A photo posted by a Twitter account linked to Dmitri Mishin appears to show the Schneerson Center shooting suspect wearing a Nazi uniform.
A photo posted by a Twitter account linked to Dmitri Mishin appears to show the Schneerson Center shooting suspect wearing a Nazi uniform.

Disturbing Twitter account hints at motive of Schneerson Center shooter

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A complex and worrying portrait emerged this week from social media posts linked to the man who allegedly walked into a Russian Jewish center in San Francisco and opened fire last Wednesday night.

Dmitri V. Mishin, 51, faces charges for brandishing an “imitation” firearm, disturbing a religious gathering, and committing a separate unspecified felony, according to San Francisco jail records. He is alleged to have entered through the unlocked door of the Schneerson Center, a one-room gathering place and synagogue on Balboa Street, and fired between six and eight blank rounds as roughly 20 Jews sat studying around a table.

Many who watched surveillance footage of the incident published by local news outlets were shocked at the frightening nature of the scene — and many were also flabbergasted at the reaction of those at the table, many of them seniors from the former Soviet Union, who seemed to barely flinch when the firing began.

Rabbi Bentzion Pil said his first gesture was to ask the man, who spoke in Russian, to join their study group. When the shooting started, he said, the group was so shocked and the incident moved so quickly that they could barely react.

Meanwhile, a Twitter account created just months ago and linked to the suspect began to shed light on the possible mindset of the intruder. 

A plethora of posts celebrated Nazism, including photos of a man who looks like Mishin wearing Nazi military uniforms. One showed what appears to be blood on his face and in another the man holds an explosive. The account also had a photo of Nazi-era propaganda showing a caricature of a Jew, with the words (in German) “Danger — Jew!”

The posts, which were written mainly in Russian, also showed an interest in authoritarianism more broadly — including a North Korean propaganda film — and a fascination with Soviet and Russian culture and music. One post shared a patriotic post–World War II Soviet propaganda song. Some posts shared YouTube videos of Russian singers.

They also bore a strange element. In two posts, a man who looks like Mishin sits playing the balalaika, a traditional Russian string instrument. A gray parrot sits (and sometimes dances) on his shoulder — in one of the videos the man is wearing a mask that looks like the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Alon Chanukov, a 35-year-old programmer and a board member at the Schneerson Center, told J. he found the overt antisemitism in the social media posts disturbing and said the account “does not paint a picture of a person randomly doing this,” he said. “He’s targeting our synagogue.”

Mishin has faced a handful of criminal charges over the years including DUI, disorderly conduct and drug possession, according to a background check. The charges, many of them dismissed, spanned several Northern California rural counties going back to 1999.

The Schneerson Center, a synagogue serving mainly Russian-speaking Jews in San Francisco, was the site of an incident in which a man fired several blanks from a gun. (Photo/Google Maps)
The Schneerson Center, a synagogue serving mainly Russian-speaking Jews in San Francisco. (Photo/Google Maps)

Yet while these clues pointed to a person who has lived an itinerant life, members of the Schneerson Center said they learned that Mishin has been living just blocks from the center, near an area of the Richmond District sometimes called “Little Russia.”

“He lives five blocks away from our synagogue,” Chanukov said police told him. He found that piece of information “scary,” particularly if Mishin were to be released by authorities. He worries that he could come back.

“If all he gets is a slap on the wrist, maybe a few months in a correctional facility — at a certain point I lack the belief in a short-term solution,” Chanukov said.

Mishin’s posts suggest the Feb. 1 incident was not the first time he allegedly had been to the Schneerson Center. A video tweeted by the account on Jan. 29 shows the exterior of the building on Balboa Street at night. A small fire burns on the sidewalk. A caption says, roughly translated from Russian, “And the people extinguished the bomb.” A response came from someone on Twitter: “psychiatric hospital.”

Police said they believe Mishin is the same man who a day before the shooting brandished the same weapon at the Balboa Theater before fleeing on foot.

The incident has shaken up a relatively tight-knit community of traditional Jews, many of them Russian. “The Schneerson Center is a block away from our school. We’re in the same neighborhood, we have the same concerns,” said Rabbi Gedalia Potash, who runs the Bais Menachem Yeshiva Day School.

The students at the elementary school are Orthodox, many commuting from the outer reaches of the Bay Area, and many of the boys wear yarmulkes and tzitzit, ritual fringes, making them visibly Jewish in public. Last week students found a swastika drawn on Fulton Playground, a public playground they use for recess, and reported it to their teachers. 

“The kids noticed it first and understood exactly what it represents,” said Potash. “It was obviously very unsettling.”

While hate crimes targeting Jews have seen a steep rise in California over the past decade, most are nonviolent crimes involving vandalism or property damage. Meanwhile San Francisco has been dealing with a spate of violent hate crimes targeting Asians, many leading to serious injury and capturing the attention of local lawmakers

As a result of the shooting incident, the Schneerson Center has been forced to rethink its security protocols, even as many of its members are immigrants from the former Soviet Union not prone to anxious displays of security theater. The shul historically has prioritized being open and welcoming to all comers. 

If the police come, what will they do? They’ll just let the guy go. Then the guy will be more angry, and maybe come back again.

Security upgrades under consideration include reinforcing the center’s perimeter and updating its security cameras.

“We’re also thinking about whether we will have to move out of the building,” Rabbi Pil said, “whether we need to find a better building for security.”

Mishin remained jailed Monday, while Jewish community organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, issued public statements expressing gratitude to the FBI and the San Francisco Police Department for apprehending the suspect. The ADL said it would “continue to monitor” the matter as it makes its way through the criminal justice system.

And yet, the night the shooting occurred, members of the Schneerson Center didn’t even call the police — that only happened the next morning. In interviews in the days after the incident, synagogue leaders told J. some were skeptical that law enforcement’s response would be effective. 

“If the police come, what will they do? They’ll just let the guy go,” said Mattie Pil, the rabbi’s wife, trying to describe the mentality of those present. “Then the guy will be more angry, and maybe come back again.”

“That’s the Russian mentality,” she said.

Some at the Schneerson Center also wondered whether the case would lead to a diversion program rather than jail time. San Francisco has a well-established mental health diversion program for offenders with diagnosed mental illnesses. About one in five felony cases were diverted to mental health treatment in the city between 2009 and 2017, according to the district attorney’s office

“I don’t know if you can help someone who has Nazi propaganda on his page with some mental health [intervention],” Chanukov said.

The shooting did not do property damage or injure anyone, Chanukov said. Still, it was a jarring intrusion into an important spiritual refuge, one that made him and other Jewish immigrants from Russia feel welcome. 

“It’s scary. It’s terrorizing,” he said. 

“We have more services than any other synagogue in the city — every morning and every evening. There’s meals every Friday. Everyone is family,” he added. “It felt like home.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.