- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 6, 2002

MOSCOW Every week, 18-year-old Maxim gathers a dozen young male friends with shaved heads, leather jackets and black boots for a "training session" at a rundown basketball court on the north side of Moscow.
In the shadows of hulking apartment buildings, they practice fighting, first sparring with boxing gloves, then lunging at each other with wooden knives as heavy metal music blasts from a CD player.
During breaks, they compare cuts and bruises, and swap stories about beating up the "enemy" Chinese people and dark-skinned traders from the Caucasus region.
"I'm trying to make them tougher for battle," says Maxim, who refuses to give his last name. "White people the white race should stand strong."
Maxim is a member of the People's National Party, one of Russia's most visible fascist organizations. The group, founded in 1994, spouts an ideology of racial purity and condemns "dirty" immigrants from the south. It claims 10,000 recruits across the country, including 1,000 in Moscow.
Officially, the party does not promote violence. But "if our guys clash with Caucasians on the street, we don't see anything wrong with that," said Semyon Tokmakov, the group's shaven-headed deputy director, who wears camouflage pants, a black armband and a knife on his belt.
"We're living on occupied territory," said Mr. Tokmakov, who spent time in jail for beating a black Marine guard from the U.S. Embassy.
Russia has seen a spate of racist attacks over the past year, often directed at immigrants from poverty-stricken Central Asia and the Caucasus Mountains who have flocked to Moscow and other Russian cities.
In one of the most serious incidents, last October, a mob of 300 people stormed an outdoor market in the Tsaritsino neighborhood of southern Moscow. They killed three immigrants and wounded dozens.
In July, a crowd of Russians went on a rampage in the town of Krasnoarmeysk, outside Moscow, severely beating a dozen Armenians a day after an Armenian wounded a Russian in a bar fight.
Police do not keep statistics on racist attacks, instead lumping them together with other crimes under the category of "hooliganism," but experts say the skinhead movement is gaining strength.
"The number of skinhead groups in Moscow is growing, and skinheads are turning up in cities where they didn't exist before," said Alexander Verkhovsky, vice president of the Panorama research center, which has published several studies of extremist movements.
Mr. Verkhovsky said most skinheads come from families that have been struggling to get by since the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, and see racism as a way to boost their prestige.
A frequent target is African students who have come to Russia to study.
"It's very dangerous, because they often attack when you're alone," said Aliu Diuf, 23, a philology student from Senegal who was attacked by skinheads recently at a subway station in southern Moscow.
Mr. Diuf suffered bruises and a sprained hand. But he says he was even more disturbed by the reaction of other passengers.
"The station was full of Russians, just staring. If this were a decent country, somebody would have done something," he said bitterly.
Mr. Diuf attends People's Friendship University, a sprawling complex on the southern edge of Moscow. During Soviet days, the university offered a free education to students from developing countries as a way to promote communist ideology.
Today, low tuition fees keep the African students coming, but many say they are afraid to leave the campus, which is guarded by a private security firm. When they do go out, it is in groups of three or four, and even then they don't venture far.
"We are afraid to go outside to walk in the streets, even to visit the Kremlin," said Abdallah Bachar, 22, from Chad who studies international affairs.
He said police either ignore skinhead attacks or just go through the motions of taking reports.
"Experience shows us that they beat you up, you spend some time in the hospital, and that's it. No one asks any questions," he said.
Russian policemen say skinheads here are mostly just loose groups of soccer fans as in Europe and their attacks are usually spontaneous actions fueled by alcohol. At the same time, authorities have closed down several publications linked to hard-line nationalists.
This summer, President Vladimir Putin signed a law designed to combat extremism by giving police new tools to shut down groups deemed "extremist." However, some human-rights groups say the law is too vaguely defined and gives police and prosecutors too much power.
With the new academic year under way, police say they will be going to schools to warn teenagers about the dangers of joining skinhead groups.
"Our work isn't only to take them off the streets and put them in jail, it's to reorient them to become law-abiding citizens," said Sergei Smirnov, an official with the Interior Ministry's crime prevention department.
At the Moscow apartment that serves as headquarters of the People's National Party, Mr. Tokmakov says that he, too, is educating young people.
"We're raising them, we're training them, and they're becoming real men," he said as two teens entered the room and gave him Nazi-style salutes.

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