Thursday, July 18, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Not all Skinheads in Russia are Ethnic Russians

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 18 – Ethnic Russians form the majority of skinheads in the Russian Federation, but they are not the only nationality involved in such groupings there, a discovery that calls into question the widespread assertions that this brutal subculture is simply a branch of extreme Russian nationalism.

            In an article on the portal yesterday, Maksim Sobesky points out that among the Russian Federation’s skinheads are to be found Tatars, Bashkirs, and other nationalities and that at present “the non-Russian skinhead is hardly a rarity in our poly-ethnic country” (

            That reality, however, highlights three disturbing trends. First, many skinhead groups organize themselves to fight immigrants and do not care about the nationality of their members. Second, they are increasingly political, thus lining up with one or another broader group in the population. And third, their involvement increases the potential for violence once clashes begin.

            An examination of the names of those charged in recent skinhead cases in Russia shows just how ethnically diverse these groups are, Sobesky says.  The leader of one group was an ethnic Georgia, another a Chukchi, and a third a Tatar.  In Ufa, the skinhead group “Soldiers of the Fourth Reich” includes Tatars.

            Other cases have featured Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Tatars and Georgians, as well as the expected ethnic Russians, and that suggests, the writer says, that what Russia now has is “a real international with knives,” one that resembles groups in Europe and Latin America.

            For more than a decade in Sakha, the ranks of the skinheads included Yakuts, ethnic Russians, mixed nationality people, an even a Chechen. The exact composition depends on the ethnic mix of the particular location. In some places, the skinhead groups divide along ethnic lines and fight one another; in others, they come together to fight immigrants.

            Among the most common targets of the Sakha skinhead groups are people from the Caucasus and ethnic Chinese. The selection of these groups, Sobesky suggests, reflects the images shown on television and in the movies. The skinheads play up the idea of “the superiority” of whites over others, “local patriotism,” and anti-Semitism as well.

            Skinhead culture in Sakha arose first among students returning from universities in Moscow. They brought back anti-immigrant attitudes, Sobesky continues, and these were intensified in his telling by the presence of “ethnic Russian separatists” who seek autonomy or independence for Siberia and the Russian Far East.

            Some of the latter attacked the titular nationality, but after those doing the attacking were imprisoned, “many skinheads emigrated from the republic,” reducing the size and violence of this subculture there. Nonetheless, at least until a year or two ago, the Superskins Front continued to function in Sakha but the role of the ethnic Russian radicals has declined.

            In the Middle Volga, according to Vladimir Basmanov, a DPNI activist, “half of the skinheads in Tatarstan are ethnic Tatars” and “together with ethnic Russians,” these skinheads “attack those of ‘a definite nationality’ arriving from elsewhere.  Relations between Tatars and ethnic Russians are “normal.” Both groups are interested only in expelling outsiders.

            One of the reasons why Tatars and ethnic Russians work so well together in skinhead groups in the Middle Volga is that the Tatars see themselves as a European group, stressing their descent not from the Asiatic Mongols but from the Volga Bulgars, and Russians accept them as such especially because the two groups agree on their common enemy – immigrants.

            According to one ethnic Russian skinhead in Kazan, “the Tatars do not consider those coming from Central Asia to be related to them because in this case, [even the existence of a common religious faith] is secondary.” 

            Sobesky concludes by pointing out that despite all the attention skinheads have received in Russia’s yellow press, such groups are relatively small and do not play as large a role as do nationalist and anti-fascist organizations. But the authorities won’t be able to use a divide-and-rule approach against them:  “ethnic distinctions … are not an obstacle” for the skinheads.

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