Roberto Carlos had a banana thrown at him during a recent game in the Russian soccer league. The revered footballer is spending the sunset of his career playing on a lucrative contract for the oligarch-backed Anzhi Makhachkala, and it’s a second “banana incident” targeting him in four months. The first intolerant gesture ended up costing Zenit Saint Petersburg—whose fans threw the fruit—a little over $10,000.
“I am used to there being no racism in football,” says Carlos. “Russia should not be an exception.”
In reality, Russia is somewhat of an exception when it comes to racism. The country is home to almost half of the world’s skinheads (according to some experts, there are as many as 100 thousand Russian skinheads), who have made the last decade their own. Racist and other violent attacks by neo-Nazi skinhead groups have been rising since 2004 by some 15 percent per year, a trend that was finally broken in 2009. According to Human Rights First’s partners in Moscow, the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, in 2010, there were at least 37 racist murders, while some 368 people were injured in suspected racist attacks (compared with 71 murders in 2009 and 109 in 2008).
Around 2008, after years of dismissing the alarms by Russian and international civil society groups, the authorities have finally started investigating the bloody trails left by neo-Nazi gangs, or “hooligans,” as they were usually called before. We’re seeing real results: prosecutions are up, and the number of murders has been declining rapidly. SOVA reported “only” 11 murders and 55 injuries during the first five months of 2011. Despite these improvements, the government lacks a comprehensive policy to address hate crime, manifested by poor police training, uneven high-level political rhetoric, and weak popular initiatives.
This year, the Russian justice system has brought closure to several high-profile cases. In April, a divided jury issued a guilty verdict against Nikita Tikhonov and Yevgeniya Khasis, the neo-Nazi couple accused of murdering Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova in downtown Moscow on January 19, 2009. Tikhonov will spend the rest of his life in prison, where he’ll be joined by two prominent ultranationalist leaders from St. Petersburg. A week ago, Aleksei Voevodin and Artyom Prokhorenko had been given life sentences, and a dozen of their associates were also found guilty of committing a series of murders. This Voevodin-Borovikov group was responsible for some of the most high-profile hate crimes in Russia, including the ethnologist Nikolai Girenko and the nine-year-old Tajik girl Khursheda Sultanova.
The incident with Roberto Carlos will be investigated by the Russian soccer authorities, who’ve already promised to do everything possible to “change the situation.” Yet, none of the news outlets who covered the banana-throwing saw the bigger picture of racism in Russia: a bloody tale of fear, violence, and lawlessness.
Roberto Carlos and his teammates, some of whom are also international stars, live the life of luxury in Moscow. It’s too dangerous to reside in Makhachkala, the capital of the North Caucasus province of Dagestan which is represented by Anzhi in Russia’s top soccer league. The team’s owner, the billionaire Suleiman Kerimov, makes sure that his stars are shielded from the hustle and bustle of daily life. It’s likely that Mr. Kerimov treats his stars as well as another oligarch from Dagestan, Gadzhi Makhachev, treated the guests at his son’s three-day wedding that was poetically detailed in a wikileaks cable by a senior U.S. State Department official.
The vast majority of victims of racist violence in Russia could never dream of such riches. Central Asian labor migrants—the top targets—are underprivileged, poor, and socially deprived. Unlike Roberto Carols, these individuals are rarely identified by their names in the media, though they are subjected to the ultimate danger of racism in Russia: violent hate crime.
Human Rights First