Hate crimes in Russia: Citizens of former Soviet republics fear Russia's streets

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Naziq Eygesheva is slight at only 58 centimeters with a scratch across her nose. She's sitting in the thick of a large armchair staring at me frighteningly. There's another scar on her temple, 6 more on her hands and one more on her left breast. The doctors say she was lucky. The knife got stuck in her jacket and missed her heart by half a centimeter. Naziq is a 20-year-old Kyrgyz girl who was attacked by skinheads in Moscow. Naziq lived in Russia's capital for nearly a year. Her dream was to enroll in the Medical Academy. Naziq says she didn't used to be afraid of living in Moscow. She thought skinheads only attacked foreigners who didn't speak Russian, or dressed like villagers. In fact, she felt right at home. Naziq had graduated from a Russian school in Bishkek with perfect grades and could recite Akhmatova and Tsetaev by heart. Her mother, Pazilat Nasibova, was a Russian citizen and gynecologist with a 30-year history in the profession. Pazilat had always told her daughter: "We need to learn from the Russians! How they walk, dress, study and live. You can only expect kindness from them!" Naziq knew something awful was going to happen on that fateful day in late January 2008, although she had never been the victim of an ethnic conflict before. She stood inside the entrance of the Kitay-Gorod metro station and waited. She desperately didn't want to walk home alone. Naziq sent text messages to all her friends, asking if they could escort her home. Everyone was busy except Marat Akmatov. He probably had a bit of a crush on Naziq, even though they had only met once before. It took them nearly half an hour to make the 7-minute walk home. They talked about how Marat, who was 21, missed his mother who he hadn't seen in almost a year. He said he planned on visiting her soon.

It was still early evening – around 20:30. All the sudden, a group of skinheads appeared out of nowhere with knives. Naziq fell to the ground almost immediately. Meanwhile, they dragged Marat into the bushes. He had no chance to survive. They cut his throat and stabbed him 62 times. Naziq lay there in the snow, closed her eyes and wondered why this was happening.

"Are you dead yet, bitch?" she heard one of the skinheads say. And the gang disappeared as quietly as they had arrived. "Not all Russians are like this!" a friend of Naziq's mother told her in the ambulance, crying and laying her coat beneath the girl's bloodied body. Naziq would later hear this phrase on numerous occasions – from doctors, patients at the hospital and neighbors. Shortly after the incident, someone put an envelope in her mother's mailbox with 1,000 rubles and a note reading: "We live in a neighboring building. A policeman came by and asked us if we saw what happened the night when two people were killed near our home. We didn't see anything, but we'd like to give you our financial support. We were told you are relatives of the deceased." "Maybe we weren't even attacked by Russians," Naziq said hopefully. Although she wants to believe this is true, I know she asked her relative to hide the kitchen knife before we met as she feared skinheads had hired me to kill her. "I thought I'd become a doctor, start working and come home when it was still light and nothing would happen. But now they're even killing during the day! It's just better to go abroad where there are lots of Asians," she said. Her mother, who has helped hundreds of Russian women give birth, froze when she heard these words.

Naziq has decided to go back to Bishkek. Her mother is returning to her clinic in Moscow. Everyday she'll walk the path where her daughter was viciously attacked.

Grave statistics Skinheads have been on a murderous tirade in 2008. Fifty-seven people have already been killed and 116 injured as a result of hate crimes – double the figure for 2007, said Moscow Human Rights Bureau Director Aleksandr Brod.

Eleven Kyrgyz have been killed in Moscow in 2008, Consul of the Kyrgyz Republic Daniyar Syrdybaev said, while 14 were killed in all of Russia in 2007. Recently, a Tajik and Kabardino-Balkaria resident were murdered in the capital. Two people were convicted of murdering an Armenian and Azeri in the Altay region. Four Tajiks were severely beaten in Yekaterinburg. A young Roma and his 1.5-year-old daughter were killed in the Volgograd region. And the list goes on. It would be wrong to say that Russia has declared war on the Kyrgyz alone. Azeris, Tajiks and Armenians have also been subject to hate crimes over the past few years. The Kyrgyz are particularly targeted as they have proven less likely to resist attacks, whereas no reports have been made about skinheads attacking Chechens, Dargins or the Ingush. Besides being thought of as more aggressive, the North Caucasus peoples are also often mistaken for South Slavs. This is the primary reason they are seldom targeted as skinheads usually use quick visual screening to handpick their victims.

This screening process often goes wrong and victimizes individuals who are not the traditional targets of Russian nationalists. Last autumn, the son of an Iranian diplomatic adviser was murdered in Moscow. A young ethnic Russian boy, Vasiliy Poduzov, was also killed in a hate crime. A group of schoolchildren in Yekaterinburg thought he was a migrant. In late 2007, a group of skinheads killed Sergey Nikolaev, a world-class chess master, who friends called modest, kind and respectable. Newspapers wrote the "Chess Star of Russia's Asian North Has Faded." The autumn day when Nikolaev was killed, 26 others suffered in ethnically motivated attacks in Moscow.

Statistics show that nationalist groups don't care if potential victims are Russian citizens. They're concerned with ethnicity. Thus Russia's non-Slavic peoples are often victimized, such as Buryats (ex-boxing champion Bato Batuev was stabbed twice in Moscow in early January), Kalmyks and Tartars, who have had a near-model union with Russia for centuries.

Journalists and human rights advocates warned the situation would take a turn for the worse several years ago, saying skinheads would first target migrant workers, then gradually non-Slavic Russian citizens and ultimately specific groups of ethnic Russians, such as gays, anti-fascists and punks.

A pack of young fascists Journalist Sayana Mongush didn't think she would be attacked just one year after she reported on the murder of the 19-year-old Tuvinian student Yumbuu Chechek. But in December 2007, Mongush was attacked in the Saint Petersburg metro by a group of skinheads. Eight young boys beat Mongush, who was old enough to be their mother. She swung at them with her heavy, professional camera and took several photos of the incident accidentally.

"They stood next to me screaming: 'Leave Russia!' They hit me in the stomach, head and legs," Mongush told KP in an interview over the phone. She hoped her case would be handled by the Saint Petersburg Prosecutor's Office because she headed the Tuvinian government's press center.

"I simply had a run-in with Russian fascist fundamentalism," Mongush said.

Interestingly, Mongush didn't reprimand the authorities as one would expect of an opposition journalist. But that's not the point. The point is the boys who attacked her in the days before the State Duma elections had no idea Mongush was an opposition journalist. They didn't read her articles or know if she was Tuvinian or Korean. And the boys were certainly too young to remember the early 1990s when many Russians were dealt a hard hand in Tuva. They simply beat her because she wasn't Russian. The boys thought they were defending the Russian people, although no one had asked the favor of them.

"Their mothers must have been about my age – 42," Mongush wrote in her blog. "We watched the same films, studied the same lessons, went to the same camps and sang the same songs, got married and had children at about the same time... What happened to them?" Bright orange targets If you ask your non-Slavic friends if they've had a run-in with domestic nationalism, you'll discover a great deal.

I know I did.

A frail Korean is remodelling my neighbor's apartment. Every evening the owner drives him to his dormitory because he is too scared to walk home alone. Zaven, a Russian citizen and ethnic Armenian who lives in a neighboring building, applied for a handgun license at the police station after being attacked twice. The generous Ondar Chimir-Dorju, former chairman of the Tuvinian Soviet Council of Ministers, said he is often forced to ignore young boys who approach him in the metro and taunt him saying: "Would you like me to punch you?" He's 72 years old and walks with a cane. We shouldn't pretend this isn't everyone's problem. This is happening everywhere in Russia – in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Voronezh and across the entire country. In one year alone, two yard-keepers were killed in my prestigious neighborhood.

I recently visited the area where one of them had been killed. I stood there, thinking for a moment and imagining myself in his shoes. I probably came to Russia from Uzbekistan to support my wife, children and parents because we had little money. I arrived in Moscow, found a job and put on that old bright orange yard-keeper's vest and unknowingly became the target of Russian nationalists. One winter morning, I woke up and saw Moscow covered in snow. I went outside to start shoveling so locals could get to work. And then I was attacked and killed – stabbed 42 times at 5 in the morning. Several days later a snowdrift mounted in the courtyard.

And this was in my own neighborhood. Not far in the distance, I saw another bright orange vest rustling about. "I'm sorry!" I yelled. But he looked at me strangely. He didn't understand. He had never those words in Russia before. In which Russia do you want to live? I know plenty of people will write me after reading this article that Russia is suffocating from all the emigrants, and migrant workers have taken over our markets, streets and buildings. "Do you want to live in that Russia?" they'll ask. And I'll answer them honestly. No, I don't. I don't want to live in a Russia where I'm afraid to leave my own home. But I also don't want to live in a Russia where people get killed because of the color of their skin. "I'm looking for the man who saved my life!" Mongush wrote in a Saint Petersburg newspaper not long after the attack. She published the photos she had accidentally taken of him in the metro car. His profile was clearly visible before he intervened and saved her life. The skinheads dragged him out of the wagon and continued to beat him as the train sped into the dark tunnel with Mongush on board.

Mongush was lucky to find him alive. He's a Tajik – the son of a teacher. He wanted to become an engineer, but ended up working construction instead. He had already lived in Russia for 7 years – long enough to learn how to bear humiliation. Mongush's colleague wrote a warm article about him in a popular magazine titled, "The Gentleman from Dushanbe." The Internet audience's reaction was predictable. "They should write about how Russians were killed in Tajikistan and Tuva in the early 1990s instead!" We did write about what happened in Tajikistan and Tuva... And we will again. Indeed the Moscow Human Rights Bureau's statistics show that more Russians were killed in Ingushetia last year than any other peoples in Russia. But why do we have to take this out on the Kyrgyz and Tuvinians? No one is keeping tally. One hate crime shouldn't justify another. We must eradicate xenophobia from our society. We need to change the way we think to do so – as do the emigrants who visit our country.

It's difficult to dissect the issue to understand why this is happening. Russians don't have a history of xenophobia. They have always been considered caring and helpful by minority peoples. (And this is evident as Russia didn't assimilate 85 peoples.) So what happened? Why are non-Russians so afraid to walk our streets?

Read on in the next issue of KP.


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