Last year, they held a demonstration with the official approval of the Moscow authorities. This year, they plan mass actions and attacks on foreigners and non-Russians in general.
Russians were shocked to see the first skinheads with modified swastikas on their sleeves in the late 1980s. This could not be, they argued, referring to Russian history, traditions and the collective memory of World War II. How could neo-Nazism flourish in the country that lost more than any other in the struggle for freedom against Nazism, and which is populated by more than 100 ethnicities?
Unfortunately, it can and it does. There are more than 300 ultra-rightwing groups in Russia, with skinheads alone numbering as many as 70,000. And they are becoming more aggressive and ruthless, injuring and killing more people every year.
According to a survey by the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, 86 racially motivated attacks were registered in January-March 2008, in which 49 people were killed and more than 80 injured.
The Russian SOVA Center for Information and Analysis reported that last year more than 630 Russian citizens and foreigners became targets of xenophobic attacks, most of them in Moscow, the Moscow Region and St. Petersburg, where skinheads are waging a veritable war against those they see as "aliens."
In just the past few days, two men from the Caucasus were beaten up in the Shchukinskaya metro station and two non-Russians in the Kievskaya station. In Moscow's Vykhino district a group of skinheads attacked several people from Ingushetia, a republic in the Caucasus, killing one of them. Another neo-Nazi group attacked three Azeri teenagers in Pervomaiskaya Street.
Skinheads maimed two men from Uzbekistan in the town of Dzerzhinsk and Tajik workers in Orzhitsy, near St. Petersburg, and in Perlovka outside Moscow. Several Mongolian girls and one African man were attacked in St. Petersburg.
Nationalists routinely attack immigrants and wreak havoc at outdoor food markets, where the traders are mostly non-Russians. Meanwhile, members of parliament make racist speeches spearheaded against immigrants. Nationalist newspapers and Nazi literature are routinely and openly sold in Russia. The other day I saw a "collection" of such literature in Lubyanka, just a stone's throw from the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the former KGB.
Human rights groups and activists have called on police officials to prevent these crimes. Minority community leaders are seriously worried, and several immigrant groups have announced on their Internet sites that they are prepared to use force to protect themselves. The rectors of some Russian universities have advised their foreign students to remain in their rooms for the next few days and strengthened security at halls of residence.
I don't know what the law enforcement agencies are planning for Hitler's birthday, but so far only the Moscow Region police have announced plans to take additional measures to protect public law and order.
The authorities seem to be blissfully unaware of the magnitude of the problem. Why else could they have allowed the Hitler demonstration last year, or the so-called Russian March, which saw far-right racist demonstrations held in several major Russian cities?
Colonel General Vladimir Pronin, chief of the Moscow police, recently restated his line that there are no skinheads in the capital, and that the numerous racist attacks against foreigners were nothing more than "individual instances of extremism." The general has been maintaining this view, in heroic defiance of the facts, for years.
But the Pronin is not an exception. Russian society does not see the problem either.
According to a recent poll conducted by the Levada Center, only 5% of Russians see the danger of political extremism. The Public Opinion Fund reports that 15% of young Russians say there were positive elements in Nazism. One third of students in a Moscow university said that it would not have been a tragedy if Hitler's Germany had defeated the Soviet Union, and 10% of respondents said "we would have lived better" in that event.
This is extremely alarming.
Neo-Nazi groups in Russia are so far a fragmented and disparate bunch who act separately and often fight each other. Nor are they very large. But it would not be wise to dismiss them as a potentially powerful political force.
In 1923, the Munich police and army easily stopped the Nazi Beer Hall putsch. But three years later the National Socialist German Workers Party had 17,000 members, and its membership swelled to 800,000 in 1932, one year before they came to power, the Reichstag burnt and the enabling act was passed.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.