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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Under the Surface of the Skinhead Threat

The big story in the Russian press last week was the "skinhead threat." Top law enforcement officials spoke of little else. The president even mentioned the dangers of extremism in his state of the nation address.

Russians who grew up in the Soviet era find it extremely hard to react to all this in a rational manner. On the one hand, normal people are incensed when they hear about how Hitler's birthday is being "celebrated" in Moscow. On the other hand, we all still believe in conspiracy theories, and we hunt for hidden meanings in every word our leaders utter.

I recall how many friends of my family who had lived through Stalinism would panic every time one of our decrepit Soviet leaders would mouth the obligatory old line about the need to crack down on corruption. They always read these pronouncements as the signal for a fresh outbreak of mass arrests and repression.

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Anyone who takes the time to sort through the reams of articles on extremism will have a much better understanding of the origins and the current state of the extremist movement in Russia and abroad. You also discover quite a broad spectrum of opinions on the topic. Law enforcement officials try to depoliticize the problem. Professional "democrats" sound the alarm, calling extremism one of the gravest internal threats to Russian society. Liberals blame the government for being soft on extremism. And the communists believe the problem has been blown out of proportion, suggesting that the ground is being prepared for a crackdown on the opposition.

All this boils down to a combination of professionalism, genuine concern and paranoia that is typical of press coverage of this sort of story.

And it leads to a very serious question: What influence does this information overkill exert on the public consciousness?

In February 1999, my magazine, Sreda, investigated what was, to the best of my recollection, the first outbreak of the war on extremism, which came as a reaction to public anti-Semitic statements made by communist State Duma Deputy Albert Makashov and marches in Moscow held by Alexander Barkashov's ultra-nationalist Russian National Unity movement, or RNE.

The networks devoted a significant portion of their newscasts to the crackdown on extremism. NTV devoted 34.2 percent of its total news coverage to the issue, TV Center -- 26.6 percent, ORT -- 20.3 percent, and RTR -- 18.8 percent. The RNE received twice as much air time as the Yabloko party.

At the end of February one opinion poll ranked Barkashov -- previously a total unknown -- one of Russia's 10 most recognizable politicians. According to another poll conducted at that time, NTV attracted the largest number of viewers sympathetic to Barkashov and his party -- 8.7 percent of its total audience. By contrast, only 2.5 percent of RTR's viewers supported the RNE. Moskovsky Komsomolets, the newspaper that devoted more space to the crackdown on extremism than any other, similarly had the largest percentage -- 7.7 percent -- of Barkashov sympathizers among its readership. Nationwide, 5 percent of those polled expressed support for the program of the RNE.

Unfortunately for Barkashov NATO soon began bombing Yugoslavia, diverting the attention of the press from extremists at home. The RNE was forgotten and sank into oblivion.

The latest round in the war on skinheads this month, while making a bit of a splash in the press, has been almost totally ignored by television news. Tough luck for the extremists again.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (www.internews.ru/sreda)