Russian activist with Bay Area ties slain in St. Petersburg

Nikolai Mikhailovich Girenko spent his career battling Russia’s anti-Semites and hatemongers, and it appears the battle has cost him his life.

The Russian scholar and activist, who was a longtime participant in the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal’s Climate of Trust program, was killed by a rifle-wielding assailant when he answered the door of his St. Petersburg apartment on the morning of Saturday, June 19. He was 64.

Girenko, who had worked at the St. Petersburg Museum of Ethnography and Anthropology since 1970, was often utilized as an expert witness in cases involving racist or xenophobic extremism, as the Russian legal system leans more heavily on the testimony of specialists. Many considered him to be Russia’s leading expert on extremism.

Girenko had served as an expert witness in a number of high-profile cases, including the investigation of the St. Petersburg-area skinhead group known as Schultz-88, which has led many to speculate that his killing was an act of retribution by extremists.

“He had a passionate belief in the need for people of all nationalities to work together,” said Greg Smith, the Bay Area Council’s vice chairman.

“He was deeply respected by everybody.”

Girenko had been a board member of the Climate of Trust program for the past five years. The partnership between the Bay Area Council and Russian organizations brought delegations of Russian police officers, prosecutors and activists (including Girenko) to the Bay Area for conferences on hate crimes and race relations, and, in turn, sent San Francisco police, prosecutors and activists to the former Soviet Union.

Though Girenko was not Jewish, he also served as a board member of the Harold Light Center, a Jewish human rights organization Smith described as “The Jewish Community Relations Council or Anti-Defamation League of Northwest Russia.”

While St. Petersburg law enforcement officials haven’t ruled out “hooliganism” in Girenko’s slaying, friends and colleagues are certain the shooting was the work of a radical hate group.

“I simply do not see any other possible reason,” Girenko’s boss at the museum, Yury Chistov, told the Moscow Times.

“Nikolai Mikhailovich was a scientist who combined his academic career with intensive public activities and dedicated considerable time to ethnic expertise, sometimes putting his own academic career on the back burner.”

Smith, who attended numerous conferences with Girenko, remembered him as a soft-spoken, deliberate and gentlemanly man, who spoke perfect English and answered questions thoughtfully and thoroughly.

His professorial manner was hugely effective in court.

“I remember Nikolai Mikhailovich during trials,” friend and sociologist Vyacheslav Sukhachev told the Moscow Times.

“On one side, aggressive, mad thugs. On the other side, a very calm and objective person who mockingly ignored frank boorishness and was always able to shut down a hysterical scandalmonger.”

The Bay Area Council is collecting donations in Girenko’s memory for the Harold Light Center Fund. Donations should be addressed to 459 Fulton St., S.F., CA 94102.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.