MOSCOW — Artur Ryno had a knife and was looking to kill foreigners. He slipped into the space between two buildings near downtown Moscow and walked toward a janitor who was standing alone in the night air in April 2007. By the time the frenzy of hacks and thrusts was over, Khairullo Sadykov, a Tajik, lay crumpled on the ground with dozens of stab wounds.
About three hours later, Ryno encountered Karin Abramyan, an Armenian businessman, and pulled out his knife. Abramyan's body later was found with knife wounds to the head, stomach and chest.
Human rights groups say that Ryno, who was 17 when he was arrested, is just one of an untold number of thugs who've hunted migrant laborers and immigrants on the streets of Russia.
In the first six months of this year, 69 people were killed in ethnic and racially motivated attacks across Russia, just below the 74 recorded for all of last year, according to the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights. Another organization that tracks the killings, the Sova Center, counts 59 killed for the first half of 2008, well above 2007, when it counted 83 murders for the whole year.
Because Russian security forces don't release comprehensive statistics on the attacks, there's no standardized method of tracking the violence, which usually targets darker-skinned migrants from former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. Human rights groups rely in large part on reports from the field and news accounts.
The murders have centered on the nation's capital, where ultranationalist groups are growing more vicious, many people say. The groups post videos on the Internet showing random attacks: Packs of young Russians ambush non-Slavic-looking men, kicking and punching them until they fall to the ground, cowering but still alive.
Subway stops and the areas near them often are chosen because they offer a quick escape, said Vladilen Bokov, the head of the Moscow city department on inter-ethnic relations. "You can flee easily. They make it a kind of entertainment . . . as a sort of fun," Bokov said.
In some cases, the teenagers and men carrying out the beatings have been affiliated with ultranationalist groups that sponsor "fitness clubs" or youth meetings that often offer training in hand-to-hand combat and include members with swastika tattoos. It's a culture that scorns "chyorni," the Russian word for black, which many Russians use in various forms to refer to all people with darker skin. While there's no proof of a connection with the violence, the groups virulently oppose the influx of migrants to Russia.
After years of relatively little action, the Russian government is taking the problem more seriously, cooperating with migrant-advocacy groups and prosecuting street gangs that hunt foreigners, said Gavkhar Dzhurayeva, the head of the Migration and Law Center, a Moscow-based migrant-worker rights and legal aid organization.
As a result, Dzhurayeva said, the number of attacks has dropped as the gangs go underground, but the manner in which people are attacked "has become more demonstrative. It has become more cruel."
After his arrest, Ryno confessed to participating in 26 or 27 attacks on non-Russians during an eight-month rampage from 2006 to 2007 that killed 20 people, according to his attorney, Yuri Yefimenkov.
Russian officials later charged Ryno and another teenager — who allegedly was with him during the Sadykov and Abramyan killings — with leading a group of seven other youths accused of 20 murders and 12 attempted murders. While Russian authorities wouldn't allow McClatchy to interview the teens, who await indictment, Ryno's attorney described details of the killings based on court records and his conversations with Ryno.
Leaders of two of the nation's more notorious ultranationalist groups predicted in interviews with McClatchy that the violence will worsen significantly in coming years. They say it's driven by paranoia about a drop in Russia's Slavic population amid a rising tide of migrant labor and immigrants. Millions of people have migrated to Russia — estimates range from 5 million to 20 million — while the Russian population has declined dramatically, by 2.8 million people from 2002 to 2006 alone, according to state statistics.
"I don't fight any specific person, but I fight the possibility that Russia could be a Muslim country in 20 years," said Dmitry Dyomushkin, the head of the Slavic Union, one of the ultranationalist groups. "You know, there are a lot of clashes now, and one big conflict might be enough to spread the fighting across Russia."
Dyomushkin denies any connection with violence, but he said that Ryno — an art student studying to paint religious icons — and others from his group attended Slavic Union meetings.
Dyomushkin's group sent a lawyer to defend Nikolai Korolev, the leader of another group of Russian youths, who were convicted this year of bombing a Moscow market that's popular with vendors from the Caucasus region and Central Asia, killing about a dozen people. Lawyer Dmitry Bakharev said that Korolev had joined the Slavic Union only after the August 2006 blast.
Dyomushkin's group and the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, known by its Russian initials DPNI, sponsor or provide trainers to "fitness clubs" that teach young Russians close-quarters combat skills and, in some cases, basic lessons in handling explosives, ostensibly to ready them for service in the military. Neither group would allow McClatchy to visit the clubs.
"We try to teach them the basics of staying secure, but we cannot guarantee that a small number of them won't use the skills we teach them to commit crimes," said Alexander Belov, the leader of the DPNI. "It's the same as accusing a knife manufacturer of something when someone uses their knife to kill someone instead of cutting meat."
Human rights experts say that it's very difficult to know the relationship, if any, between groups such as Slavic Union and DPNI and the street killings.
"As for the blasts and killings, any groups that are responsible are autonomous. They are acting on their own," said Bakharev, the Slavic Union member and lawyer.
The organizations are structured in a loose network in which the Slavic Union and DPNI act as political and organizing arms, not unlike Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, but they don't seem to issue direct orders to the smaller units of skinheads or other radicals, said Dmitry Dubrovsky, a senior research fellow with the Russian Museum of Ethnography in St. Petersburg who works as an expert witness for the city's police and prosecutor's departments.
"Nobody says to them, go to the streets and kill the blacks," Dubrovsky said, meaning people with darker skin. "It's the ideology of 'We should remove the blacks from the streets,' but the tool for removing them is up to the smaller groups."
Bokov, the Moscow city official, said he didn't think the murders could be traced to the larger nationalist fronts.
"The leaders of these big organizations have no control over these small groups," Bokov said, adding that he thought that many attacks that were counted as hate crimes in fact were provoked by personal feuds. "Of course, these big organizations and their rhetoric contribute to the worsening of the situation."
Many suspect that the nationalist groups are aided by relationships with Russian security officers.
"There is no proof at all of any systematic support," said Galina Kozhevnikova, the deputy director of Sova, the human rights group in Moscow. "But I think that they probably have personal ties with police. There are in all likelihood many within the police who agree with them and who work with them."
Bakharev, the Slavic Union lawyer, agreed.
"There are quite a lot of people in law enforcement who support the nationalists," Bakharev said. He later added that, "The number of groups is growing . . . and their methods are getting tougher month to month."