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Russian trial to bare a face of nationalism

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MOSCOW » It once seemed as if Nikita Tikhonov was positioning himself to join this country’s political elite: He attended the prestigious Moscow State University, founded a right-wing political magazine called the Russian Way and worked as a campaign aide for a parliamentary candidate.

Tikhonov, a self-declared patriot with a passion for Russian history, refused to smoke or drink alcohol, insisting that a blend of temperance and civic engagement might help revive his country.

Now, Tikhonov is on trial for murder.

Prosecutors contend that his right-wing intellectual pursuits mutated into nationalistic hatred that led him to kill a prominent human-rights lawyer and a young journalist two years ago. Tikhonov initially confessed to the crime, though he now says he is innocent. Testimony in his trial, which includes his wife as a co-defendant, is scheduled to begin on Monday.

Whatever his original path, Tikhonov has now come to embody the increasing radicalization of Russia’s nationalist movement, his true nature, perhaps, revealed more in the tattoos covering his body, including one on his left shoulder of a cross ringed with swastikas.

Like Tikhonov, 30, many of the extreme nationalists are young, educated and middle class. They are angry at myriad enemies, real and perceived, and are earning a worsening reputation for widespread political violence.

One of the most widely publicized cases came in December, in the wake of the fatal shooting of an ethnic Russian soccer fan here by a man from Russia’s North Caucasus region. Thousands of young people began an extended riot close to Red Square, chanting "Russia for Russians" and racial slurs. They threw rocks at police officers, and then scattered. Later, groups of ethnic Russian men and some women attacked non-Slavic minorities on side streets and subways. Several people were reported killed.

Ethnic Russians make up about 80 percent of Russia’s 142 million people, sharing the country with more than 100 ethnic groups, many of which make up Russia’s large Muslim community. Russia also has the largest immigrant population in the world after the United States, numbering as many as 10 million, mostly from former Soviet republics in the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

Nationalists have taken responsibility for kidnappings, beheadings and a 2006 bombing that killed 10 at a Moscow market operated mostly by immigrants. At least 37 people were killed and more than 300 injured in xenophobic attacks in 2010, according to the Sova Center, a Moscow-based organization that tracks such violence. Many more cases go unreported.

Nationalists have also singled out those considered sympathetic to ethnic minorities or opposed to right-wing ideas and deeds. They have killed several members of an anti-fascist group called Anti-Fa, which arose in response to growing xenophobic violence. In the past year, nationalists have been linked to the murders of several police officers and a judge.

Aleksandr Belov, a nationalist leader who once worked with Tikhonov, blamed the government for the recent violence, saying Russia’s leaders ignored the interests of ethnic Russians, favoring well-organized and influential diasporas while squeezing nationalists out of power. This, he said, has prompted some to take up arms to stave off perceived threats against Russia’s culture and traditions.

"It is becoming an armed struggle," Belov said. "You can call such people terrorists, but there is another name: these are partisans who are fighting a war of liberation."

Tikhonov is accused of killing two such enemies. One, Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer, for years pressed the authorities to have perpetrators of hate crimes brought up on charges, leading to the imprisonment of several. The other, Anastasia Baburova, a freelance journalist with Novaya Gazeta, the country’s leading opposition newspaper, wrote about nationalists.

They were shot to death together at close range in January 2009 in a brazen, daylight attack just a short walk from the Kremlin. Prosecutors have charged Tikhonov’s common-law wife, Yevgenia Khasis, with aiding the attack, and she is also now on trial.

The killings were met with satisfaction if not outright jubilation in some nationalist circles. One nationalist carried champagne to a makeshift memorial a day after the shootings, placing the bottle amid the flowers in the still-red snow.

Investigators say that Markelov was the intended target. His investigation into the 2006 stabbing death of an anti-fascist activist led to Tikhonov being named a suspect. Though Tikhonov denied involvement — and prosecutors later dropped the charges against him — he fled.

For three years he lay low in a rented Moscow apartment. Using an alias and fake documents, he left Russia for a time, possibly living in Ukraine, friends and relatives said. He used pay phones to make sporadic calls, though he avoided revealing his whereabouts.

His lawyer, Aleksandr Vasilyev, said Tikhonov made a living selling weapons on the black market. The police discovered an arsenal stashed in his apartment upon his arrest in November 2009, among the weapons confiscated was the Browning pistol used to shoot Markelov and Baburova.

Despite the evidence against Tikhonov, his family and friends contend that he is innocent, describing him as a convenient suspect because of his earlier ties to Markelov, but ultimately the victim of a government crackdown on nationalists.

 

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