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.
According to Emil Pain, director of research into extremism and xenophobia at the Institute of Sociology, the breakup of a multinational state like the USSR brought about an identity crisis with scores of different nationalities, each with their own ideologies and visions of who the enemy was.
For decades, Soviet ideology nurtured the idea that Russia was surrounded by enemies. With the demise of the Soviet Union and the loss of economic and social stability, foreigners and ethnic minorities became obvious and easy targets.
Another significant factor may be the mass migration in the '90s from Central Asia, the Caucasus and Northern Caucasus. At this time there were frequent clashes and conflicts between locals and newcomers as a result of differences in lifestyles and mentalities, observers say.
Due to significant drops in standards of living, well-off migrants today are received negatively by locals often on the assumption that they gained their wealth at their expense. Such attitudes reign, experts point out, despite the fact that the majority of migrants work as laborers; they clean the streets, collect rubbish and work in construction.
Economically and socially, the majority of migrants are worse off than locals, according to experts. The government has implemented few measures to integrate migrants into Russian society, leaving the local population to cope alone.
As ever, the role of bureaucracy in Russian society is dominant; citizens understand that their lives are more dependent on the powers that be, than on personal effort. Since one cannot be the boss in one's own country, why not be the boss of ethnic minorities and migrants?
Furthermore, the ill feeling toward Chechens and Caucasians has been fueled by a series of terrorist attacks and the Chechen wars.
There is also the reported worldwide rise of ethnic, religious and racial hatred, which has inevitably affected the changing Russian order. Globalization has mixed effects; on the one hand, it standardizes lifestyles and on the other it provokes mass migration and the tendency to blame an outsider for social problems.
From the '90s and onward, people have been anxious about deprivation of housing, the crime rate, the health system, employment, failing public services as well as broken promises concerning the chasm between government rhetoric and government policies.
Russia has at least 10 extremist and nationalist groups that frequently preach xenophobia and racism. One of the larger and relatively long-established extremist groups is the National-Bolshevik Party, which was recently banned after a court hearing. However, plenty of groups are still thriving and party activists are believed to be between 10,000 and 15,000 in number.
However, extremist groups are marginal in comparison to the mass skinhead movement, which has tens of thousands of members age between 13 and 30. Analysis by the MBPCH Centre shows that most criminal skinheads are between 15 and 17 years old. Numbers are especially concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Voronezh and Nizhni Novgorod. These youths tend to come from low-income families in run-down areas, often belonging to football fan clubs and heavy rock groups; they supposedly offer an attractive image of the physical strength of youth, with their laced-up boots, cropped hair and leather jackets.
Skinheads often join extremist organizations in an overt act of rebellion against the establishment. Brod, from the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, says that one reason for the development of youth extremism over the last decade is the absence of anti-extremists laws. Brod said that racially motivated murders are barely recorded, despite the growth in such attacks in the first half of 2007.
Lev Gudkov of the Levada Centre said that 4 percent to 6 percent of adult citizens demonstrate strong fascist feelings, whereas among youth this figure reaches 15 percent — showing how racial intolerance has now become part of youth subculture.
Critics say that xenophobia and nationalism are exploited by parties to attract the electorate; anti-immigrant slogans are frequently used in pre-election campaigns. The Rodina (Motherland) Party is well-known for playing the anti-immigrant card in Moscow. Such parties have attempted to attract skinheads to join their ranks, but these alliances do not always prove fruitful as skinheads tend not to be willing to tow the party line.
As election time draws closer, right-wing parties will take advantage of the opportunity to promote nationalist ideas. Door-to-door campaigning will endorse racism in a similar fashion to the 2005 Rodina Party anti-immigrant promotional video: "Let Us Clean Our City of Trash."
George Bovt, editor of Profile magazine, voiced his suspicion that skinheads are being used to intimidate and frighten the public into sticking with the establishment at the polls. The Sova Center's report to the European Union suggests that the Russian political establishment has lately been aiming for a "controlled nationalism."
This is believable bearing in mind that one leader of the LDPR, nationalist party, campaigned for migrants to be evicted from the cities, and Caucasians not to be hired as drivers. Brod explained the state of affairs: "Before nationalists were marginal, today they are merging into the political milieu."
Vyashelvav Nikonov, a Duma deputy and member of the Public Chamber, explained that the ultimate result of slogans like "Russia for the Russians" is a threat to Russia's multiculturalism and its future as a civilized state.
Amnesty International has said that racism in Russian cities is spinning out of control. Despite the media coverage of some racist attacks and murders, the authorities are failing to crack down on the problem. Galina Kozhevnikova of Sova said, "No one wants to admit that the country, which defeated fascism, could possibly be a breeding ground for fascists."