Your film provides some answers as to why extreme nationalism and neo-Nazism is on the rise in Russia. But what caused these sentiments to really take hold?
You can trace a lot of these activities back to the fall of the Soviet Union and perestroika. With the fall less than 15 years ago, many institutions and civil societies are still developing. And many Russians are asking themselves, "What does it mean to be Russian?"
Extremist gangs -- many of whom identified with neo-Nazi ideas -- began appearing in the early 1990s, when the country was going through a great deal of social and economic upheaval. Then came the whole painful privatization process, and Russians watched as the country's riches fell into the hands of a few. Once people realized that nearly all of the new oligarchs were Jewish, it fueled all sorts of Zionist conspiracy theories. Those radical newspapers that today espouse anti-Semitic ideas use the oligarchs as proof that Jews have taken over Russia.
The breakup of the Soviet republics has highlighted how geographically dispersed and ethnically diverse the Soviet Union was. But how has this dismantling strengthened the extremism you reported in the story?
The war in Chechnya has given ultranationalists a new enemy. It wasn't a surprise to find out that Chechens and other groups from the Caucasus region are those being singled out by skinheads once they arrive in Russia. Many of these hatreds go way back -- some, for instance, go back to state-sanctioned anti-Semitism during Soviet times. It's hard to pinpoint one event or root cause. When I was in St. Petersburg, the Chinese were also becoming a new target. In the south of the city, there is a plan to create a Chinatown, and it has triggered paranoia that a Chinese "invasion" is under way.
Murdered minority rights leader Nikolai Girenko.
How did you first hear about Nikolai Girenko's case and decide his was a story you needed to cover?
Girenko's murder was reported in the national media and in the San Francisco Bay Area press. He had visited San Francisco to take part in Climate of Trust, a program that brings together Russian and American law enforcement and civic groups to tackle intolerance and hate crimes. The more I learned about Girenko, the more compelled I was to investigate his death.
Friends described him as a quiet desk-scientist and an unlikely leader to organize foreign nationals and minorities in St. Petersburg, those people who had been targeted by skinheads in violent attacks. But Girenko did just that. Drawing on his experiences studying and living in Africa, he became an expert on hate groups and advised law enforcement on how to prosecute them. When other cities began turning to him for help, he traveled to those places at his own expense. This was a man with deep conviction, who firmly believed in defending a pluralistic society in Russia. I realized as I got deeper into the story that his death was a profound loss not only for his family and close colleagues, but for the country as a whole.
"There's a vigorous debate going on now about how much migration should be allowed. Russia's mortality rate is double that of the United States, and its overall population has been steadily declining."
What is Russia's policy on immigration?
Immigration laws have steadily tightened in Russia over the last few years. It used to be a lot more fluid, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There's a vigorous debate going on now about how much migration should be allowed. Russia's mortality rate is double that of the United States, and its overall population has been steadily declining. The working population is also dwindling. About 100,000 new immigrants come to Russia every year, often because there's a lack of development in their own countries. They come for a higher standard of living in Russia and because they know they can easily disappear into the country's large underground economy.
Ethnic violence has also brought people in. Nearly half a million Chechens fled to Russia during the second Chechen war. Large numbers of Tajiks, Armenians, Georgians and Azerbaijanis have also arrived -- driven out of their homelands by violence.
What about foreign students coming to study in the country?
Back in the Soviet era, most foreign students studied with free tuition under various intergovernmental agreements. Today, there are about 100,000 foreign students enrolled in Russian universities each year, and they pay about $150 million in tuition. Those tuition dollars are critical for a lot of colleges struggling to stay open. So foreign students are generally welcome in universities and by the Russian government.
How big a role does religion play in all of this?
Religion plays a significant role for some sects of the ultranationalist movement. In St. Petersburg, there's a new radical radio station and sister newspaper, the Russian Orthodox. They use religion to spread ultranationalist ideas. There are also some very conservative voices in the Russian Orthodox Church that have publicly attacked Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities, declaring them the enemy. In opinion polls, many Russians identify their Orthodox faith as a key part of being Russian.
Did you speak to foreign students or immigrants about what it was like to live as a non-Russian in Russia today?
I did speak to other victims of hate crimes, including Yunos Sultanov, the father of an 8-year-old Tajik girl who was stabbed to death a few months before Girenko's killing. Sultanov sells used clothes from the back alley of an outdoor market. He had moved his wife and children to St. Petersburg away from war and poverty in Tajikstan. He wanted to provide them with a better life. Within a year of moving, he and his daughter were attacked by a gang of Russian teenagers. One of the teenagers, identified as the killer, will stand trial this fall, but it's not clear if he'll be prosecuted for racial incitement. I interviewed Sultanov and hope to tell his story in a longer version of this documentary.
"Students told me they don't go outside after dark. They fear not only regular citizens, but sometimes police officers, who have been known to target foreigners for bribes."
I also spoke to several foreign students who've suffered attacks. Many of them were too frightened to go on camera. They feel very vulnerable living in Russia. When I visited one dormitory for foreign students, the students told me they don't go outside after dark. They fear not only regular citizens, but sometimes police officers, who have been known to target foreigners for bribes.
One of the most disturbing stories I heard was from a West African man who left his home country of Burkina Faso in the late 1980s to study in St. Petersburg. He was willing to tell me his story for print on the condition that I only use his first name, Tingka. Like other foreign students, Tingka chose to stay in Russia after his studies. But he's now rethinking that decision. Eight months before I met him, two Russian men in plain clothes, claiming to be Special Forces officers, demanded his identification. Before he knew it, they were striking him with baseball bats. He was struck in the head so severely that he lost an eye and suffered terrible nerve damage. Doctors were amazed that he survived the attack. When I met him, he was raising money for another surgery.
What was your sense of how "ordinary" Russians felt about these increasing attacks on foreigners?
A lot of ordinary Russians I spoke to are sympathetic to these victims. But I was always surprised and saddened when some of them would ask, "But why do they still stay?" To me, it revealed that somehow they thought the solution to hate-motivated violence was to remove the victims altogether. I would respond by asking them, "What would your country look like if all the immigrants and foreigners left?"
Leader of the ultranationalist Party of Freedom and former city deputy, Yury Belyaev.
It has been more than a year now since Girenko was murdered. Are they any closer to finding those responsible?
The investigation is still ongoing. But the dedicated resources are stark now compared with the attention the case got right after the murder. Initially, 120 investigators were assigned to solve the murder. But when I visited, nine months later, only one was continuing to work on leads. It's a difficult case. There was no evidence other than the bullet left at the crime scene, which turned out to have been fired from an unregistered, rare assault rifle. Eyewitness accounts of two suspicious-looking men in Girenko's building that morning are vague. The young investigator still working the case told me that neighbors' descriptions fit half the male population of St. Petersburg.
What are the authorities doing in general to curb these extremists?
Officials are starting to prosecute more cases under Russia's criminal code, which prohibits racial incitement. Radical newspapers are being shut down. The first week I arrived in St. Petersburg, the prosecutor's office warned two newspapers, including The Russian Cause, that it would pursue criminal charges if they didn't clean up their act. Nevertheless, the police, prosecutors and judges still tend to treat hate crimes as "hooliganism." That charge comes with more lenient sentencing, and it also reinforces a denial that racism and xenophobia exist in the culture.
A lot of these neo-Nazi skinhead groups recruit from a younger generation of Russians. Did you see evidence of tolerance being taught in schools?
I spent a day with an Armenian-Russian educator in St. Petersburg who has made a career of taking on these attitudes. In the interethnic training she gives to teachers and youth, she's seen people with deeply racist ideas begin to rethink their belief systems. She brought me to a drop-in youth center in St. Petersburg and introduced me to some of the young people who've taken her classes. I was encouraged when I heard some of them talking thoughtfully about race, ethnicity and national identity -- in terms, they told me, that were in complete conflict with what they were taught at home.
The hate crime stories I've told always involve people confronting the prejudices and biases underneath the hateful act. Whether it's a family member, a neighbor or an educator, it's someone who decides to take action in some way. It's the hope for transformation. And maybe this sounds Pollyanna-ish, but it's my own belief that we can all play a part in attacking bigotry and hate violence in our communities.