In the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, last weekend, a group of youths attacked the main synagogue, beating worshippers, smashing windows, and shattering an atmosphere of relative religious tolerance in the country. The authorities blamed the incident on rowdy soccer fans who would have set upon anything in their way. But the attack brought more than 2,000 people onto the streets on 17 April to show their opposition to anti-Semitism.
Prague, 19 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The sound of Jewish prayers rang out at a meeting in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, this week. The occasion was Israeli Independence Day (17 April), but the 2,000 or 3,000 people who gathered at the Arch of the Friendship of Peoples had another purpose, too -- to voice their opposition to anti-Semitism in their own country.
What brought them out was an attack on Kyiv's Brodsky Synagogue last weekend, an incident that Jewish community representatives say was the worst of its kind in years.
It began on the afternoon of 13 April, when a group of some 50 youths left a soccer match between Kyiv Dynamo and Donetsk Metallurg at a nearby stadium. They set upon worshippers leaving evening prayers, smashing windows and throwing stones, reportedly to shouts of "Beat the Jews!"
The injured included the rector of Kyiv's yeshiva (a Jewish school), Tsvi Kaplan, who needed hospital treatment after being hit in the face. Arrests quickly followed. Police detained eight youths and said charges would be filed soon.
Just some rowdy soccer fans who got out of hand, the authorities said.
Not so, said some of Kyiv's Jewish leaders, who said it had been a preplanned anti-Semitic attack.
Leonid Finberg, director of Kyiv's Institute of Judaica, said, "Investigators should consider several scenarios. A reaction to events in the Middle East, and the possibility that this is an expression of solidarity with Arab terrorists. That's one. Another is that it could be marginal youth groups that are connected with football fanatics and which incorporate extremist ideological groups. One thing I know for sure -- it was not a spontaneous action. In history, there were never any unorganized pogroms. This was not a pogrom, but it's a demonstration of an anti-Jewish action, and somebody was behind it."
The "Stolichnyie Novosti" newspaper quoted Vadim Rabinovich, head of the Jewish Congress, as saying that soccer fans have been walking that route for 10 years and never before had the desire to smash the windows or beat worshippers. He said there have been other similar incidents in Ukraine in recent weeks -- a synagogue employee in Lutsk was knifed in the face, and a synagogue in Nikolaev was vandalized.
By the demonstration on 17 April, however, Rabinovich had softened his tone, thanking the police for their prompt action and saying the incident would not affect Ukraine's image as a tolerant country.
"Independent Ukraine's biggest achievement is the friendship and peace between peoples. There have been no wars, and there will be no wars."
The Ukrainian incident comes as a series of xenophobic attacks or threats have grabbed headlines in neighboring Russia. They've led to fears of more to come this weekend, as extremist skinheads celebrate Adolf Hitler's birthday tomorrow.
In recent weeks, groups of skinheads reportedly vandalized a synagogue in Kostroma and an Armenian cemetery in Krasnodar. Their targets are often foreigners -- especially non-Slavic people.
On 16 April, an Afghan interpreter working for the Interior Ministry's migration service in Moscow died of his injuries after being beaten by skinheads the previous day.
Last week, threatening e-mails sent to several embassies in Moscow warned that foreigners would be killed to mark Hitler's birthday.
And the embassies of seven CIS countries wrote to the Russian Foreign Ministry expressing concern over the possibility of attacks in the run-up to the anniversary. The consuls of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan said they had received numerous complaints from citizens of their countries about harassment and attacks by skinheads.
Yesterday, the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, urged Russia to do more to prevent skinhead attacks, and said it had reports of up to 10 racist attacks a month in Russia in the past year.
Last year, skinheads in Moscow marked Hitler's birthday by rampaging through a market run by immigrants from the Caucasus. This year, Moscow police say they are stepping up security to head off potential violence.
The issue has even pushed its way onto the political agenda. Russian President Vladimir Putin touched on the subject in his state of the nation address yesterday. He expressed concern at the rise of right-wing extremism and said the government would soon be sending a tough bill to parliament to crack down on offenders.
"The rise of extremism is a serious threat to the stability and security in our country. I am speaking about those who, under fascist and nationalist slogans and symbols, organize pogroms and beat and kill people, while the police and the prosecutors often lack effective means to prosecute the perpetrators and instigators of these crimes."
Today, there were reports of an incident set to put nerves on edge in another Russian city -- an explosion near the synagogue in Krasnoyarsk. No one was injured, but Yuri Livshits, the head of the local Jewish community, said he has asked for a police guard for the building.
(Marianna Dratch and Irena Chalupa of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)