Disturbing images of Russian neo-Nazi skinheads attacking defenseless, unsuspecting immigrants have been circling the globe via the Internet. It was those pictures that provoked 28-year-old journalist Christof Putzel to make what turned out to be an extraordinary trip to Russia to find out what is going on.
"They're really brutal," Putzel said of the attacks. "A lot of times they end in fatalities. In the first six months of this year, I think, to the best information that we have … there have been over 300 attacks and 47 of those have ended in fatalities.
"This is not play-acting. It's not a rare occurrence. It's happening almost every single day."
Working for Current TV-- the two-year-old cable outlet founded by former Vice President Al Gore -- Putzel and his 24 year old producer Lauren Cerre went to Russia with a pair of store-bought video cameras and immersed themselves in a vast, violent neo-Nazi subculture.
"In the early '90s, our ancient state fell down and then [there were] lots of problems, lots of problems everywhere," said Sergei, a neo-Nazi Putzel interviewed. "Borders were opened and a hurricane of immigrants came."
"It's bad when a lot of people from another country, from poor countries, come to my country, try to work here," said another neo-Nazi, Ivan Litvinov.
"They see us as the people who completely destroyed their lives," said Jonathan Benjamin, an immigrant from Sri Lanka.
"When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, everything changed," explained Putzel. "A lot of people have been left without any direction, with a very unknown future, unknown economic prospects."
And who are the people that make up this subculture?
"They're young men, predominantly," said Putzel. "They come from families that are not necessarily very well off. Their futures are very uncertain. They're not very well educated. And this is something for them to believe in."
In a country that lost more people defeating the Nazis than any other country, there are now an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 neo-Nazis, half of the world's total. They even have supporters in parliament.
Putzel asked a member of parliament, Nikolai Kuryanovich, to comment on the videos being passed around on the Internet.
"Russians don't want to live like slaves in their own land, which is what's happening now," Kuryanovich replied.
Putzel spoke with foreign college students who are terrified by the videos.
"The first time I watched it I was devastated, completely devastated," said Jonathan Benjamin.
"Being a black man in Moscow is dangerous," said Akili Bernard. "I'm always worried. I always watch my back. If I'm going to class, I just go straight to class. I don't walk around to places I don't know."
The Propaganda Profession
In order to penetrate the movement, Putzel had to get close to Dimitry Rumyantzev, the secretive, security-conscious leader of the National Socialist Organization. After lots of cajoling, he got an interview.
When asked if the videos showing people attacking immigrants in the street include people that have taken his training, Rumyantzev replied, "I cannot answer this question absolutely frankly. Let's just say there are NSO members who have participated in such actions."
After that interview, Rumyantsev disappeared for a week, and then called out of the blue and told Putzel to meet him in the lobby of his hotel.
"We had no idea where we were headed when they told us to rent a van and go in the woods," said Putzel.
They traveled deep into the woods, where dozens of skinheads were engaged in military-style training.
"We face ethnic expansion on our land and the replacement of our people with foreigners," said one skinhead. "Therefore, any form of resistance can only be welcomed. Terror, violence, explosions, murders -- anything goes in the name of the nation."
"Then we met Tesak, whose name means 'hatchet' in Russian," recalled Putzel. "We sat down with him, and he pulled out a DVD and proudly showed off that a lot of the videos we'd been watching he'd actually made."
"This is a very good video," Tesak told Putzel. "It's one of my favorites. The music is very merry."
The video shows a victim's passport being burned, and another victim being savagely beaten.
"The biggest pleasure of watching these videos is knowing I've started this trend," said Tesak. "This is now my profession: propaganda. Someone will have a look and say, 'This is pretty. I want to do this, too.' He will then take a knife and go kill."
Bringing Attention to the Issue
The neo-Nazi movement is also on the rise in the United States. According to one study, the number of hate groups has gone up 40 percent since 2001, fueled in large measure by anger over illegal immigration.
"The world is changing, and particularly the first world, very rapidly," explained Mark Potok from the Southern Poverty Law Center. "What we have is very large sectors of the working class in various countries being hurt fairly badly. And those people often look to scapegoats to explain, 'Why is this happening to me?'"
But perhaps nowhere is the movement as vicious as it is in Russia. Several weeks after Putzel's interview with Tesak, Tesak was arrested. Weeks later, a video went up on the Internet demanding Tesak's release, and then showing the brutal execution of two brown-skinned men.
"One of the challenges that we faced throughout the entire piece was: How do you report on a story about propaganda without becoming an unwitting carrier of their message?" said Putzel. "You know, we had to go in and report what these guys are thinking, what they're saying and what they're doing. And that's a very difficult thing to do without showing it. And ultimately, the reason that we did this story is because it's an alarming story. It's a serious issue that needs attention. And it can't be ignored any longer."
For more information visit current.com.