Supporters of Imprisoned Russian Skinheads Retaliate by Firebombing a Moscow Synagogue

At 4 a.m. on Tuesday, July 12, young masked men threw Molotov cocktails at the Darchei Shalom synagogue in Moscow. None of the bombs exploded, and no one was injured, and the attackers fled the scene.

Evidence suggests  that the synagogue attack may have occurred in retaliation for the July 11 Moscow City Court’s sentencing of the “Sever” skinhead gang whose members were responsible for plotting terrorist attacks, as well as committing twenty-seven bias-motivated murders and several dozen nonlethal attacks, mostly on non-Slavs living and working in Moscow. The court showed no leniency: five defendants were sentenced to life in prison and six others (including a woman) will spend between 10 and 23 years behind bars. (The defendant who turned himself in and cooperated with the investigation received a suspended sentence.)

The court’s ruling continues a string of successful prosecutions in the criminal justice system’s ongoing struggle with violent hate crime. The prosecutions of attacks are up, resulting in a rapid decline of the number of murders. Several prominent ultranationalist murderers were convicted to long jail terms in 2011, including the infamous Borovikov-Voevodin gang from Saint Petersburg and the murders of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova.

In March 2011, four ultranationalist from the “Autonomous Slavonic Resistance” were sentenced to long prison terms, ranging between 9 and 22 years. The Resistance engaged in similar tactics to Sever, assaulting non-Slavs in Moscow and using homemade explosives to target foreign-run market stands. Two members of the Resistance went on a vandalism rampage on New Year’s Eve of 2009, drawing swastikas on a Christian Orthodox Church, tossing Molotov Cocktails at a police parking lot and at the very same synagogue that was firebombed on July 12—Darchei Shalom—where the guard was on that occasion able to put out the fire.

The Moscow-based SOVA Center, while noting a decline in antisemitic incidents during the past decade, has documented prominent cases of antisemitic hate crime across Russia: in Khabarovsk, Dzerzhinsk, Penza, and, of course, Moscow and the Moscow region.

Antisemitism in Russia, though less violent  than other forms of intolerance, recurs in popular discourse. The Sever gang, which mainly attacked Central Asian labor migrants, remained true to the “classic” neo-Nazi platform that glorifies and relies on antisemitism. During the reading of the verdict yesterday, the ultranationalist shouted “Jews, Prepare to Die!” Their violent supporters allegedly chose to attack the Darchei Shalom synagogue to demonstrate that such threats are very real, and that despite the dramatically increased number of skinheads behind bars, many remain at-large.

The Sever conviction and the synagogue attack show that a comprehensive strategy to combat hate crime is needed for protection of minorities most vulnerable to violence—be it Central Asian laborers, African students, or Jews. Human Rights First’s Ten-Point Plan offers a good starting point, calling on the authorities to send clear messages to perpetrators of violent attacks, to investigate and prosecute cases, to train law enforcers, to collect and publish hate crime data, and to reach out to minorities under threat.


Published on July 12, 2011


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