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(Un)Civil Societies Report: August 11, 2004

11 August 2004, Volume 5, Number 15
PETITIONERS SEEK THOROUGH INVESTIGATION INTO SLAYING OF RACISM AND XENOPHOBIA EXPERT GIRENKO... Russian human rights activists are continuing a major signature drive to petition Russian President Vladimir Putin to take greater measures to investigate the 19 June killing of antiracism activist and academic Nikolai Girenko of St. Petersburg, reported on 29 July. The petition calls on the president to "systematically implement existing laws and show the appropriate political will" in order to "stop the wave of extreme nationalism and neofascism engulfing the country." A second round of signatures was submitted to the Kremlin on 19 July.

The appeal has already attracted 1,034 signatures from 39 countries, with most coming from Russian human rights, cultural, media, and science organizations, reported. The statement expresses grave concern over "extreme forms of nationalism" in Russia, saying Girenko's murder was emblematic of increasing violence against minorities, hate propaganda, police discrimination, and even tacit support for discrimination by government officials.

Girenko was shot point-blank with a single bullet at about 9:00 am on Saturday, 19 June, when he came to the door of his apartment on Podkovyrova street, Russian wire services reported. His daughter had first come to answer the doorbell and a lone assailant had asked for him by name. When Girenko came to see who was calling on him, the gunman shot him through the flimsy door and then fled, taking his weapon.

Girenko, 64, an ethnologist and historian at the Peter I Russian Academy of Science, was widely known for his work in defending minority rights and testifying for the prosecution at scores of hate-crime trials amid a rising tide of cases related to neo-Nazism and nationalist extremism in recent years. Friends and colleagues have described him as a "real Russian intelligent," or public intellectual, known for his dedication to liberal values and human rights.

More than 1,000 mourners gathered for a memorial service in June at the Academy of Science Center in St. Petersburg, so many that the hall could not hold them all, with men and women crying, "Izvestiya" commented on 25 June. No national or city officials were known to have attended.

Girenko was a sandy-haired, bearded man in glasses known for his soft-spoken but memorable lectures. His modest approach allowed him to win praise from young people as well as Interior Ministry officials for taking up the difficult issues related to minorities, the Harold Light Center for Human Rights said in a public statement on 25 June. Girenko spoke several languages, including Swahili, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of law and practice in the area of ethnic discrimination and hate crime. He was frequently called on for his expertise by officials and activists alike.

In 1990, Girenko served as a deputy on St. Petersburg's city council representing Democratic Russia, but he did not seek public office after the electoral term, preferring to work in research and human rights advocacy.

Girenko founded and remained active in the Group on Ethnic Minority Rights of the St. Petersburg Union of Scientists. He was also active in the Public Campaign Against Xenophobia, Racism, Ethnic Discrimination, and Anti-Semitism that is jointly sponsored by the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, and other organizations with funding from the European Union. "We urge that the Russian government finally realize the danger of the growth of neo-Nazism, [and] xenophobia in our country and began a real counteraction to extremist groups, strengthening educational activity to instill tolerance in society" the Public Campaign said in a statement distributed by

Last year, Girenko published a booklet together with teachers at the Judicial Institute of the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office, titled "Methods for Investigating Crimes of Ethnic Enmity and Hate." He is best remembered for his work on defining ethnic hate crimes and getting law-enforcers to do more to enforce existing laws. "Law-enforcers often tried to reduce the crimes of Nazis to ordinary hooliganism, common crime, saying they have no methodology for investigating ethnic crimes. So we worked on this, and this methodology appeared thanks to Nikolai Girenko," said a colleague, Aleksandr Vinnikov.

Apart from the human rights groups' appeal, academics issued their own open letter to President Putin, the governor of St. Petersburg and other officials, circulated via e-mail to the press. "The murder of Girenko has forced Russian society as a whole and the intelligentsia in part to realize the necessity of an unambiguous choice: either to go on considering the growth of ethnic intolerance episodes of little significance in public life, or finally, to unite and resist the current manifestations of ethnic extremism." While calling for combating extremism, the scientists cautioned that increasing nationalist moods cannot be eliminated by force, and that not only police should be fighting it but cultural and educational institutions in multi-ethnic Russia.

A number of colleagues and public figures made it clear that they believe Girenko was murdered for his human rights work. "I [have] no doubt that Girenko was getting in somebody's way," Yurii Vdovin, deputy director of Citizens' Watch, was quoted by "Russkii kurer" on 21 June as saying. "[Girenko] was an absolutely peaceful, non-confrontational person. He became hard only regarding fascists. He did not tolerate xenophobia, racism, [or] nationalism in any form. He was an expert for many human rights organizations, including ours, on these issues. The fascists hated him."

"For me, it's obvious that this is entirely a direct hit," Olga Starovoitova was quoted by "Izvestiya" as saying on 25 June. "It is no accident. Civil society must take part in the investigation." Starovoitova is the sister of Galina Starovoitova, the late ethnologist and co-chairwoman of the Democratic Russia party who was assassinated in 1998 in St. Petersburg. Starovoitova was among those who, together with Girenko, began working openly on interethnic problems after perestroika.

Girenko's career in antiracism work spans 20 years, colleagues say, and he worked to expose the extreme tendencies of Russian nationalism. Even before the appearance of the extremist movement Pamyat in the late 1980s, Girenko warned of "a new Russian fascism," "Novaya gazeta," commented on 24 June.

In a press statement on 21 June, the International League for Human Rights (ILHR) noted that Girenko was known not only in Russia, but was a figure respected in the international antiracism and human rights movements. In 2001, he traveled to Durban, South Africa, with a Russian nongovernmental delegation to the UN's World Conference Against Racism. "His courageous stance brought him into the public eye, and many who knew believe that his murder was politically motivated," said the ILHR. The group called on Russian authorities to make an "earnest and transparent investigation" into the murder and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) in New York expressed alarm on 28 June over Girenko's killing. "Dr. Girenko's efforts to uphold human rights and respect for all minorities were valiant and effective. We express our condolences to his family and colleagues for their loss," AJC Executive Director David Harris said in a statement published on the organization's website ( "The charge of hooliganism frequently results in impunity because officials use it to avoid investigating allegations of anti-Semitic or racial motivations," the AJC commented on what they believe is a pattern of attacks in Russia, including Girenko's killing. "The country that brought a resolution to the UN Commission on Human Rights condemning neo-Nazism should live up to its own actions, especially at home," Harris said of Russia's moves at the world rights body in the spring. The AJC also commented that Girenko was among the small minority of NGOs attending the UN conference against racism who protested publicly at perceived anti-Semitism and undemocratic procedures evident at the conference itself.

While he was a prominent public speaker and writer, Girenko's colleagues, friends, and family have suggested he was most likely targeted in connection with his role in trials of racially motivated crimes. Vyacheslav Sukhachev, a sociologist at St. Petersburg State University, recalled Girenko's convincing presence in the courtroom. "I remember Nikolai Mikhailovich during trials. On the one side, aggressive, mad thugs. On the other side, a very calm and objective person who mockingly ignored frank boorishness and was always able to shut down a hysterical scandalmonger," "St. Petersburg Times" quoted him as saying on 22 July.

...AND FIND OFFICIAL RESPONSE INSUFFICIENT... St. Petersburg deputy prosecutor Andrei Zhukov said investigators believe Girenko was killed because of his work as a researcher and expert witness in trials involving extremism, the "St. Petersburg Times" reported on 22 June. Yet he and other officials did not rule out the more ordinary crime of "hooliganism," often cited by police in bias incidents protested by human rights groups. No suspects have been detained in connection with the Girenko case.

Department 18 of the Organized Crime Unit within the Interior Ministry deals with extremist groups. The French Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders said in a public statement released on 25 June that that group is "deeply concerned" about comments by Valerii Vekhov, an official within the Organized Crime Unit, who said soon after the slaying that "petty criminals" might have killed Girenko. "Statements such as this are likely to shift public focus away from the political nature of the crime," the French group said.

It was precisely due to the perceived tendency of police investigators to write off hate crimes as "ordinary hooliganism" or common crime that Girenko and others worked to create a handbook to help investigators identify and track such crimes. Girenko's colleagues at his funeral and in statements on their organizations' websites commented that, ironically, now his own violent death appears to be receiving treated by some officials as "hooliganism" -- i.e., a common crime unrelated to Girenko's public work.

At the time of Girenko's killing, Ludmila Alekseeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, expressed dismay that government-controlled television channels did not report on the slaying and appeared to abandon the continuing story of the investigation. "I was shocked at the statement of the St. Petersburg prosecutor, that the main hypothesis of the murder is hooliganism, and only later some lower official said that maybe the murder is related to Girenko's public activity," Alekseeva told a news conference.

At a meeting with Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov on 30 June, Alekseeva was able to secure his commitment to supervise the case personally and warned that civic groups will be watching the amount of attention the investigation gets and whether there is an increased response to incidents of incitement by extremist groups.

Following a Russian Orthodox tradition of remembering the deceased 40 days after death, public figures continued to recall Girenko's career, stepping up calls on the government to find and punish his killers and end the climate of impunity for neofascist violence. "Despite the loud announcements by law-enforcement agencies that they would find those guilty of the murder, and despite oversight by the governor, there has been no new information in the last month," Nikita Tatarskii said in a comment published on on 29 July.

In what has arguably become a tradition in high-profile cases, several officials promised to take "personal oversight" of the progress of the murder investigation. St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko vowed to oversee the case personally. Deputy prosecutor for the Northwest Federal District Vladimir Zubrin made a similar pledge (he has since stepped down to participate in a federal counternarcotics effort).

Such promises have often evaporated; but with mounting pressure from the NGO community and media coverage, Matviyenko convened police, prosecutors, and Emergency Situations Ministry representatives on 19 July to report on the course of the investigation. Officials had little to say other than that 30 searches have been conducted in the case and loads of fascistic literature uncovered. Authorities are considering whether to open an investigation under a criminal-code article banning "organization of an extremist association."

Girenko's killing prompted State Duma Deputy Petr Shelishch (Unified Russia) to create a special council within the St. Petersburg governor's office to combat neo-Nazism. Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin reportedly met with Girenko's fellow academics and praised them for continuing their work despite the murder of their colleague; Lukin said he would prepare an emergency report on extremism and intolerance with the help of the Ethnic Minority Rights Group, urging them to join his experts council. He also stressed the importance of continuing the work "to discourage those who want to intimidate people, who cannot and will not be frightened," RosBalt reported on 14 July. It was unclear whether Lukin raised the issue of the case with prosecutors.

Girenko's former boss and the director of the St. Petersburg Museum of Ethnography and Anthropology at which Girenko had worked since 1970, said he believed his colleague's death was directly related to his work. "Nikolai Mikhailovich was a scientist who combined his academic career with intensive public activities and dedicated considerable time to ethnic expertise, sometimes putting his own academic career on the back burner," Director Yurii Chistov said, according to the "St. Petersburg Times" of 22 June. Chistov said he did not recall Girenko receiving threats; but other colleagues remembered hearing of threats. Chistov also blamed the inactivity of St. Petersburg authorities for the death. "They were able to carry out this vendetta largely because city authorities have long ignored the existence of skinheads and extremists in the city by portraying their activities as hooliganism," he said.

In a statement published by "Izvestiya" on 22 June, prominent film director Aleksandr Sokurov said, "This murder shows that the Nazi practice of the so-called 'second cabinet' exists in the country. Anyone who represents a threat to this cabinet is destroyed. The scale of hatred of 'others' in our country is enormous and a poison spewed by millions. Silence in this case is equivalent to complicity." The statement also quoted Sokurov as saying, "The monstrous murder by a direct hit on an academic working on the problem of nationalism...reveals two symptoms of an old social disease: organized banditry and the possibility of buying a murder. The government is not waging any struggle against these symptoms. That means the government is either afraid, or is silently complicit."

...AS KILLING SHEDS LIGHT ON NEOFASCIST GROUPS. Because Girenko frequently testified at the trials of neo-Nazis or other extremists charged with hate crimes, the media and human rights groups are now scouring records for clues as to which groups might be implicated in his death.

The radical group Russian Republic claimed responsibility through the Agency of Journalist Research for Girenko's death. Vladimir Popov, who described himself as the "supreme commander of the self-proclaimed Russian Republic," said his organization had handed down a death sentence on Girenko at a "tribunal for the facts of genocide of the Russian people" as an "enemy of the people" on 12 June. The group was chillingly precise about its reasons for targeting Girenko.

"Girenko is guilty of the following crimes: As a specialist on ethnology, Girenko held the post of chair of the Commission on the Rights of Nationalities and Sexual Minorities at the Petersburg Union of Scientists and with that status conducted about two dozen expert opinions at sessions of the punitive agencies the unlawful regime of the RF in the city of Moscow and St. Petersburg," the "sentence" reads. "I consider Girenko a convinced and incorrigible enemy of the Russian people and sentence him to the highest measure of punishment: execution." The St. Petersburg Prosecutor-General's Office is investigating the statement, Interfax and other news agencies reported on 25 June.

The "death sentence," published in Russian on the group's website, suggested that Girenko's analysis of articles in their newspaper, "Nashe Otechesto" (Our Fatherland), in court was among the reasons he was condemned to death, the "St. Petersburg Times" reported on 30 July. Police said the statement was posted on 23 June, two weeks after the so-called sentence was said to have been issued. It marked the first time a Russian radical organization has publicly claimed responsibility for such a murder, "Izvestiya" reported on 25 June.

Russian Republic is reported by Russia media to have been founded in December 2003 by Popov, a 36-year-old metalworker and self-styled philosopher who, together with 25 people from 12 Russian cities, established a "constituent assembly" for what they envisioned as a replacement government for the existing "impure" Russian state.

Girenko's colleagues at the Ethnic Minority Rights Group did not specify any single group as a problem, but said they have constantly experienced threatening phone calls since their founding in the 1980s, "Novaya gazeta" reported on 24 June. "They threatened Girenko, above all," David Raskin, a fellow group member, told "Novaya gazeta." Raskin said he believes the number of calls had increased recently, but that Girenko had dismissed them.

Lev Borkin, another former colleague who co-founded the minority rights group with Girenko, confirmed the latter had been threatened repeatedly. In November 2003, there was an attempted break-in at the group's office. Unknown perpetrators managed to get past security guards and break through an outer fence and a lock leading to a building within the Academy of Sciences grounds on which the group had its office. A few bricks were knocked out of the wall, the nameplate of the organization was torn down, and in its place a message was tacked up, "This is a warning, now we will kill you. We will wipe out you monster scientists!" the note warned.

Police opted against opening a case since nothing was stolen and there was little damage, and laughed off the threat as "a joke," Borkin said. The group did not ascribe much significance to the incident, but Raskin said later that Girenko felt it had been directed at him personally, although he did not indicate the source of the threat. Borkin said he believes his colleague's death was a revenge killing by individuals who felt threatened by hate-crimes trials, but he declined to say which ones.

Girenko had testified against a skinhead group in St. Petersburg called Shultz-88, whose numerals are said to signify the eighth letter of the alphabet as an allusion to the Nazi salute, "Heil Hitler." Shultz-88 sympathizers are being prosecuted for violent assault in St. Petersburg. One member of the group who did not give his full name told "Time" magazine that he regretted Girenko had not been killed sooner. "He really tried to put me behind bars," a 22-year-old man named Aleksei who had served six months in jail was quoted as saying by "Time." The man said he had nothing to do with Girenko's murder. The Russian Republic "death sentence" also noted Shultz-88.

Recently, Girenko had testified as an expert in the case of Pavel Ivanov, editor of the Novgorod newspaper "Russkoye veche," who was said to be associated with the Russian National Unity (RNE), an extremist party whose rallies have been banned by Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov and other officials. Ivanov was accused of publishing anti-Semitic materials accusing various Novgorod officials of being in a "Yiddish-Masonic conspiracy," statements that Girenko's office had confirmed for the court were anti-Semitic in nature. At the time of his killing, Girenko was preparing to participate in an expert capacity in court hearings in Velikii Novgorod, reported on 21 June

Girenko also gained prominence for his testimony as one in a group of experts in St. Petersburg in a case involving three young people accused in the 2002 murder of an Azerbaijani vendor.

Aleksandr Vinnikov, a fellow member of Girenko's minority rights group, told "Novaya gazeta" of 20 June that he would refrain from commenting on past threats against Girenko and his hypotheses about the contractors of the killing because it might adversely affect the investigation. "[Girenko] strove to make a rational and reasoned struggle by the law-enforcement agencies against the manifestations of fascism," Vinnikov said. "He served as an expert witness at trials numerous times and was recognized as a specialist in this area. His work in recent years became a bone in the throat of the leaders of nationalist organizations, and that led to his tragic end."

Girenko was also involved in the court case against the director of the Sakharov Museum and two of its employees in Moscow over a controversial art show titled "Caution: Religion." Recently, the immediate threat against the Sakharov Museum seemed to have been lifted when the case was sent back for further investigation, an action that took place shortly before Girenko's killing. While the group taking responsibility for Girenko's death mentioned court cases in Moscow, colleagues said they see it as unlikely that the Sakharov case was a factor, given that the Sakharov case involved not shadowy skinhead groups but publicly disgruntled Russian Orthodox believers in a known parish who worked openly with the prosecutor to sue the museum for allegedly inciting ethnic hatred within an exhibition. They said the show had depicted icons in an ironic manner, and their cause appeared to relate more to religion than ethnicity.

The National Power Party (aka National Mighty Party) is led by Aleksandr Sevastyanov, a group that the Russian Justice Ministry refused to register, "Novaya gazeta" reported. Sevastyanov published an article accusing Girenko of "Russophobia" and of being a "revolting shabat goy" a derogatory term for gentiles who aid Jews.

Sevastyanov's article said people should be forced to think, "Especially those (beginning with the Kremlin puppeteers Surkov and Khinchagoshvili) who have dealt with court cases against Russian national patriots and eliminating us from the legal political field. In the near future, a short list of the most prominent enemies of the Russian people who have displayed themselves in the last 15 years."

Contacted by Russian reporters, Sevastyanov said he did not know who killed Girenko but said the killing fulfilled his "scientific prediction" of such "just acts of revenge" but expressed his "gratitude and respect" to the killer.

Aleksandr Brod of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau told a news conference on 22 June that his organization had found 72 ethnic hate crimes in the past year, of which just 11 had come to trial -- of these, most defendants got off with light punishments. He cited a figure of 10-15 murders by skinheads per year; others claim the figure is three times that, although it is difficult to determine what criteria are being used to classify various attacks as bias crimes.

Reporters for RFE/RL's Russian Service investigating the story discovered that Popov did not appear to have been questioned or searched by police, and his publication, registered nine years ago by the Media Ministry, is still being published. Legal experts contacted by RFE/RL said they believed the publication's articles as well as the "death sentence" constituted incitement to violence that authorities should be investigating.

RFE/RL reporter Andrei Shaly also telephoned Popov at the number listed on his publication. In the ensuing conversation, Popov openly confirmed his group's "death sentence" again Girenko. Asked how he construed his right to judge others, Popov retorted, "And what right does [Girenko] have to make expert testimony in courts? The consequences are favorable, the practice of these courts will finally end, where they have been jailing innocent people." Popov said he did not believe his actions were criminal because his Russian Republic ostensibly did not fall under the laws of the Russian Federation. He went on to complain about the "foreigners" who were ruining Russia, starting with Putin himself.

Ruslan Linkov, head of the St. Petersburg branch of Democratic Russia, has called on prosecutors to investigate "Nashe Otechesto" (Our Fatherland), a newspaper associated with Russian Republic. Linkov was with Galina Starovoitova at the time of her killing and was himself wounded in the attack. He has spent much of his public career opposing racism.

"On the first page of the paper, right under its logo, there are the words that appear to be the slogan of the National Mighty Party of Russia, which says 'National Might Party of Russia is the party of those who are ready to fight against the Jewish yoke,'" Linkov wrote in an open letter to prosecutors quoted in the "St. Petersburg Times" on 30 July. Linkov said the paper also claimed that President Putin chose government members "depending on whether they are Jews or Freemasons" and was himself appointed by a "Zionist Council."

Linkov said his initial communication to the prosecutor was redirected to the local office of the Media Ministry. RFE/RL's Russian Service also found that calls to the central Moscow office of the recently reorganized Media Ministry, now a federal agency, led to excuses about the office not being in a position to respond due to upheavals connected with administrative reform. Former parliamentarian Yurii Rybakov said the failure to respond to nongovernmental groups or media inquiries of this nature was typical, adding that officials often cited difficulties in defining what was "incitement of ethnic hatred" as the reason for their reluctance to launch court cases.

Yet authorities have examined "Nashe Otechestvo" in the past, the "St. Petersburg Times" reported. "Nashe Otechestvo" Editor Yevgenii Shchekotikhin, was found guilty in 1997 of having incited racial hatred. The paper, founded in 1993, has a circulation of 3,500. Shchekotikhin was then pardoned under an amnesty issued in connection with the 50th anniversary of World War II. Then again in 1998, a city court issued a formal warning to Shchekotikhin about another article in "Nashe Otechestvo."

Although Russian Republic and its related publications might have had a long-standing grudge against Girenko, it is unclear what their motivation to act might have been at this juncture. Some commentators linked the date of Girenko's murder to the 63rd anniversary of Hitler's 22 June invasion of the Soviet Union.

Speaking at a memorial service that day in Moscow, theater director Mark Rozovskii said Girenko died as "a soldier in the war against fascists." Russian writer Valentin Oskotskii commented that Girenko's killing signified that domestic Nazis were moving into a new phase of activity -- political terror -- the Moscow Human Rights Bureau reported in a statement released after the ceremony.