On streets of Russia, young anti-fascists battle young ultra-right

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MOSCOW // For several years now, a largely unseen battle has been playing out on Russia’s streets between ultra-nationalist youth and their militant adversaries, anti-fascism activists.

As a rule, the street brawls between radical right-wing groups and members of an anti-fascism movement known under the umbrella term “Antifa” rarely show up on police blotters, though both sides post videos of the melees on the internet, depending, of course, on who prevailed. Whereas Antifa activists largely stick to fists and boots, several of their cohorts in recent years have been killed in knife attacks.

And now with the death of a prominent Antifa activist, nicknamed “Bonecrusher”, who was shot in Moscow last week, simmering tensions between the two sides have boiled over, threatening more bloodshed in reprisal attacks.

On the evening of November 16, an unidentified gunman shot 26-year-old Ivan Khutorskoi in the head twice in the entryway of the victim’s apartment building in eastern Moscow, investigators said.

Khutorskoi, a martial arts expert who worked as a security guard at punk rock shows and Antifa events, was twice targeted in attacks in 2005 in connection with his Antifa links, which may have been a primary motive in the killing, investigators said in a statement.

Khutorskoi, who was buried in Moscow on Saturday, had provided security at the press conferences of Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer who was shot dead in broad daylight last year. A former associate of a nationalist group called Russky Obraz, or “Russian Image”, has admitted to the crime but claims it was motivated by personal animosity, not politics, according to his lawyer.

One day after Khutorskoi’s murder, Antifa activists used rocks and sticks to smash up the office of Young Russia, a pro-Kremlin youth group.

They accuse its leader, the Russian MP Maxim Mishchenko, of having ties to Russky Obraz and providing protection for those who preach hate and violence against migrants in Russia.

Mr Mishchenko has denied that he supports racism, though he said that he had previously co-operated with Russky Obraz, which sponsored a concert near the Kremlin this month featuring one of Russia’s most notorious radical nationalist rock groups.

The ransacking of the pro-Kremlin group’s office by Antifa activists raised the spectre of a rapid escalation in the stand-off and prompted some of Russia’s leading human rights crusaders – including Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a Soviet-era dissident – to call for restraint.

“That is not the way to stop political terrorism,” the statement said. “Instead you are giving law enforcement authorities a pretext for new repressions against underground groups.”

Controlling the deep strains of xenophobia in Russian society while extracting political capital from nationalist sentiment has been a delicate balancing act for the Kremlin.

Critics have accused the government and law enforcement authorities of sympathising with radical right-wing groups, though there has been a spike in convictions of ultra-nationalists in recent years in violent, often deadly attacks against migrants from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. “In Moscow this year there will probably be fewer hate crimes than there were last year, and that will be a great success for the Moscow police,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, the head of a Moscow-based Sova think tank, which monitors hate crimes in Russia.

Such success, however, is limited largely to Moscow and does not extend to Russia’s poorer, far-flung regions, Mr Verkhovsky said.

Tracking violent conflicts between ultra-nationalists and anti-fascist groups is trickier. Both sides are skittish about dealing with authorities or the media and rarely report incidents through traditional channels.

The fact that both Markelov and Khutorskoi were killed with guns in contract-style murders has ominous overtones for future confrontations between the two groups. Knives and baseball bats, rather than guns, had until now been the weapons of choice for right-wing groups, Mr Verkhovsky said. “You can’t say that they’ve completely switched to guns, but some people are clearly using them.” continues here

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