took them into the jostling, noisy open-air markets of Krasnoyarsk, an industrial centre in Siberia about 4,200 kilometres east of Moscow.

His mother selected a pair of slippers and tried to haggle with the dark-skinned vendors. The starting price was 50 rubles, or about $2. Mr. Kazantsef's mother got a 10-ruble discount, but she wanted another 10 rubles knocked off the price.

One of the vendors scoffed at them and whispered a profanity.

Mr. Kazantsef punched the man in the face, pushed him down and kicked his head. "I broke his skull," Mr. Kazantsef said proudly as he toyed with his butterfly knife.

For a growing cadre of young skinheads in Russia, the streets are battlegrounds in a war to defend their country's honour. Mr. Kazantsef started by defending his family pride in the marketplace but didn't stop there, continuing to wage a bloody campaign against the dark-skinned migrants he views as a threat to the essence of Russia.

He's part of a trend that's gaining momentum across the country, according to a recent report by the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights.

"The skinhead movement is growing," the report says. "It now numbers up to 50,000 people and is spreading from major regional centres into small towns and villages."

That is an enormous increase from the skinheads' first appearance in Russia around 1992, when a handful of young punks in Moscow and St. Petersburg started copying European neo-Nazis. One expert says Russia is now home to half of the world's skinheads.

These violent punks might be only a fringe element in Russian society, but they're symptomatic of a growing concern about demographics. A broad majority of ethnic Russians feel uncomfortable about the fact that their numbers are shrinking, while they watch their non-Slavic neighbours flourishing.

Nationalist politicians are increasingly vocal in their calls for a clampdown on immigration, and skinheads such as Mr. Kazantsef openly boast about their brutality against the newcomers.

Even more troubling, observers say, is the tendency of law-enforcement and other authorities to tolerate the skinheads. Police rarely name racism as the motive for an attack. In the few cases where an offender is prosecuted, the charge is usually "hooliganism," which carries mild penalties.

This official reluctance makes it difficult to classify racial killings. Rights groups estimate that 67 people died in racially motivated attacks in the last two years, but those numbers make Mr. Kazantsef laugh. "They never write it up," he said. "Nobody wants the people to know what we're doing."

Mr. Kazantsef flaunts the fact that he's unlikely to get a harsh punishment. The vendor whose skull he cracked had serious injuries, he said, but he got only a conditional sentence. He says many police officers sympathize with his cause.

A 19-year-old friend of Mr. Kazantsef said part of his reason for joining the skinheads involved the sexual politics of sharing the city with newcomers.

"I was rejected by three different girls because they preferred foreign guys," said the tall teenager with ugly scars on his shaven head.

"They said to me, 'Those guys are better because they have nice cars, earn more money, and they're nicer than Russians.' "

Mr. Kazantsef and his friend may have slightly different reasons for their anger, but its outlet is the same. In separate interviews, the pair of skinheads told identical stories about joining a so-called brigade led by Mr. Kazantsef's best friend Genia to attack a market.

It was the end of a cold day in November, around 7 p.m., when the group of 15 teenagers walked into the Krastats market near the outskirts of Krasnoyarsk.

They wore black bomber jackets, black jeans with rolled cuffs, and steel-toed combat boots. They had shrugged their suspenders off their shoulders so the black straps hung down from their belts, Mr. Kazantsef said, as a symbol of their readiness for battle.

The market should have been an abandoned warren of steel shipping containers at that time of day, an hour after closing time. The skinheads' scout, a 13-year-old boy, had reported that conditions were ripe to ambush a dozen vendors as they packed up.

But the skinheads were surprised to find a bigger group, perhaps 40 dark-skinned traders finishing their day's work.

Genia, the 16-year-old leader, threw the first punch and hit a fortysomething vendor. Almost immediately, another middle-aged vendor pulled out a four-inch blade and stuck it into Genia's throat. The knife must have hit an artery, Mr. Kazantsef said, because blood spurted everywhere. "All of our brigade attacked that man," Mr. Kazantsef said. "First we killed him, then we took on the others."

Skinheads occasionally arm themselves with metal rods, belts, chains or other basic weapons. Genia's brigade chose fists and boots. Usually a fight lasts half a minute, Mr. Kazantsef said, as the skinheads inflict their damage and escape. This time the fight dragged on for four or five painful minutes.

"There were too many of them," Mr. Kazantsef said. The skinheads finally ran away, leaving the ground covered with blood and their fallen leader behind. They sprinted 50 metres together, then scattered in predetermined directions.

Mr. Kazantsef unrolled the cuffs on his jeans, pulled up his suspenders, put a cap over his shaven head, and disappeared into the city.

Soon after getting confirmation of his friend's death, Mr. Kazantsef became the new leader of his brigade. A spokesman for the Krasnoyarsk police said the force has no record of the incident.

Population non grata

Moscow correspondent Graeme Smith spent six weeks travelling across Russia to explore the causes and effects of Russia's plummeting population. Today he writes from Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, where a group of skinheads boasts of its attacks on foreigners.

A survey conducted last summer revealed the level of intolerance toward non-Russians and tolerance of skinheads. Respondents were asked for their opinion of the following statements.

"Deport all migrants, legal and illegal, and their children"

Under 25 years of age*

  • Undecided: 9%
  • Totally disagree: 21%
  • Mostly disagree: 33%
  • Mostly agree: 9%
  • Totally agree: 27%

Over 40 years of age*

  • Undecided: 9%
  • Totally disagree: 17%
  • Mostly disagree: 31%
  • Mostly agree: 21%
  • Totally agree: 22%

"Skinheads are not a threat to ethnic relations"

Under 25 years of age*

  • Undecided: 16%
  • Totally disagree: 28%
  • Mostly disagree: 30%
  • Mostly agree: 15%
  • Totally agree: 10%

Over 40 years of age*

  • Undecided: 23%
  • Totally disagree: 33%
  • Mostly disagree: 29%
  • Mostly agree: 11%
  • Totally agree: 5%

*Percentages may not add up to 100 due to rounding

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