June 29, 2004 -- A respected scholar was gunned down, shot in the doorway of his apartment, and less than a week later a neo-fascist group posted a "death sentence" for the man on its Web site. The leader of the group says police "don't dare" come after him or his followers.
Nikolai Girenko, a Russian anthropologist who had helped St. Petersburg prosecutors investigate several racially motivated murders, was killed by a shotgun blast through the door of his St. Petersburg apartment on June 19.
Four days later, the group Russkaya Respublika (Russian Republic) posted on its Web site a document titled "Sentence No. 1" from its "Tribunal," which laid out what it said were Girenko's crimes — and sentenced him to death.
"The defense did not present convincing evidence in relationship to the defendant and I find N.M. Girenko a confirmed and incorrigible enemy of the Russian people and sentence him to the highest measure of punishment — to be shot," said the statement, which was dated June 12.
In an interview with the Russian news site Strana.ru, Vladimir Popov, the leader of Russkaya Respublika, said the group was responsible for the killing.
"He knew what he was getting into," Popov told Strana.ru. "The sentence was carried out in the name of those he put away."
Popov refused to name the person who fired the shot, but said he was not afraid of the police.
"They won't come to us," he said. "They don't dare. They are afraid of the Russian question. I already know that right now they are trying to write this off as random crime."
Three days after the killing of Girenko, St. Petersburg regional governor Valentina Matvienko announced that her office would oversee the investigation and said 120 investigators had been assigned to the case.
After the posting on the Russkaya Respublika Web site, a spokeswoman for the St. Petersburg prosecutor's office, Elena Ordynskaya, said that all leads in the case would be investigated, including the neo-Nazi group's claim.
While many skinheads have been arrested, tried and convicted of beatings and killings in Russia — most of which have been directed against immigrants from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus — there have been numerous high-profile cases in which either no suspect was ever identified or the crime was written off as "hooliganism," a term used to describe random crime not motivated by ideology or robbery.
For example, in separate attacks in St. Petersburg in the last year a 6-year-old Gypsy girl was beaten to death and a 9-year-old Tajik girl was killed and her father and her sister seriously injured.
Both crimes were ascribed to random hooliganism, though in the case of the Tajik family — from the former Soviet republic Tajikistan, in Central Asia — witnesses described the attackers as teenagers with shaved heads shouting "Russia for Russians."
Marshall Goldman, the assistant director of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University, said the concern is not that police or the state security service, the FSB, might be afraid of skinheads or neo-fascists, but that some in their ranks might be sympathetic to the ultra-nationalist cause.
"They do seem to have some support from within police ranks, and that's a problem when they go after particularly Central Asians," he said. "I think it's not unfair to say that there are likely people in the FSB who support it, but it's very difficult to document."
As in the United States and Europe, neo-fascists and skinheads in Russia have traditionally targeted minorities, but the U.S. State Department noted that American tourists may be at risk of attack as well.
"Violent, racially motivated attacks on people of color and foreigners have become widespread in Russia," according to the State Department's current consular information sheet for Russia. "Many of these attacks target university students, particularly those of Asian and African origin, but older tourists have also been targeted. Travelers are urged to exercise caution in areas frequented by 'skinhead' groups and wherever large groups have gathered."
There are no solid numbers on how many skinheads there are in Russia, but the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights estimates there are about 50,000 active members of such extremist groups. There have been reports of alleged skinhead attacks in nearly every major Russian city.
When such groups began appearing after the collapse of the Soviet Union and then growing as the Russian economy foundered, many experts both within and outside Russian said the rise of skinhead violence was directly related to the economy. Skinhead violence has not declined, though, even as the Russian economy has improved over the last few years.
Goldman said that the rise of such extremist groups cannot be blamed solely on economics. Instead, he said, it is fueled by nationalist pride, which was battered by the country's loss of superpower status. A recent nationwide poll done by St. Petersburg University said that one out of every three Russians between the ages of 16 and 19 describes themselves as "nationalist."
"The bigger problem is not so much the size [of the skinhead problem], it's that they wrapped themselves up in the nationalist banner. There's a factor of this that goes over into fascism and they identify themselves with Hitler, which really surprises me," Goldman said.