Against the bucolic backdrop of this summer's Russian landscape, a shocking video emerged on the Internet.
Under a large banner decorated with a swastika, two men dressed in camouflage are seen performing an apparent execution: First, they bind and gag their two victims, then one is beheaded and the other is shot. One victim was identified as being from the mainly Muslim Dagestan region and the second from ex-Soviet Tajikistan.
The purported execution video was posted on the Internet, but removed less than 24 hours later.
The National-Socialist Party of Russia claimed responsibility. In an anonymous letter on a Chechen Web site, the group said the motive for this attack was to remove all Caucasians and Asians from Russian territory.
In August, without saying whether the executions were real, Russian prosecutors said they arrested and charged a university student with inciting racial hatred.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, racism and xenophobia have been on the rise, experts say. Alexander Brod, director of the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights, says there are more than 140 extremist groups currently in Russia, with nearly 1.5 million members and the majority of assaults committed by neo-Nazi skinheads.
Sociologists at the Levada research center say they have not seen such an upsurge of ethnic violence like this since the 1980s.
One particular attack grabbed headlines. Two women, one from Azerbaijan and one from Kazakhstan, were attacked on the streets of St. Petersburg in February 2006. Police say the pair were stabbed repeatedly by three skinheads as they shouted: "Russia for Russians." Less than a month later, a 22-year-old Kurd was stabbed to death and his sister was seriously injured, once again by skinheads, according to authorities.
These were attacks in a series of violent incidents that have occurred in and around Moscow over the last three years. Sadly, experts say, there's no sign of the aggression subsiding. According to the latest statistics from the Sova Research Center, a Moscow-based human rights organization, more than 300 people were victims of racist and neo-Nazi crimes in the first six months of 2007; 37 of these resulted in fatalities.
Authorities say most of Russia's recent hate crimes have been directed toward Africans, Asians and anyone of the Caucasus region. Ali Nasoor, who came to St. Petersburg 20 years ago and has lived through all the upheavals of the last two decades, says life for foreigners has never been worse. "We are just being killed out in the open," Nasoor told ABC News. "It's just gotten out of control."
Yunus Sultanov, whose 9-year-old daughter was murdered by skinheads in St. Petersburg, police say, echoes the sense of helplessness. "It's unbelievable," he said. "Killing my little daughter is only an act of hooliganism, according to Russia's authorities."
There are a number of theories behind the recent spate of racial attacks. One points to the modernization of the last 15 years, which has thrown away the old society and replaced it with a new, more democratic one. But this new society, the theory goes, was created without clear aims or definition of purpose; many changes were arbitrary and poorly thought through. The result was a loss of stability and security for the population, many of whom became impoverished.