MOSCOW -- Bored, frustrated and hostile, gangs of skinheads have taken to beating up Asians and Africans on the streets of Moscow.
In the past month, several attacks have gotten publicity here, culminating in an assault on a U.S. Marine in a city park Saturday. People of color say harassment and beatings are widespread and escalating.
The subway is the worst place for the attacks, says Mikhail Sedov, a Russian-born 27-year-old whose father was a medical student from Benin, a West African country. "They feel very much at home underground, especially at night."
Skinheads have jeered at Sedov and chased him several times. Once he managed to avoid a gang only because the doors of his subway car closed in their faces.
"I'm very scared to ride on public transport or go out on the streets," Sedov says. "There is nobody to appeal to for protection. I have to rely on myself."
A Ghanaian student who didn't want his name published says he has been attacked three times by skinheads -- once when they chased him into a taxi and clubbed him with metal rods while the driver did nothing. "Man, this is not a place to live," the student says. "There's no reason to live in this country." That, of course, is precisely the response the skinheads are hoping to get.
Skinheads have only become visible in Moscow in the past six months or so.
Generally between the ages of 15 and 18, they boast of their affiliations with organized skinhead groups in Europe and America.
In a country where they see few prospects for themselves, they enjoy threatening and terrorizing foreigners. But they pay scant attention to the right-wing politics or hard drug use that characterize the skinhead movement in the West. They believe in beer and violence.
Nothing else to do
"They want mainly to frighten people of a different color. That's why they follow them," says Vera Pisareva, a parliamentary aide who has studied Russia's teen gangs. "But it's not their main purpose in life. They don't have a main purpose, and that's the reason for their aggressiveness -- because they don't have anything else to do."
On a recent sunny evening on the Arbat, a pedestrian shopping street that attracts a wide array of eccentrics and con artists, a group of skinheads talked about themselves and their view of the world. It was a few steps away from where two Asian women were attacked in April.
The encounter began on what proved to be a typical note. "All Yankees are Jews," said one skinhead who seemed to have a strong interest in history, and who, like all the others, refused to give his name. "Maybe not by blood, but just the way they sell themselves."
By turns posturing, posing and menacing, the teen-agers delighted in being aggressive.
"We like this life because we are not drug addicts," said one. "We hate people who bring drugs to this country. Negroes. Asians. All Asians." These foreigners, he said, are using Russia as their outhouse.
The anti-drug idea might at first seem to be pandering to, or mocking, the middle-class values of the interviewer. But foreign students who have been threatened and attacked confirm that this drug-dealing accusation is often part of the litany shouted out against them.
"What do we believe in? We're against black skins and Asians," said a skinhead who identified himself, in English, as "Megadeath" (though he pronounced it Megadess).
Asked how they act on their beliefs, he replied, "These are our tactics, right here." He pulled a 6-foot length of heavy chain out of his leather jacket and began lazily twirling it.
Megadess was swaying from beer and looked as if he was spoiling for a fight. But he was distracted by a middle-aged drunk who was clutching a nearby lamppost, and went over to jeer at him instead.
The "historian" launched into a lecture on the harm done to Russia by Peter the Great, who opened the country to the West.
"The main thing is for all the white countries to stay white," said one who called himself "Laborant," a Russian word for lab assistant. Unlike the others, he had greased hair in a James Dean sort of 1950s style, complete with small pointy sideburns. "We like pure white music. We like everything white."
Spitting and swearing
The group grew to about two dozen. There was a lot of spitting and swearing and laughing. Did they stand for anything? What about politics?
"Politics?" spat Laborant. "They're all bastards."
The discussion was disintegrating. Megadess drifted back and demanded a beer -- a particularly cheap brand -- from a nearby kiosk as the price of the interview. When, after some negotiation, he got it, he suddenly showed an unexpected flash of genuine gratitude. Then he called out, "But don't write that we're poor."
Poor, in fact, is what they are. The current skinhead culture has taken root in the grimy industrial suburbs of Moscow, places where the money and flash and consumption of the new Russia have never penetrated. Skinheads come from factory worker families in towns where the local factory is probably idle and definitely irrelevant to the future.
"This is their own way of coping with the way their segment of society is being treated," says Pisareva.
Skinheads exist in a culture that tolerates them. Foreigners have always been suspect here. But as other ethnic groups within the former Soviet Union assert their identities, a reaction among Russians is taking hold.
"The mood now is that these other nationalities have always lived at the expense of the Russians," says Pisareva. Skinheads are simply acting out that mood.
"They don't have any sense of principles," said a Sri Lankan student who gave her name only as Dilhara. "They see a foreigner? They beat them up. They just don't care."
Students called monkeys
Dilhara is a medical student at the Russian University of Peoples' Friendship, once known as Patrice Lumumba University, which caters to students from Africa and Asia. It is a place where skinheads like to pass by, looking for trouble. They call students monkeys. They may spend more time swaggering and taunting than actually attacking people, but when the chance presents itself they move.
One African student said he was beaten up on the subway. "How can I fight five people?" he asked. "They beat me, I take it, and I go."
Students say they don't bother to report incidents, because they believe the police will do nothing.
When Maj. Valeri Smirnov, of the university police, was asked about skinheads, he said they weren't a problem and immediately began talking instead about how many foreign students had been locked up recently for drugs.
When the American Marine was attacked Saturday at a park where pirated compact discs are sold, one of the skinheads made the mistake of boasting about it a few minutes later to a passing television crew. Police arrested him, but none of the other assailants.
The Marine, whose identity has not been released by the U.S. Embassy, had two of his teeth broken but was not hospitalized.
Sedov, the son of the medical student from Benin, was born here, went to school here, and now works for Russian television. He finds all of this particularly painful. He once tried to reason with a group of skinheads who were following him into the subway, pointing out that he's Russian-born and speaks flawless Russian. It made no impression on them.
"You should thank God it's daytime," said their leader, "or we would kill you."
Sedov's white friends tend to dismiss skinheads as a minor aberration, he says.
"The white society isn't paying much attention to the problem, unfortunately," he said, "but the time will come soon when they will have to deal with it. I believe they are very dangerous. The ultimate goal of these skinheads is the worst that could be imagined."
Pub Date: 5/08/98