07.02.23 Review

Invisible Violence: unorganised extremism and hate becomes less visible as state repression increases

In their annual report, experts from the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis note that, according to data compiled from official statistics and media monitoring, there has been a marked decrease in the number of violent hate crimes against ethnic and sexual minorities, political activists, etc in Russia. However, there are several likely explanations for this trend: it is quite possible that some of the potential victims of such crimes left the country as a result of the war; the Russian media has generally lost interest in covering these issues; and, authorities have increased their intolerance and repression of these communities. As a result, those who identify as being a member of a vulnerable social group may fear attracting attention from law enforcement officials as much as they fear becoming victims of a targeted attack. In general, it may be possible to interpret the decrease in hate crimes as a sign that the extremist ideology of using violence against ideological opponents and minorities has morphed into state policy.

In 2022, Russia recorded an unprecedented fall in hate-motivated violence (or, acts of extremism), according to the latest annual report from the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis. Historically, SOVA has adopted two approaches to study Russian extremism: first, it examines the physical manifestations of this type of violence, as well as the authorities’ reactions to these events; second, it tracks instances when anti-extremist legislation has been misused for political purposes. This latest report uses data from their regular monitoring of incidents in which people have been attacked because of their race, faith, political preferences, sexual orientation, and so on. Their monitoring takes into account traditional news media, testimonies of victims, videos uploaded online, etc. It should be stressed that data may be inconclusive, or updated as new information becomes available. Moreover, an important limitation of SOVA’s methodology is that it cannot be applied to the North Caucasus region. 

The report states that, by the end of 2022, ideologically motivated violence in Russia had fallen threefold with just 22 incidents on record, compared to 68 in 2021. If we were simply to look at the levels of these crimes since 2004, we would see some obvious positive developments. For example, in the early 2000s, the number of violent incidents fluctuated between 400-600 cases each year. Over the last 12 months, 14 people were handed custodial sentences for hate-related crimes, and another 8 people received suspended sentences. There were a record number of sentences resulting in imprisonment in 2018, when 37 people were sentenced to jail. In 2021, there was a new record for the number of suspended sentences handed out for such crimes — 22 people.

However, we must interpret 2022’s figures within the context of the current Russian situation: hundreds of thousands of people have left, many of whom, in one way or another, could have become potential victims of these attacks. Moreover, ultranationalist groups have refocused their attention on Ukraine or, following in the footsteps of their objects of hatred, have left the country. This is in addition to the long term decline of media interest in hate crimes. Victims have become increasingly wary of reporting attacks to the police or seeking help from human rights organisations. As a result, there are fewer instances of police protection for victims of violence, which is reflected in the lower number of recorded incidents. This problem is particularly acute for members of the LGBT+ community, who have been effectively outlawed by the government.

The groups most at risk of becoming victims of crime are ideological opponents of the government, ethnic ‘outsiders’ and LGBT+ people. In 2022, these groups accounted for more than 80% of the victims of all hate crimes. Until 2016, ethnic ‘outsiders’ were, without question, the target of the majority of such crimes. However, the number of acts of violence targeting ethnic minorities has gradually decreased, coming into line with figures for ‘ideological opponents’. Up until 2022, the LGBT community was the only group that was being increasingly victimised, and these statistics coincided with the adoption and expansion of homophobic laws in Russia. Attacks on religious groups have been steadily declining. This change can most likely be attributed to changing attitudes within Russian society. Some religious groups have been subject to consistent and brutal persecution by the authorities; members of Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance, as well as numerous Islamist organisations and communities. Most likely, members of persecuted religious communities do not want to draw extra attention to themselves, since law enforcement poses no less danger to them than extremists do. This same factor, along with mass emigration, explains the sharp decline in reported crimes against the LGBT+ community, while another group that is highly unlikely to seek protection from the police are those who have been subjected to violence for their anti-war position.