Vandals defile 50 graves at Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg

st. petersburg, russia (ap) | Vandals defiled a Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg, painting swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti on about 50 graves, Jewish leaders said Monday, Feb. 16.

Mark Grubarg, head of the St. Petersburg Jewish Religious Community, said the vandalism occurred the night of Saturday, Feb. 14, at the cemetery, one of the largest Jewish burial places in Russia’s former imperial capital.

“We are in shock,” he said.

The cemetery had suffered some isolated cases of vandalism before, Grubarg said, but nothing approaching the scale of the latest incident.

“Any nation is sensitive to acts of vandalism at cemeteries but Jews are particularly sensitive, especially when it concerns fascist signs,” Grubarg said.

He said the defiled graves reminded him “of the early years of fascist Germany, where the genocide started exactly the same way.”

Vandalism of Jewish sites has become more frequent, he said, adding that it appeared to be an attempt to destabilize the city and nation ahead of the March 14 presidential elections, which President Vladimir Putin is expected to win in a landslide.

“I think our society should do everything possible to nip such things in the bud,” Grubarg said.

Prosecutors said they have launched a criminal investigation.

Anti-Semitic acts, including violence, are occasionally reported in Russia, but top Jewish leaders have praised the efforts of Putin’s government in encouraging religious tolerance.

The vandalism happened several days after a group of teenagers killed a 9-year-old girl from the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, unleashing a wave of indignation in the city and throughout Russia. People from Central Asia and the Caucasus — along with other ethnic minorities — regularly face discrimination and occasionally fall victim to hate crimes.