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Book Review – Victor A. Shnirelman “Cleaners of the Moscow streets”

Review of Victor A. Shnirelman “Cleaners of the Moscow streets”: skinheads, media and public opinion. 2nd corrected and enlarged edition. Moscow: Academia, 2010. 164 pp. (in Russian)

by Lukasz JURCZYSZYN, lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Pultusk Academy of Humanities, member of the CADIS/EHESS in Paris, project « EMERGENCES »

The book, written by Victor A. Shnirelman – Russian anthropologist from N. N. Miklukho-Maklay Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Russian Academy of Sciences -, analyses a radical youth movement – the skinhead movement – in contemporary Russia. More precisely, the author traces its history and investigates not only its “Aryan ideology” but also its destructive practices. The “Cleaners of the Moscow streets” studies the ambiguous relationship between diverse actors: the skinheads, Society (including the media), and the authorities. All along, the author analyses the reasons for the “right wing” radicalization of today’s youth. The book is intended for lawyers, political and cultural scientists, ethnologists and for all those who are interested in the current condition of  Russian youth.

The book was prepared as part of a larger project called: “Analysis of widespread stereotypes within the youth environment – an elaboration and a realization of measures on overcoming of influence of their negative aspect”. The project was carried out under the framework of the program entitled: “Moscow multi-ethnic: formation of civil solidarity, culture of peace and reconciliation (2005-2007)”, with financial support from the Russian Humanitarian Scientific Fund under the grant: “Aryan idea in the modern world” (2009-2010). Thisbook was prepared with the cooperation of institutions such as the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of N. N. Miklukho-Maklay, and the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights.

In the introduction to this second edition, Shnirelman underlines that the first edition was published in 2007 when the rise of activity of the skinhead movement was observed. Each year since then brought new, increasingly terrifying data on the growth and development of, firstly, the right radicalism within the youth environment, and secondly the criminality motivated by racist tendencies, as an unprecedented wave of racist homicides took place. The author underlines that during this period, the police was exceptionally inactive. An illusive “orange threat” blurred so much the eyes of both the authorities and some prominent political scientists, that they  stubbornly refused to recognize the real “brown threat”. In reality, the judicial authorities while ­prosecuting the juvenile criminals dealt only with the tip of the iceberg.

Indeed, the author points out that the basis of racist ideology has not been disrupted since then, and the whole army of racist ideologues has been progressively rising. These highly educated people who define themselves as intellectuals, have been trying, with all their might, to impose on Society the thinking of racial categories. To reach this goal, these “scientists” produce, in reality, pseudo-scientific works popularizing racial theories which were rejected a long time ago. Surprisingly, they often work at prestigious universities, in contact with students. Shnirelman mentions that this group of “fighters for the truth” impregnated with racist ideology could include representatives of the authorities, civil society, media, and literary people. He notes that without such ideological support the skinheads’ activity could not have reached such disturbing level as the one observed during the first decade of  the XXIst century. This renewed edition provides data updated up to2010. At the beginning of his book, the author underlines that a renewed and reinforced attention should be given to the skinheads’ subculture, especially because of the range of contradictory tendencies, which provoked the beginning and rise of the phenomenon, and which have been recently manifested openly in the Russian society.

The book is divided into 12 chapters. In the first one, titled “How it started”, Shnirelman provides a classic historical overview on the beginning of skinhead movement in Western Europe and more precisely in the United Kingdom in the 1960’s. During this period, the movement galvanized a part of the youth from poor neighborhoods who openly expressed their rejection of the “well-fed” middle-class society and who began to cultivate their rebel counterculture. It was in the early 1980’s that the skinheads started out performing for the purity of blood and actively led anti-immigrant propaganda in several countries of Western and Eastern Europe and in the United States. In the second chapter (“A political support”) the author focuses on the Russian skinhead movement by stressing the role of the first right-wing organizations such as the National Republican Party of Russia (NRPR) or The Peoples National Party (PNP), which were well isolated in the public sphere. The anthropologist emphasizes the importance of the relations developed between some skinhead movements such as the PNP and the neo-pagans by describing details of the the organization’s rituals. For instance, during the initiation called the “Day of the Cross” – which takes place without unnecessary witnesses in the forests outside Moscow – a “candidate” of the party members expressing the Nazi salute shouts several slogans such as: “Glory to Russia!”, “Sieg Heil!”, “Russia for the Russian! Moscow for the Muscovites! “, ” Death to the Caucasians and Jews!” It is worth underlining here that  neo-paganism in today’s Russia can not be reduced to the neo-Nazi version. This broad movement includes different groups and tendancies, many of which are far from ideological and political engagement. In the third chapter titled “The cult of violence and its founders”, the author explains the recent growth of nationalist and racist violence in Russia by highlighting the overlap of several factors. Firstly, the skinhead movement was formed by teenagers, educated during the so called “wild capitalism” period, who did not have the experience of Soviet internationalism. In this context, the first generation of skinheads came primarily from depressed and underprivileged urban areas and families. But over time, among skinheads we started to see not only children of poor dysfunctional families but more and more university students, very often from wealthy families. Secondly, we begun to see in some educational programs the so-called “ideology of Post-Soviet patriotism”, which is loaded with xenophobia, especially related to anti-Western sentiments. Thirdly, the rise of skinhead activity is correlated to the significant growth of working immigration from Caucasus and Central Asia. Fourthly, since the early 2000’s migration issues have fallen under the responsibility of the law enforcement agencies and have thus been treated mainly in terms of national security. The notion of migration, represented primarily as a threat to public order, strongly imposed to the citizens of Russia via the media, has certainly influenced young people, some of whom seeing the fight against illegal migration as their patriotic duty. In this chapter Shnirelman also describes the role of the emergence and the popularity of the main skinhead music bands such as: “Kolovrat”, “Storm”, “Vandal”, “The Russian Will”, “The Russian Ghetto”, etc. In the fourth chapter (“Skinhead culture and its development”), the author provides detailed information about the creation, the activity and the mode of organization and practices of the main skinheads groups, not only in Moscow (for instance the groups: “The Moscow Skinlegion”, “The Blood and Honour”) but in several cities such as Saint Petersburg (“Totenkopf”, “Russian Fist”), Nizhny Novgorod (“North”), Ivanovo (“The Skinhead’s Brotherhood”, Yaroslavl (“The White Bears”), Orel (“The White Wolves”) and in Izhevsk  (“The People’s Will”). We can find out here the new dynamics of the phenomenon of skinhead mobilization, more precisely the fact that more and more women have recently become interested in joining skinhead groups (the groups such as: “Steel Magnolia” and  “The Russian Girls” from Moscow or “She-Wolf” – the first women’s skinhead group created in Yaroslavl in 1997). In total, according to the experts, there are around 60-65 000 skinheads in Russia (compared to 10 – 20 000 in 2001). In the fifth chapter (“Skinheads and their sympathizers”) the author invites to the stimulating debate on why, in the context of the social and economical crisis of the early and late 1990’s, the search for enemies from the skinheads point of view related to ethnic rather than  social or class terms. Shnirelman clarifies that it was the discredit of Marxism and the abandonment of the social class approach as an explanatory paradigm linked to the fall of the communist regime that played a crucial role in this process. In the sixth chapter on migrants and media, the latter are partly blamed for producing and cultivating stereotypes and even hate language about the “Caucasians”, who are very often represented as “being not ours”, the “unscrupulous traders”, the “competitors in the labor market”, the “occupants of housing and other social benefits”, “criminals”, “drug dealers” – who are loyal only to their tribes and clans, and finally as the “terrorists”. In the next chapter (7 – entitled “Skinheads and authorities”), the author gives details not only related to the nationalist or racist tendencies among the police but also on the practices of some police officers who share information with the skinheads on ethnic minorities’ activities in some cities. In the eighth chapter (“Aryan ideology and skinhead identity”), we find out the factors underlying the so-called racist nationalism, which could be described in a very synthetic way as reserved only to the “Russian people” (with Russian” referring here to an ethnic definition, and not to the citizenship of Russian federation). Any other people of Russia are called “foreigners”, a fact which is embodied in the slogan “Russia for the Russian”, where Russian are both a nation and a race. The author claims that the majority of skinheads in Russia profess extreme racist views with a significant bias toward fascism and nationalism. The next chapter (9th – “Football fans, skinheads and police”) focuses on the link between football fans and the skinheads. More precisely, in case of arrest, the latter prefer to declare themselves “football fans”. The author refers to the General Directorate of Internal Affairs in Moscow and points out that skinheads tend more and more to attend football matches and that football fans participate in pogrom activities in collaboration with right-wings radicals.  Chapter 10 titled “’Racial war’ in the cities” examines the rise of radicalism in the skinheads’ practices. Since 1998 the skinheads have begun to use knives and other weapons, including firearms. Then in 2006-2007, the repertoire of young radicals began to include the bombing of places, crowded mostly with migrants. Since then, the young radicals have turned to terrorist tactics, and it is noteworthy that among the organizers can be found students of prestigious universities. Meanwhile, the number of young anti-fascists has been increasing in the streets of Russian cities. These youth attempt to counteract the neo-Nazi skinheads. If in the early 2000’s anti-fascists activity was still limited and anti-fascist often found themselves easy victims of right-wing youth, today this movement has made visible progress and we have been observing the development of an armed “civil war” between those two groups. Chapter 11 titled “A response of the police and actions of the right radicals” is about how the authorities very commonly do not want to recognize the crimes based on hatred. Instead of this, they usually define racist attacks as hooligan delinquency. However, the author underlines that since 2003-2004, even if the judicial authorities have been paying more attention to cases of incitement to ethnic hatred it is very difficult to sentence for hate crime. The last chapter (12) contains the list of several conclusive points. The first one among the most important refers to the fact that the beginning of XXIst century in Russia was marked by a brutal “racial war” to which society did not paid much attention. The second puts emphasis on another very important process: whereas this “race war” was caused by a certain social order linked to the youth of underprivileged backgrounds, the dynamics related to the rest of the society witnessed a disturbing development (since 2000) of a passive xenophobia which  soon turned into an active form of racial discrimination. The book ends with the description of the structure of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights.

Indeed, the “Cleaners of the Moscow streets” is a very informative study about the Russian skinhead movement but it also reaches more global perspectives. The book provides numerous examples of skinheads’ activity not only from the Russian context and not only from Moscow but from the whole country. It contains also illustrations from the United States of America, England, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary  and Ukraine. Moreover, the erudition of the author is impressive. He uses numerous monographs, articles, novels, poems and even songs written by authors who idealize the skinheads’ activity (such as: R.V. Volkov or Dimitri Nesterov). In particular, Shnirelman uses many data, for instance provided from Russian analytical centers such as the Levada-Center. As a result the book offers a huge quantity of statistics and structural data. However, this extremely rich book in terms of innumerable examples of nationalist/racist violent acts does not provide much information, on a subjective level, about the skinheads’ engagement in this radical movement. Too little of the work is based on the author’s own, original empirical quantitative work.The author does indeed provide citations of interviews but they come from the empirical work of other researchers or journalists. The author himself admits (page 46) that without specialized surveys one can not distinguish well and understand the difference between “ideological skinheads” and “skinheads hooligans”. Neverthless, the book definitely helps to understand the phenomenon analyzed and Shnirelman, due to his astonishing historical and anthropological knowledge, elucidates the idea of the origins of ultra-nationalism. These factors explain the reason for this second edition, which contains updated and detailed information about the history of Russian skinheads in the past two decades. Finally the last chapters have been updated as well, They focus on the newest tendencies which have arisen over the last two/three years.

To receive further information on how to get the book one might contact the administration of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights: humanrights@list.ru.