Are Russia’s Neo-Nazis Upping the Ante?

On April 12, Eduard Chuvashov, a federal judge of the Russian Federation was gunned down in front of his apartment building in Moscow in a contract-style killing. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev denounced the killing as "cynical" and vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice. Police officials stated that the murder may have been an act of retribution for the sentences Judge Chuvashov handed down against neo-Nazi skinheads convicted in violent hate crimes that targeted Russian minorities.

Just last week, the 47-year-old judge sentenced two skinheads to 10 years in prison. Their group, the Ryno Gang, was convicted of killing 20 people of "non-Slavic" appearance and posting videos of the murders on the Internet. Earlier this year, in February 2010, Chuvashov jailed nine members of "White Wolves," a gang of mostly teenage skinheads that clubbed and stabbed dark-skinned migrants to death.

At some level, this brutal murder – as brazen as it was – may come as little surprise those familiar with Judge Chuvashov. Judge Chuvashov had received death threats for several weeks before the attack. One neo-Nazi website had also included him on a list of "enemies of the people" to be targeted for violence. Furthermore, this killing seems to be part of a broader trend documented by the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis – Russia’s leading monitors of neo-Nazi violence – in which the targets of neo-Nazi violence have increasingly included judges, lawyers, rights defenders, and journalists.

This murder can’t but recall several other similarly brutal slayings of those involved in work to address neo-Nazi violence: Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer who had represented the mother of an anti-fascist campaigner who was murdered by skinheads, was himself gunned down in downtown Moscow, allegedly also by neo-Nazis, in January 2009; Anatasia Baburova, a freelance journalist who reported on the problem of hate crime violence, was murdered with Markelov; and Nikolai Girenko, an expert witness in several hate crime cases, who was gunned down at the entrance of his St. Petersburg apartment in 2004. Nobody has been held accountable in any of these cases, although a group of men are on currently on trial in St. Petersburg for a range of murders and other crimes, including the murder of Girenko.

The Russian criminal justice system, long overwhelmed by the surge in violent hate crimes, largely perpetrated by adherents of far-right and neo-Nazi ideologies, has begun to make some progress. In 2009, the number of such crimes decreased for the first time since 2004, in what was partly attributed to efforts by law enforcement to bring to justice some of those responsible for these brutal hate crimes. Yet, this latest tragic murder makes clear that these efforts need to include more robust protections to the prosecutors, judges, and witnesses involved in bring to justice those responsible for Russia’s endemic hate crime problem.