The skinhead terrorists

A corpse lies in a bathtub, illuminated by a single light bulb. The head listing awkwardly to one side is that of a young, scrawny man with close-cropped hair, clothed in a sleeveless undershirt and track-suit bottoms. The check-shirted torso of another man bustles over the body, covering and uncovering it in shadow and then light, his face masked with a bandana. He is wiping blood off a knife and whistling faintly.

The tune is instantly recognisable to the Russian ear as a sappy, Soviet-era song about patriotism: “Where does the motherland begin? With the pictures in your first book of ABCs/With good and faithful comrades/Living in the neighbouring yard.”

The grotesque parody is not lost on the viewer as the whistling man grabs the corpse and begins whittling off its left ear. Then he starts sawing at the neck, beginning an hour-long process of dismemberment.

The video of this grisly scene is one of many pieces of evidence in the ongoing trial in Moscow of the remaining members of the now-defunct National Socialist Organisation (NSO), an ultra-nationalist skinhead gang. The corpse was that of Nikolai Melnik, a gang member who had run foul of the NSO gang code: “He didn’t belong fully to our group, didn’t share our ideas and goals and wanted to play us against each other,” according to the testimony of one of the alleged killers, Vladislav Tamamshev.

The video of his dismemberment was posted on the internet as a warning to other transgressors. Melnik had lived the blood-spattered life of a Russian skinhead and his death is just one of 27 murders, many of immigrant labourers, for which 13 NSO members are on trial. The killings, not only that of Melnik, were routinely videotaped, the court has heard.

There are many gangs who hang out in the high-rise, low-income flats built in the 1960s and 1970s on the outskirts of most Russian cities. It is a world of drugs and warring subcultures of youths, and at the top of that grim heap are the skinheads, the kings of ultra-violence, motivated by hate, alcohol and, in many cases, mental illness. The NSO was made of the same raw materials.

Court documents from the NSO trial, which started in April, and in which 12 of the 13 defendants have pleaded not guilty, offer some unintentionally black-humoured insights into this world. “A skinhead, in my opinion,” testified Sergei Yurova, one of the defendants, “is a person who loves their nation. To affirm our love for the nation I, together with other skinheads, went to football matches, went to fight with the fans of other football teams, and together with other skinheads beat people of non-Slavic appearance.”

To others, though, a skinhead is typified by the NSO’s late leader, Maksim Bazilev, a diagnosed schizophrenic who went by the alias “Adolph”. Aside from his love of violence, he had a fixation on prostitutes – so much so that when police arrested him last April, they found 50 prescriptions in his home for medication to treat venereal disease.

But police also found something else – evidence that Bazilev may have been perhaps a more complex person than a run-of-the-mill psychopath. Bazilev had 200m roubles (£4m) in his bank account. NSO members testified they were each paid roughly Rbs25,000 a month – just over £500 – via a sophisticated system of untraceable bank cards, allowing them to withdraw their monthly salaries.

Sergei Stashevsky, a lawyer for one of the NSO defendants, says the provenance of the money is a mystery to him. “The NSO were not normal people. They were incapable of doing any sort of business, incapable of anything but beating and killing poor migrants,” he said. “Why did they have such an amount of money? It seems clear that the money went through Bazilev to the rest of the organisation. And so the question arises: who was paying them – and for what?”

Before Bazilev could decide whether or not to answer that question, he was found in his holding cell with his wrists slit. This is not uncommon in Russia – in 2009 alone about 4,000 detainees died in police detention centres. But Bazilev didn’t die in just any ordinary holding cell. He died at Petrovka Street 38 – the Interior Ministry’s Moscow HQ.

Stashevsky, a retired colonel in the Moscow police, finds the idea that Bazilev committed suicide hard to credit. “Nothing happens in Petrovka 38 just out of happenstance,” he said. “You can’t just kill yourself in there. They have video cameras everywhere, security is very tight. It’s like Guantánamo Bay.

“With all my respect to the Moscow Police Department, they are professionals. They are too professional to let something like this happen by accident. Not in that place.”

Indeed, Stashevsky makes the incendiary accusation that Bazilev’s death, on March 27 2009, came about because he knew exactly where the money came from. “I think Bazilev was the one on top, who knew the identity of the top of the pyramid, the ‘owner’ of the gang, so to speak.”

The NSO case has shed a great deal of light on the murky world of Russia’s skinhead street gang members, even if not all of them survived to testify in court. The NSO was run as an underground, disciplined terror unit with a tight, cell-like organisation, typical of experienced terror groups. Each regional cell is handled by a kurator, or handler, in charge of men who have undergone military training, some with firearms and explosives.

The NSO has emerged not only as a terror group with a significant propaganda function, but most importantly, one with numerous and not altogether transparent relationships with Russia’s political and law-enforcement establishment. While the source of the money in Bazilev’s account will, in all likelihood, never be properly investigated, it can be surmised that it came from someone with a great deal of power and influence – probably the same person who appears to have befriended the ­organisation, given it protection and, possibly, had Bazilev killed.

A simple Google search of the NSO is illuminating. It has existed since 2004, and has been far from publicity-shy. Not content with publishing its violent exploits and paramilitary-style training on the internet, in 2007 it even feautured in a Sky TV series about gangs. This high profile is another incongruous element of the NSO, says Sergei Belikov, another lawyer, who recently withdrew from the NSO case for “personal reasons”. That the group survived so long, given its high profile, troubles him.

“They were essentially a terrorist group, and they were well-known to everyone. And nobody touched them. I find that puzzling,” says Belikov. “I would think that for whatever reason, the existence of such a gang might have served the purposes of the state, and that is why they were allowed to exist.”

The only person who is alive, not on trial or in prison, and able to answer the numerous questions about the group, is the gang’s former leader, Dmitry Rumyantsev. He left in 2008 after he was accused of not sharing his comrades’ radical ambitions, and ceded leadership to Bazilev. Rumyantsev’s blog posts on the white-power website allude fairly blatantly to the group’s high-level backing. For instance, he claims that had he been allowed to stay as leader, “those who protected me would have protected the NSO, on the condition that they didn’t commit murders”.

Bazilev, he said, “was a very talented propagandist and national socialist. But at some point he became completely fucked in the head. He became convinced that by killing a few dozen Tajik migrants, he would put the regime on its back.”

Rumyantsev says he found out about the cash in Bazilev’s account from the newspapers. He believes it came from a money-laundering scheme: “It was not the NSO’s money. But I don’t know whose it was.” Bazilev was the only person who knew how the finances worked, he said. “And that’s the thing. Whoever stood behind the ­project with the bank cards must have been in a very dangerous position if Adolph [Bazilev] had blabbed. And I think, having such a sea of cash, it’s not so hard to get someone taken out, even in a cell on Petrovka.”

One day last summer, the trial still under way, Rumyantsev agreed to meet me over a pot of green tea in a downtown Moscow sushi bar. He is a striking figure, hawk-faced and calmly charismatic. None of my questions ruffled him, not even “Did you commit murders?” And no, he said, he had no links to the “special services” – but he couldn’t say the same for his former NSO comrades. He was merely the organisation’s political face – the military and financial stuff was run by others of whose background he said he knew little.

One of those people was Bazilev. Another was the man who, Rumyantsev says, brought Bazilev into the organisation: Sergei Korotkikh, a short, muscular and charismatic skinhead from Belarus. Nicknamed “Malyuta” (“shorty” in Russian, but also the name used by Ivan the Terrible’s most-feared henchman), Korotkikh appeared from nowhere after Rumyantsev founded the organisation in 2004: “He simply showed up to our first meeting and expressed a desire to participate.”

Before long, Malyuta was involved both in the leadership and running the training programmes the NSO was notorious for – hand-to-hand combat, knife-fighting and marksmanship. They practised at an abandoned construction project in Moscow’s Khorvino neighbourhood, learning special forces-style fighting techniques.

“I don’t know where Malyuta learned these skills,” said Rumyantsev. “There is a lot about his biography I don’t know.” Rumyantsev also said that Korotkikh had introduced him to a friendly businessman who offered the NSO free office space and a training room.

In 2008, just as suddenly as he had appeared, Malyuta/Korotkikh vanished. “I don’t know if he is still alive, or any information about him,” said Rumyantsev. “I wanted the NSO to be a political organisation, not a military one,” but gradually, he complained, the radicals got the better of him. “The NSO stopped being a political organisation and simply became a bandit gang.”

The NSO may now be defunct, but it is nonetheless part of a fearsome rise in ultra-nationalism over the past decade. Russia’s skinhead movement is now the largest in Europe, numbering between 20,000 and 70,000 according to Andreas Umland, a specialist on neo-Nazi ideologies who teaches at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine. It is also the most violent, he says.

This worrying trend is variously blamed on factors such as an influx of migrant workers from central Asia, a poorly performing economy, and Russia’s perceived humiliation at the hands of the west. But there are still darker reasons behind the upsurge in skinhead violence. The NSO is not an isolated phenomenon in Russia, where – for whatever reason – ultra-nationalists find it easier to operate and stay in existence without attracting serious police scrutiny. Several also seem to have unlimited sources of funds and high-level patrons who somehow manage to remain just hidden from view.

“It is never possible to prove anything,” said Galina Kozhevnikova, director of Sova Center, a Moscow think-tank that specialises in Russia’s ultra-nationalists. “There is much indirect evidence that various ultra-rightwing groups have high-ranking political patrons and protectors.”

Many governments would attempt to infiltrate such a movement with agents, recruit paid informers and even go so far as to enter into negotiations with the leaders. But the contacts between Russian authorities and the nationalist groups seem to be of a different character – including funding and apparent manipulation of specific groups in pursuit of unclear political goals.

Sympathy for the movement exists within Russia’s government and security services, dominated by the so-called siloviki (literally “strong guys”). These are the former KGB men and police who flooded into the Kremlin in 2000 with Vladimir Putin – himself a former KGB agent. Politically, these “strong guys” are unsophisticated and impressionable, with little political education other than a nostalgic attachment to the powerful state of their Soviet upbringing and a distrust of foreigners, nurtured by their service training.

One man who knows exactly how the relationship between the skinhead gangs and the authorities works is Aleksander Belov (his real surname is Potkin). Belov is the former head of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), a racist umbrella group founded by him in 2002. In Putin’s Russia, he told me, there is a guiding principle for dealing with any independent political organisation: “If they cannot destroy it, they will lead it. And they cannot destroy the nationalists.”

Belov met me recently in a Moscow café. Sporting loafers and a goatee, he looked more like a French intellectual than a Lonsdale-clad skinhead. He resigned as head of DPNI in May 2009 after receiving an 18-month suspended jail sentence for fomenting racial hatred. Six months earlier, he was beaten badly by a gang of thugs – sent, most people believed, on the orders of the Kremlin.

The events indicated a spectacular comeuppance for a man who in November 2006 had been photographed at a Kremlin soirée – the ultimate mark of official favour – celebrating the “Day of the Police”. Such apparent patronage came despite Belov having stoked some of the worst ethnic violence Russia has seen in the past decade. Three months before the soirée, the DPNI was accused of provoking ethnic violence in Kondopoga, a northern city, where a brawl between Chechens and Russians led to a race riot. Hundreds of ethnic Caucasians fled the city. At the height of the violence, Belov led a rally in support of ethnic Russians.

But by 2009 Belov had fallen from grace – his profile was high and he had begun to be publicly critical of the Kremlin. And, as he told me, the problem that the authorities have with groups such as his is not their violence, but the prospect of the political competition they present. There is an implicit contract between skinhead gangs and the authorities under which the state turns a blind eye to violence by skinhead groups, in exchange for their not getting involved in politics.

Belov said that a senior interior ministry official in the city of Bryansk once told him: “Go ahead and beat up black people. We will pretend that we don’t see that. Just don’t get involved in politics.” Belov violated that implicit law.

Publicly, of course, Russia’s government is aghast at the recent rise of nationalism and fascism. But it is just as clear that the Kremlin is not above using whatever works to buttress its support in a country where 55 per cent of the population agrees with the statement “Russia for the Russians”. Putin himself has picked up on the rising tide of nationalism in Russia, reflecting it in his rhetoric; playing in many public speeches on a cold-war-era distrust of foreigners.

He has referred on many occasions to “forces” that would like to see Russia remain weak. And in the capable hands of deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, a master fixer and political operator who handles all domestic political affairs for Putin and now president Dmitry Medvedev, nationalism has been turned into a tool of political consolidation.

Triumph Square in central Moscow is dominated by a statue of avant-garde poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. His loyalty to the Bolshevik cause merited the monument, but his suicide in 1930 came to symbolise the silent objections of political dissidents and non-conformists. Every 31st of the month, an opposition rally is held at the spot in support of the 31st article of the Russian constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly. Grey-clad police special forces usually outnumber the demonstrators.

On March 31 this year, however, there was a twist. Standing behind ranks of police officers was a crowd of shaven-headed youths wearing jackboots and other military gear – identified immediately as members of the racist Slavic Union gang. Online accounts of the inevitable violence accused the skinheads of beating up opposition protesters. One of the skinheads was identified in photos published online as Vladimir Maksimov, who goes by the name “Porthos”, after the extrovert musketeer of the Alexander Dumas novel. He was photographed wearing a badge identical to one sported by plainclothes police officers at the demonstration.

Maksimov, a rather garrulous person, invited me to his favourite bar to discuss the photos and the rather odd picture they present – skinheads seemingly working for the police to break up opposition demonstrations and protect counter-demonstrators. The bar is the Grease Club on Malaya Ordynka Street, a few blocks from the venerable Tretyakov Gallery. Most strikingly, in some sort of homage to international racism, it is hung wall-to-wall with American confederate flags. The clientele are tattooed, muscular youths with buzz cuts or shaven heads. “Everyone in this place is a right [as in politically right] person,” said Porthos, grinning and flashing a little Hitler salute.

Stocky, shaven-headed and tattooed, Porthos was recently released from prison after doing two years for extortion. The story of his appearance at the demonstration is a bit vague: as he told it, he was invited to attend “by an acquaintance”, whereupon he was presented with the badge. “It’s really nothing important, it just allowed me to walk around unhindered at the rally,” he said. He heatedly denied any links to the police or to the special services: “This is all just made up by the liberal press. I’m no cop.”

As a rockabilly band practised loudly in the background, Porthos waxed nostalgic about his commitment to the white race. “I don’t think I’m some sort of Übermensch, as Nietszche put it. But I wouldn’t say it’s a bad policy. If someone did for Russia what Hitler did for Germany, then that would be a worthy person indeed. The Russian people are dying, we are being degraded by other races. It’s time for someone to say enough, and for us to stand and fight.”

One of Porthos’s friends, Dmitry Dyumushkin, is the founder of Slavic Union. He, too, is muscular, buzz-cut, and revels in his jackbooted skinhead outfits. It is no coincidence that in Russian the initials of Slavic Union (Slaviansky Soyuz) are SS. The group’s symbol is a kolovrat, a Slavic version of the swastika, and its website offers a downloadable copy of Mein Kampf.

Dyumushkin runs a training gym for mixed martial arts and is reputed to have strong ties to Russia’s police generals. According to an opposition activist who asked not to be named, they routinely intervene to get his members out of jail. “We have a lot of sympathisers in the police and special services,” confirms Dyumushkin. “They all went through Chechnya.” However, he denies any formal links to the authorities.

Earlier this year, the SS was outlawed by a Moscow court, though Dyumushkin says he will continue in the role of chief “ideologist” and the gang will form autonomous “brigades”. With this ruling, along with the prosecution of Belov/Potkin, and the trial of the 13 NSO members, the Kremlin seems to be trying to put the movement back in a box. But it is unclear whether they will succeed.

Instead of disappearing, the movement has gone underground. DPNI and Slavic Union members now belong to what are known in the movement as “autonomous” gangs – basically street thugs united by a loose ideology and a few websites that spout racial hatred.

“Instead of a political organisation, we will disperse into autonomous groups who will carry on military activity,” said Dyumushkin.

Like the Pakistani secret service’s indulgence of the Taliban in the mid-1990s, intended as a directed outlet for Islamic radicalism, the movement has slipped from the grasp of those who would rein it in. Instead of creating a docile manipulable movement, it has unleashed a generation of radicals.

“Five years ago,” said Dmitry Bakhirev, a lawyer for one of the NSO defendants, “you would hear about some skinheads beating a Tajik migrant on the metro. Then it became knives and aluminium bats. Then firearms. Soon you will be hearing about machine guns and grenade launchers.”

Charles Clover is the FT’s Moscow bureau chief

Gang members

Vladimir Maksimov

A member of the racist Slavic Union. Recently released from prison after serving two years for extortion. Denies links to the police and special services. “This is all just made up by the ­liberal press. I’m no cop”

Sergei Korotkikh

Helped lead both the now-defunct National Socialist Organisation (NSO) and run the training programmes that it was notorious for: hand-to-hand combat, knife-fighting and marksmanship

Dmitry Rumyantsev

Former leader of the NSO, and neither on trial nor in prison. He left the group in 2008 after he was accused of not being radical enough. Says that, had he stayed, “those who protected me would have protected the NSO”

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