Today, the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis presented its latest report on hate crimes in the Russian Federation. The press conference began with a minute of silence honoring the memory of the report's principal author, Galina Kozhevnikova, who passed away in Moscow on March 5 from a long battle with an illness .
Galina was a founder and director of SOVA and steered the organization as it established itself as the most important and trusted voice on hate crimes and radical nationalism in Russia. A historian by training, Galina produced groundbreaking research, documenting an upheaval in racist violence that continues to terrorize minorities. According to information gathered by SOVA, hate crimes have claimed as many as many as 470 lives since 2004, while the government's response has been weak and inconsistent. We saw a potent reminder of where racism can lead during last year's race riots in Moscow.
As an advocate for stronger government response to violent hate crimes, committed largely by neo-Nazi adherents, Galina never hid from the objects of her research. They knew who she was, read her books, and often attended SOVA's press events. During one ultranationalist rally she observed neo-Nazis shouting "Heil Galina Kozhevnikova" at her. She was surprised, but later told this story with a smile -- skinheads can be funny, too. There was no hint of sarcasm, however, in the various death threats sent to the SOVA staff over the years. In 2009, Galina and her colleague Alexander Verkhovsky had to leave Moscow for two months as a precaution. They settled in the New York office of Human Rights First, working on their research and making two trips to Washington to meet with U.S. government officials.
Such warnings aren't to be taken lightly. Nikolai Girenko, the ethnologist and human rights activist from Saint Petersburg, had also received multiple death threats before he was gunned down at the entrance to his apartment in 2004. Same goes for Stanislav Markelov, the lawyer who was shot at point blank range -- together with Anastasia Baburova -- in downtown Moscow two years ago. Yesterday, on March 9, the memorial to Stanislav and Anastasia at Prechistenka Street was vandalized for the second time, and earlier this week the presiding judge in the trial of their alleged killers was provided additional security after his address and personal data appeared on ultranationalist forums. Last year, the judge who sentenced two skinheads from the Ryno Gang convicted of killing 20 people, was murdered in front of his apartment building in Moscow.
Galina Kozhevnikova's last report looks at the developments that enabled the December race riots to occur. While the number of murders committed by ultraright gangs decreased in 2010, the level of overall racist violence remained steady. The report noted significant improvements in the criminal justice response, as the number of prosecutions for racist violence almost doubled last year, compared to 2009. The report also documents the growth of a system of small, autonomous, antigovernment groups that are not affiliated with "mainstream" nationalist movements. These groups are more flexible, secretive, unpredictable -- and dangerous. Ultranationalist activities peaked toward the end of last year. First, record numbers of right-wing supporters staged "Russian Marches" across the country in November. Then, the murder of a soccer fan in Moscow was used as a rallying point to orchestrate the riots at Okhotny Ryad in Moscow.
Galina will be missed as the struggle with Russia's neo-Nazis continues. Her legacy is in her writings, and there is still time for the Russian government to reevaluate its approach to combating hate crime -- starting by reading Galina's and other of SOVA's reports and by regularly consulting with the remaining civil society experts on combating hate crime and radical nationalism.