Prague, 5 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The death in a Moscow hospital last week of an Afghan man, a week after he was beaten into a coma by a group of skinheads, made headlines.
But the foreigner's murder was not an isolated occurrence. In March, a 21-year-old Syrian student died in St. Petersburg after being pushed by football fans in front of an oncoming metro train. In February, assailants knifed to death a student from Guinea-Bissau in the city of Voronezh. That same month, police blamed skinheads for the murder of a 9-year-old Tajik girl in St. Petersburg as she walked with her father and cousin, who were also injured in the attack.
Non-fatal beatings of foreigners in large cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg are reported almost every week, prompting ambassadors from several African countries to lodge an official appeal with the Russian Foreign Ministry for better protection of their citizens.
"Remember that at the end of the 1980s St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) was 91 or 92 percent ethnic Russian and today about 22 or 23 percent of the population is made up of migrants who have arrived in the past decade. So what do you think? Of course it's a shock."
Are large segments of Russia's population tilting towards aggressive xenophobia as some human rights activists are warning? The author of the latest nationwide survey of attitudes among Russia's youth says no.
Professor Anatolii Kozlov, of St. Petersburg University's Social Studies Institute, spoke to RFE/RL about the results of the brand-new study, whose results are based on interviews with 1,500 Russians aged 16 to 26 in small towns and large cities across the Russian Federation.
Kozlov says this group represents a new generation of Russians, who came of age in the tumultuous post-Soviet era, when all the old certainties and previous set of values essentially vanished, forcing them to adopt a new outlook. Young people, says Kozlov, are therefore a good mirror of the current state of Russian society. And he tells RFE/RL that despite obvious flaws, this mirror reflects well on the progress Russia has made.
Racism and ethnic Russian chauvinism definitely exist, especially in Russia's large urban areas. But Kozlov says this must be seen in the context of the enormous change that cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg have undergone in the past decade. And it is a change to which young people are adjusting.
"We talk about nationalism. In the big cities, it is a problem, because they have turned into ethnic melting pots," he says. "There has been a very high inward migration. Remember that at the end of the 1980s St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) was 91 or 92 percent ethnic Russian and today about 22 or 23 percent of the population is made up of migrants who have arrived in the past decade. So what do you think? Of course it's a shock. Of course it leads to a certain confrontation. But I don't think it's so terrible. People are getting used to each other. They are not battling each other. [The newcomers] are settling into niches -- empty niches."
Twenty-nine percent of those interviewed by Kozlov's team identified themselves as "more or less nationalist." When pressed further to define what nationalism meant, they cited cultural pride, pride in their history, traditions, and literature. Two-thirds of those questioned said they felt no nationalist sentiments and only 6 percent of those surveyed said they could imagine themselves joining an extremist group.
Kozlov says what appears to be an upsurge in violence against foreigners and non-ethnic Russians reflects the violent tactics of an increasingly isolated minority, which has found it impossible to adjust to new economic realities. "I'll make a paradoxical statement -- that these incidents, as strange as it may appear, are actually a result of the improving situation. They do not reflect the attitude of the absolute majority of young people," he says. "Anti-extremist attitudes are actually growing among the majority. And these groups are acting out of a feeling of isolation. They are becoming isolated, they feel they are losing support and they are expressing themselves [in this way]."
Most young Russians may have no intention of attacking foreigners or causing violence, but what allows extremists to get away with their behavior is the often passive attitude of potential witnesses.
Kozlov asked respondents what they would do if they were to meet a known terrorist and if they had the opportunity to alert the police. Only 26 percent of those surveyed said they would call the police. The same, presumably, would hold true for someone witnessing the beating of a foreigner by a group of skinheads.
But Kozlov says that just five years ago, the number of those who said they would contact the police was a mere 7 percent. So progress is being made. Again, he says Russians' "passive attitude" must be viewed in the context of a corrupt police force and a reluctance to be seen as an informant.
"Haven't our so-called 'democratic forces,' for decades, been promoting the idea that if you call someone, if you report something, you are a stooge, a shameful informant? This can't but impress itself on people's psyches," he says. "In Russia, we have a very specific attitude to such calls. You have to take into account our difficult history. So that's why we have such [low] numbers. But I think that as time goes by, there will be more calls."
Aleksandr Petrov, of the Moscow chapter of Human Rights Watch, faults the authorities themselves -- especially at the regional level -- for doing little to defend the rights of ethnic minorities within Russia. "The state, at least officially, advertises its opposition to extremism but unfortunately, in practice, the work of state bodies -- especially on the local level in the regions -- conveys the opposite message," he says. "There are many cases, if not of the local authorities directly targeting ethnic minorities, then at least of them turning a blind eye to [extremist violence] against minorities."
The war in Chechnya and the scores of terrorist bombings blamed on Chechen militants have had a profound influence on public attitudes across Russia. A majority of those surveyed expressed xenophobic attitudes against Chechens and this is something that is not likely to subside soon, says Kozlov.
"On the whole, I would say that the level of negative attitudes towards Chechens -- as offensive as this may be to [Chechen President] Akhmad Kadyrov, who has protested this -- is very high," he says. "The numbers hover around 70 percent. But this does not mean people harbor aggressive feelings. Their attitude is just negative and this is reflected in answers to a whole series of questions, such as: 'Would you want your son or daughter to marry someone from the following ethnic group?' We list a whole set of ethnic groups and when we come to Chechens, 68 percent of respondents answer negatively. According to the latest numbers from the VTsIOM [sociological institute], which asked people whom they would prefer to have as a work colleague, the negative attitude towards Chechens was reflected once again."
To sum up, racism -- especially directed against ethnic Chechens -- continues to be all too common in Russia, as does passivity on the part of those who are witnesses to violence. But aggressive xenophobia, according to Kozlov and his team, has become a marginal phenomenon and extremist ideologies have lost their sway among the overwhelming majority of young people. All in all, says Kozlov, it's cause for cautious optimism.