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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Skinheads Fashionable for Some

Viktor has just graduated from a prestigious Moscow school and joined the Moscow Law Academy. He works as a computer systems administrator in the summer, likes President Vladimir Putin and despises communists.

Viktor also hates immigrants, especially those from former Soviet republics. He wears heavy Dr. Martens boots, Nazi badges and his fists are covered with scars from street fights.

The 16-year-old is one of an estimated 7,000 Moscow skinheads, a fast-growing group so named because of their shaven or close-cropped heads, who are blamed for a string of attacks on foreigners.

"The media try to portray us as dumbheads who cannot string two words together. Do I look like one?" he says as he sips beer in the street cafe next to his old school.

Viktor spends his evenings with his skinhead pals in their neighborhood on the outskirts of Moscow. They drink beer and listen to Western skinhead bands or their Russian copycats.

Then they go out hunting for victims -- dark-skinned traders, African students, Afghan refugees, South Asian workers. "Our neighborhood has already been cleaned of this filth. We have beaten them all. God help any foreigner who hangs around on his own where we live," Viktor said.

Moscow is a popular destination for migrants, who are attracted by higher living standards.

The city has seen a surge of racially motivated violence in recent years. In the most serious incident, last October a mob of at least 150 skinheads rampaged through the Azeri Tsaritsyno market, killing three people and injuring 30.

In the last year alone, the number of skinheads in Moscow is said to have doubled. While there are several well-organized groups like United Brigades 88, most are loose bands of teens linked to specific neighborhoods.

"It has become fashionable to be a skinhead in Russia," said researcher Vyacheslav Likhachev, author of the book "Nazism in Russia," the first attempt at analyzing the skinhead movement. "Everyone knows who they are and fears them."

Foreign students at the People's Friendship University in Moscow say they feel safe only on the university campus, where they are protected by a private security firm.

"This campus is like a prison for us. I cannot even take my girlfriend to the movies," said Christian Bock, a 30-year-old construction engineering student from Cameroon beaten by skinhead gangs three times during his seven years in Moscow.

Lonely African or Asian students traveling on the metro are favorite targets for skinhead gangs, who are often afraid to attack people from the Caucasus, who live in close-knit communities and are often able to defend themselves.

Alexander Ivanov-Sukharevsky runs his neo-Nazi National People's Party from a tiny office in a one-room apartment in a shabby Moscow apartment block. The party claims to have 10,000 members in numerous regional branches, marked by pins on the giant map of Russia on the wall.

About 1,000 of them are young skinheads, brought to the party by Semyon Tokmakov, one of the leaders of the Moscow skinhead community and now deputy leader of the party.

Tokmakov and Ivanov-Sukharevsky met in prison -- Ivanov-Sukharevsky jailed for inciting racial hatred, Tokmakov for beating up a black U.S. marine with his friends.

"You can see marks from his teeth here," Tokmakov said proudly, showing off the scars on his hand.

The party ideology is a witches' brew of racism, Russian nationalism and Nazism, calling for "the elimination of all foreigners from the country." But only "bad" foreigners are intended.

"If we had 2 million Englishmen or Swedes in Moscow, it would have been a prosperous city," said Ivanov-Sukharevsky, a former filmmaker.

The party's conventions resemble miniature versions of the Nazi gatherings of the 1930s, with torchlight processions and burning crosses. Young party members train in boot camps.

"Skinheads are the avant garde of white youth," said Tokmakov, 27, who plays a key role in recruiting skinheads into his party's ranks.

Skinheads are often portrayed in the media as children of working class families living in poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of big industrial centers. Poverty and poor education are believed to force disillusioned youths into skinhead groups.

"This stereotype is often not true. Skinheads are most often children of the former Soviet middle class, which slid into poverty during the economic reforms and could not fit into the new realities," Likhachev said.

"Since this movement has become popular, you can find many social groups among the skinheads, including children from very successful and wealthy families.

"Skinheads are only part of the problem. What is more important is a widespread xenophobia in society, that their actions find understanding rather than condemnation," he said.

The irony is that neo-Nazis can flourish in a country where tens of millions died fighting Hitler's armies. Viktor's grandfather, like most of his generation, fought the Nazis, but the two men nevertheless agree on some things.

"He doesn't like my badges but he agrees with me about the foreigners," Viktor said.