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RACIAL HOSTILITY IN RUSSIA SMACKS OF HITLER'S GERMANY

Elite shock troops stormed into a Moscow marketplace last month, rounded up all the dark-skinned males and herded them onto a bus, using rubber truncheons to silence anyone who complained.

In a raid-and-plunder operation that has now become a routine part of Russia's purported war on organized crime, the despised riot police tossed the produce peddlers onto the floor of the bus. They piled one person on top of another "like sacks," said Fazil Rustamov, 21, who like most of the vendors comes from the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.The officers searched every merchant, checking the registration papers that non-Muscovites are now required to carry and cleaning out all the cash in their pockets, Rustamov said.

When the merchants were released and returned to their stalls at Dorogomilovskaya market, they discovered that all of their fruit and vegetables had been carted away.

The police gave no explanation, and none was required. Longstanding harassment of people from the Caucasus Mountains region, the southern underbelly of the former Soviet Union, has intensified since Russia began its war to subdue the separatist republic of Chechnya.

"Russians now hate the Caucasians," Rustamov said. "And not just Caucasians - any other nationality, as long as your hair is black."

President Boris N. Yeltsin has said that all of Russia's problems are reflected in the Chechnya crisis "as in a droplet of water." War has certainly magnified racial hostility. It has become fashionable to compare today's Russia, with its feeble democracy, sickly economy and profound sense of insecurity, to Germany on the eve of Hitler's rise. Yet few seem alarmed by another striking similarity: the stereotyping, scapegoating and harassment of a "dark" people, the Caucasians.

Racism ran beneath the surface of the Soviet Union. Dictator Josef Stalin mercilessly deported entire ethnic groups, including Chechens, for alleged disloyalties that were never proven. Propaganda about socialist brotherhood among Soviet peoples never eliminated the reality that Russia often behaved as a patronizing "big brother" who bullied smaller ethnic groups.

But overt discrimination - except against Jews - was not tolerated. Ethnic minorities were encouraged to seek higher education and to join the Communist Party. Racism was viewed as a capitalist evil.

Many Caucasians say they never felt animosity from Russians or heard a racial slur until the Soviet Union began collapsing in 1990. Five years of political upheaval, economic collapse and ethnic strife have made nationality a potent and explosive issue.

Refugees from the old empire's new ethnic conflicts are no longer welcomed in Moscow. On an icy morning last month, a dozen Moscow police officers brandishing automatic rifles and clad in flak jackets rousted seven Caucasian refugee families from a condemned apartment building where they had taken shelter after fleeing the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.

"We're just `blacks' to them," said Alla Melikbashayeva, an ethnic Armenian, using the ugliest of Russian racial epithets. "We speak their language and read their literature, and they still regard us as savages from the South."

"They say we are lazy, that we steal, that we are parasites on the backs of Moscow," said Rosa Sumbatova, 71, a retired trading company worker. "For 45 years I slaved for this country, and now, because I'm from the Caucasus, I'm treated like a human being of the lowest sort."