Murder in St. Petersburg
Russian hate crimes on the rise
August 09, 2005
Behind the Lens: Interview With Kelly Whalen
Reporter Kelly Whalen talks about the challenges of reporting on hate crimes and how the consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union have left many Russians asking themselves what it means to be Russian today.
"Murder in St. Petersburg" is Kelly Whalen's first video report for FRONTLINE/World. A California-based writer and documentary producer, Whalen has been producing for national public television for 10 years. She has reported on hate crimes in the U.S. for the PBS series "Not In Our Town." Whalen's latest project is developing an independent documentary about the U.S. drug war.
This year, Russia is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. The former Soviet Union sacrificed 27 million soldiers and citizens fighting European fascism. The losses far outweighed those of any other nation fighting in World War II, which Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War. Given the country's extraordinary anti-Nazi history, many Russians find it difficult to understand why neo-Nazism is on the rise in Russia today. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 skinheads are active in the country, taking direction from a growing number of ultranationalist political parties, some represented in the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament.
On Rough Cut this week, we present Kelly Whalen's report from St. Petersburg, Russia. "Murder in St. Petersburg" is the story of Nikolai Mikhailovich Girenko, a prominent defender of minority rights, who was gunned down in his home in the summer of 2004. Girenko, an ethnologist and Africa studies scholar, had dedicated the last 10 years of his life to investigating Russian hate groups that vilify Jews, foreigners and migrants from the former Soviet republics. Girenko's work and expert testimony resulted in the incarceration of dangerous skinhead leaders and other ultranationalist figures -- and his death was mourned by human rights defenders around the world. More than a year later, his murder remains unsolved.
As a fellow of the International Reporting Project at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Whalen traveled to Russia for five weeks in spring 2005 to investigate Girenko's death and the dangerous forces he opposed.
During her visit, a petition to ban all Jewish organizations, signed by several State Duma deputies, was circulating the country. Radical newspapers were continuing their "Russia for Russians" campaigns and railed against the Jewish oligarchs, condemning them as "the scoundrels and thieves" who plundered the country during the period of perestroika after the collapse of the communist system, while ordinary Russians suffered.
Violent attacks against foreign students and immigrants have become a weekly occurrence. During Whalen's last weekend in St. Petersburg, a city with a rich history of culture and acceptance, Angolan, Bangladeshi and Chinese students were attacked in separate incidents. One student was sent to the hospital with head injuries and knife wounds.
But Whalen also found a growing public resistance to this hate and intolerance. Migrant communities, foreign students, activists and government representatives are beginning to join forces. And some top-level officials are publicly calling for changes in law enforcement to help deal with the problem.
In this report, you will meet neo-Nazi gangs of skinheads as well as far-right party ideologues, some of whom were questioned by police about Girenko's murder. One ultranationalist tells Whalen, "We consciously stir up this hatred...because it's like a weapon. Blood for blood. I have always said that." You will also meet colleagues and supporters of Girenko, people who remember a man who worked courageously and tirelessly against racism and dangerous forms of nationalism.
More troubling news from Russia: On the 3rd anniversary this summer (2007) of Nikolai Girenko's murder, a close colleague and friend of Girenko's, Valentina Uzunova, was attacked on the street in St. Petersburg. She suffered a concussion in the assault. A member of the movement "Russia Without Racism," Uzunova has testified as an expert witness against neo-Nazi group leaders and ultranationalist newspaper editors. Police said the attack was an ordinary robbery, but human rights groups believe Uzunova was targeted for her work against extremists. She was scheduled to testify the next day in the case of a man charged with inciting ethnic hatred.
jith menakandy - kannur, kerala,India
I am a former student who studied in Russia.I am from India.I am a doctor.I am greatful to Russia for giving good education at low cost.I had many good Russian friends.But I have to admit that I faced a lot of problems because of being non white.Violent racism is there in almost any city in Russia.I know many friends who were brutally beaten.Their only fault was that they were non whites.In Russia white means even your hair must not be black.Even Russians get beaten because of their of their hair colour.I think that the war in Chechenya and rise of Islamic radicals was the reason for the boom in racial hatred.So the solution is not that easy.I think it takes a lot for the world to become a multicultural hub.Till then that ideal will be just a utopia.
Edward La Corte - Plainfield, New Jersey
It's very,very sad,frustrating and shocking that so much hate and fear still rule the hearts and minds of so many ignorant and close minded people.The gentleman who was murdered by a coward, was a true example of Love and acceptance, and was very courageous in his views.
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
There was a major breakthrough in the murder case of Russian human rights expert Nikolai Girenko, featured in our story, when Russian authorities announced May 25 that five suspected neo-Nazis now in police custody were involved in the murder.
David Parent - Springfield, Virginia
Informative piece. The story is very unfortunate. My daughter has been learning Russian in college, due to her great love of Russian literature. She wants to visit the country to learn about it firsthand, but I am convinced your piece will convince her against doing so. I am grateful to you for this work.
DeAndrea Cross - Houston, TX
I'm very familiar with the stories about rascism in Russia and it really saddened me because I'd wanted to visit Russia since I was a little girl. As an African-American female who was actually planning to visit Russia this summer, I was literally afraid for my life. But I had made friends with a girl from Moscow and I expressed to her that I'd love to visit but I don't want to end up losing my life. She was the one who said she understood my concern but she also told me to remember that everything the media tells you about Russia doesn't mean that applies to every single Russian in the entire country and she said they are ignorant people in every country and that someone's ignorance shouldn't stop you from going places in your life. That really did hit me, because she was right so I went to Moscow for two weeks, and I admit I was terrified even when I got there. But the good thing was that my friend went with me everywhere I went, and she introduced me to her friends and we'd always go places and I have to say by the end of the first week Moscow felt like home to me. I even went to my friends parents' house for dinner one night and they were lovely people, her mother made me a beautiful scarf with my name on it and her family members were so funny and laid back. Her parents even offered to let me stay there for the rest of my time in Russia, which I turned down but it was very thoughtful of them and I was very grateful for their kindness. Nobody ever bothered me, people were very friendly and sweet to me. When I'd be walking down the street people would smile at me and say "Allo". Let me tell you russians are some of the most hospitable people you'll ever meet, they want you to feel comfortable and if you're not they want to know what they can do to make you feel more comfortable and they want you to come back for another visit. Ignorance is a disgusting trait some people possess, but it's not everyone, just be a smart tourist and never go anyplace by yourself or you put yourself in danger! iIt's best to know somebody there or go with a group of people and don't draw attention to yourself. If you want to visit Russia then absolutely do it, it's one of the coolest places to go to, just be smart about it.
Tony - Montreal, Canada
I will not deny that there have been incidents of racial violence in Russia. However, there are more gray tones than most people want to admit. I am a white-skinned, but dark-haired and thick-eyebrowed Latin American, who is often mistaken as a Mediterranean guy (Spaniard, Italian, or Middle Eastern, depending who I run into in the street). I spent two months in Russia this summer and had ABSOLUTELY NO PROBLEM. I was a little restrained in the beginning (because of all the bad press!) but after a few days I was staying out late (even overnight) in the streets of St. Petersburg, without being bothered at all. It is just a matter of common sense: if you are alone in a deserted place and see a group of youngsters walking behind you or in your direction, move away, as you would do in any major city of the world! (Wouldn't you do that in Los Angeles, Chicago, or Atlanta, just to name 3 cities?) And I must add a somewhat silly comment: if you take the time to meet Russians (most of whom, as somebody has already mentioned, are wonderful people), you will realize that many of them go to the sea resorts and/or tanning studios so often that they are darker than most of us!
So sad that this is still happening in the 21st century. Why can't the Russian government do something about it?
Juan Carlos Sepulveda - New York, New York
I'm very saddened to see the way Russia is evolving, and agree 100% with the last paragraph of this article. I'm an American citizen of Latin American and Colombian origin - dark haired, dark eyed, tanned skin. I studied and worked for two years in Moscow in the late nineties as a young man, and back then the problem was already more than noticeable. Not one week passed without getting stopped by the local militias (military police) for a document check. Half of the time I had to pay bribes to get my passport returned. To them, an American equals money. Before seeing my passport they thought I was from Caucasus (especially Chechnya). From getting spit in the face on the metro several times, to being called dirty scum and worse in the street, to being looked at suspiciously by every other "babushka" and with hatred by most men, and being rejected by many women as of poor "genetic" value. It never really got worse than that... I see things have gone even more downhill!
Now, back in New York, living in Brooklyn, what saddens me the most are the comments I've overheard of Russian immigrants here in NYC, especially in the Brighton Beach area, a place I like to visit to practice my Russian skills. From being at stores and hearing the clerks say in Russian: keep an eye on the Hispanic that just came in, to women clinging to their purses in the subway as a I sit next to them, to overhearing a group of Russian teens say in Russian, what is this "spic" doing in our neighborhood. It outrages me! In some ways Russians will always be in the extreme, for better or for worse, and they always need an enemy to strike on. I guess they transfer to Latinos and African-Americans the resentment for people from Caucasus they had back home (there are less of them here). It is utterly barbaric to be a racist at home (in Russia), and downright ridiculously profane when they themselves are the "newcomers." Sometimes it's better not to understand what they say, so most Latinos and African-Americans in NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, etc, should feel fortunate not to understand Russian. Sad to say.
Saint Petersburg, Russia
Actually, I live here. I was in a few of those nice protests. I was edited from national television interviews because I'm American. I have seen some scars and dead bodies, etc. I'm usually left alone. Not only because I look like everyone else, but I don't do things that foreigners normally do. It's true that there are growing racist elements within Russia and it's a byproduct of Russian nationalism. However, most Russians aren't racists, they are not ultra-nationalists, and Saint Petersburg is still just as safe as any other city in the world.
Kseniya Voronova - Stockton, CA
I am not surprised. Last time I was there, it was the same thing. Politics don't play games just like rest of my motherland, compared to America where a lot of people, mostly teens, are playing pretend gangsters and kill each other for something dumb. In Russia, if we play games than it's big - one serious game with strict rules and someone hot to die for someone to be able to win. That's how it goes.
No reasonable person will deny that each race is entitled to their exclusive living space. And the importation of non-Russian ethnicities into Russian culture and society ultimately leads to the deprivation of this basic right. Mathematically speaking the Russian population is on a decline, they simply aren't replacing themselves with children of their own due to socio-economic pressures. Western politicians lie and call this problem an "ageing population," however the stark reality is a "dying population." Should the Russians simply lay down and let themselves be submerged by the global majority as other western, formally white nations have done? To replace the ethnic Russians with non-white, non-Russians is essentially a form of genocide. I see this as a normal reaction by a people who are not yet brainwashed by the abnormal modern western concept of internationalism and multiculturalism. Which of course, always comes at the expense and detriment of their own cultural needs and their own children's future.
Racism is bad in Russia, but I have white friends who are in danger just as much, or probably more, in Chicago and elsewhere. I'm colored myself, and have traveled in Europe, Russia, etc. Russian racism gets big press. Anti-white racism in parts of the US, and anti-black in other parts of America, is as dangerous, if not more so than in Russia. So let's look closer to home before we condemn Russia as a stand out case.
I am a doctor. And this is after seven years in Ukraine. Let me tell you that the situation is not better over there. In the year 2000, I lost my country fellow in St. Petersburg. In Ukraine in each city there must be 3-4 racial murders per year. Every day there should be someone aggressed. Well the issue is that no authorities take action against. In Russia and Ukraine a black is a Negro.
Alicia Lovelace - Chicago, IL
It's wonderful that this issue is being addressed! If many people are informed about the reality of these negative occurrences, then the chances of improvement should increase. I am an African American woman who has recently begun dating a Russian student here in the United States. He will be graduating soon and consequently returning to Russia. It is a shame to think that I cannot pursue our relationship or even see him again because of the ongoing violent acts of hate. I don't understand how people can turn into the very thing they hate the most and attempt to justify it all.
Russia, and Saint Petersburg, this city full of interesting things and rich for tourism must be renamed from the city of the white nights to the city of terror nights, where a foreigner with another skin color or ethnicity could be afraid of walking, without worrying that some Nazi group will shoot you with a rifle hanging on a swastika. It's such a waste. If this guy's work was to make Russia's reputation even worse in any aspects of tourism or culture exchange, congratulations you have made it.
Life here is strange. I walk around in fear! It's so strange to note that the higher authorities seem to be blind to all these happenings. It's folly when you realise that these "skin-heads" are out to immortalize Russia's arch enemy Hitler. On Hitler's birthday(20th April), we are told not to go out. I think at this juncture, the world has to come to the aid of foreigners in Russia, especially those of African descent.
(anonymous) - NY, NY
I believe that the best solution is for foreigners to stay out of Russia. In time if Russia becomes a prosperous nation, foreigners might safely visit. Right now, I think people there are rightly frustrated with the activities of societal elements that seek to undermine their nation. I say good for them, and anyone who disagrees is a Russophobe who should feel ashamed of themselves for denying to Russians, on a moral level, their right to self determination.
Russians' deep racism towards darker people is well known. They fought centuries of wars with the Muslims on their southern fringe, especially the fierce Chechens, whom they've periodically annihilated in wholesale purges. Still, I'm not sure how important this subject is in the sphere of Russia's huge problems. It's a Western obsession. With such a horrible and brutal history, acute poverty and an utterly arbitrary system of law, mental problems cause simmering hatreds to erupt. One must remember no one was ever punished for the monstrous crimes of the Communists.
Nicholas Budimir - Big Rapids, MI
It is interesting to note that as the explicit ideology of the Russian ruling class becomes more nationalistic and racist (especially against Caucasians) in their murderous actions, the uneducated, the misguided, and the simply racist elements of the population take up the mantel. The old Soviet state at least officially preached internationalism and anti-racism. They put it into practice under Lenin. The American Communists were the most progressive on racial issues long before any liberals were. Maybe there is something to this idea that capitalism and racism go hand in hand.
Vo - Upland, CA
While poverty and social status may be a cause of this growth of hate it cannot be an excuse. It is within one's self integrity to raise above the influence of hate. These Russians, using hate as a blow valve for their proverty/dead economy is sickening. Rather then contributing to a rebuiliding of a better tomorrow, they stick their heads in the ground and use the old excuse. Jews, minorities, etc. are stealing from us. Deja vu... the Nazis used the same excuse. When one holds Nazis as a rolemodel, very little can be said about one's ratinality and sensibility.
I remain an idealistic; there will always be more good than bad. It is just a matter of raising our voice, and if need be our fist agaist hate.
Unfortunate. Ever since I was a child I have dreamed of seing the great spires that dot St. Petersburg and Moscow. Because my skin is a different hue I fear that it won't be possible. I do hope those in Russia who subscribe to this extremism one day join the world community and renounce hatred.
Sante Roberto - Paris, France
The piece and the comments are so balatently one-sided and self-congratulating, they are ridiculous. What a laughing stock! Kelly Whalen probably never lived in Russia or speaks Russian, yet she seems to be an authority on the whole system in Russia. Furthermore, her journalistic integrity and judgement is a joke. When she interviewed the 2 men from the "far right" newspaper and they told her that 90 percent of the oil and banking mafia in Russia happen to be of a certain non-Orthodox Russian persuasion, she quickly moved on. If she had dug a little deeper, she would have discovered that the 'tycoons' mentioned are nothing but murderous criminals excused by Western governments because they are rich bankers with ties to the West. In additon, nothing good was mentioned about Russia. It's a simple fact that Moscow for example is 50 times safer than filthy degenerate NY or LA. Russia is safe, clean, cultivated and Russians are honest and kind.
Danny Castillo - Arlington heights, IL
Nothing surprising here. White Russians do not even like each other so what can you expect from a bunch of anti-social people.
Kofi Obafemi - Brooklyn, NY
I was attracted to this video becasue of what I was told about Russia's bigotry against people of African descent over 5 years ago. This was communicated to me by an old college friend who is now working for the US federal government, specialized in Russian economics and visited the region many times on offical business. She was immediately briefed by her collegues of the dangers she faced in Russia as an African-American female. Beause of Russian culture is so foreign to me, I would have never expected to hear such stories about Nazism and a rise in the number of racist skin-heads in this part of the world. Thank you for bringing this problem to light.
Navdeep K. Jassal - Oakland, CA
As someone who engages in anti-racism work in the U.S. today, I find it shocking to see how countries so old and with such rich and deep histories can continue to hate and learn nothing from their histories. Thank goodness for the Girenkos of the world. This was a courageous and bold piece.
london, united kingdom
A well researched article.
- Vladivostok, Far east
Hello dear Americans! I am the white activist from Vladivostok (Russia). I am very anxious about all these murders of foreign citizens. I shall tell fairly, I would not like to appear on their place. I am upset with the fact that the American mass media speak no words about black racism or Zionism, only with enthusiasm tell about white racism, or about Russian nationalism (often confusing it with national socialism). One year ago I have returned from America, where I lived for a year. I have been shocked by behavior of the black masses...The Russian emigrants who have arrived to America are afraid to release their children on street because of black racists which can beat the person only for white color of a skin. Certainly not all black people are like this. I met some who are against Zionism.In Russia I have Jewish friends who express open hatred about Zionism and a Zionist mode in Russia. Now owing to a freedom of speech these Jews can speak it openly. "Russia for Russians! " -- more than 60 % (official statistics) of Russian citizens adhere to this slogan.In fact the concept Russian is stretched enough. Russians can be: Slavs, Asians of Siberia, Russian Jews (who oppose Zionism) and Russian Germans. It is an official position of the majority of Russian nationalists. Emigrants from other countries are not necessary to us, let them live in their homelands, we Russians are not hospitable and on that we have reasons and, at last, this is our right how to address our unwelcome visitors.As soon as our people get rid of a Zionist mode our country will become completely isolated from an external world and the western (demoralizing) culture. To save our original culture and the unique nation. And the shaved boys, who think that they are "nationalists" and beating peace tourists, need to be put away by the militia (the law one for all). Because of such "nationalists" true Russian nationalism has so many negative labels.
FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
We publish this as an indication of sentiments all too prevalent in Russia today, as is frighteningly clear from our story.
Kelly Martin - Atlanta, GA
These issues are old news. The reprinting of the infamous forgery called "Protocauls of Elders of Zion" have been on the Russian best seller list for years.
David Duke the American hate monger spent a number of years (until last year) in many parts of Russia and Georgia teaching lies and giving reasons for the Russians to hate minorities. He would regularly report back to his followers his activities.
Tino Dambrosio - Tamarac, FL
maybe they feel this way because of W.W. 2 In any event Russia, if it continues on this road it will be isolated in the world community.
HU Cheng - Beijing, China
Low economy growth create a crucial room for far-right in Russia.
Calvin Niles - Brooklyn, NY
In viewing this film it was shocking to me that many of these "Russian Hatemongers" alluded to the Nazis as something wonderful. Do they study history in Russia, because if so these individuals would realize that the Nazis despised Russia and thought of them as Slaves and subhumans, yet they glorify the Nazis, quite ironic. These people appear disgruntled at society in general, when old women are sharing these views, Russia would never see me as an African American tourist, truly sad for a place with such rich history. Its time for the Russians to wake up, bigotry is a social cancer.
I experienced this first hand on 2001 during the New Year. I went with my friend to St. Petersburg when we were attacked by 20 guys. My friend got away but I did not as I was in the hospital for 10 days with fractures in my upper jaw and missing 6 teeth. Still going through surgery to replace bone and teeth.
Igor Efimov - St. Louis, MO
Great and timely documentary. Nationalism in Russia is growing at every level: from this Nazi-style extreme organizations tolerated and even sometimes harbored by the local and state law-enforcement; via state-promoted and funded xenophobic propaganda promoting a view of anti-Russian war conducted by the West; and to ordinary people of every political view, who are becoming convinced that misery, high mortality and poverty of the majority of Russians is a result of a well-planned an executed Western assault on former Cold War rival... Decay of culture and education in Russia, elimination of Russian scientific and high-tech community, tolerance toward corruption, are among many causes of growing nationalism. Yet, growing nationalism of Russian society is now combined with riches coming from oil - this is a really dangerous and explosive mix.
Alvin I. Solomon - Studio City, Ca
As a veteran of W.W.II who served overseas 40 months, was in 5 campaigns, and hurt on Saipan 1944 I most virogously deplore any racial intolerence of any group. I fought against intolerance against any group.
Robel Tekleab - College Station, Texas
I was in Russia in summer 2002. As a person of East African heritage, I came face to face with the terror that Africans and other foreigners feel in Russia. I remember after Russia lost a game to Japan during the soccer World Cup, a Chinese music student who went to Moscow to compete for a Tchaikovsky Prize was stabbed and Indian-American was beaten to death. Several Japanese restaurants were vandalized. Personally, when I went to see my Ethiopian friend in Moscow's restaurant at Pushkinskaya Street, she would not let me return to my home when it was just 8:00 p.m. Moreover, when it was around 4:00 p.m., as I was walking towards a subway station another Ethiopian man recognized who I was and asked me whether I was crazy to walk alone in a Moscow street. Other Africans also told me about several murders of Africans and African-American men when I told them about what my Ethiopian friends had warned me about. I also remember reading about the hateful messages that were being spread by the Ultra Nationalist member of the Russian DUMA Vladimir Zhirinovsky. I am not surprised that Russian officials have not made any effort to correct the situation. One of the stories I was told by the African students was that one time when an African-American man was murdered and the U.S. embassy in Moscow complained, the Russians' response was that the man was killed because the killers thought that he was an African not an American. This enraged the African ambassadors there and they were having some contention with the Russian officials, demanding that all life including an African life be treated with dignity by Russian officials. I am terribly sad that things have not changed a little bit, but what can one expect from Russia these days. It could not even take care of its own people.
St. Louis, Missouri
What a powerful piece! Ms. Whalen has told a difficult story in an immediate, richly visual, and accessible way, and I hope we will see more of her work. Congratulations!
San Francisco, CA
What a tremendous piece of reporting! What a brave and unflinching look at this issue. I had no idea that neo-Nazism had taken such a hold in Russia. I'd like to see this piece air on PBS stations all over the U.S. I think it has great relevance in this country given the current rise of nationalism and right-wing extremism. Thank you Ms. Whalen!!!