Driven by crushing poverty, a lingering sense of humiliation after the collapse of the Soviet Union and outrage over Chechen separatist terror attacks, Russia's skinheads are becoming increasingly organised, violent and numerous.

A report claims Russia's youth is embracing the ideology their grandparents fought against so implacably, and that Russian skinheads, or britogolovy, now account for almost half the world's "skins".

Adhering to a blend of neo-Nazi ideology and rabid Russian nationalism, Russian skinheads are among the most violent, and have staged a wave of savage attacks on non-Russians and children as young as 5 in the past year, leaving many of their bleeding victims to die slowly.

Forty-four people were killed in racially motivated murders last year, more than double the previous year, human rights activists say. Many perpetrators were young, white skinheads shouting neo-Nazi or nationalist slogans. They rarely shoot their victims, preferring to stab them repeatedly or beat them to death with chains or knuckle-dusters.

The odds are always stacked in their favour because they hunt in packs of at least three and pick vulnerable targets. Their ranks seem only to swell, from about a dozen in the early 1990s to up to 60,000 today.

The report, How to quell the neo-Nazi setbacks in a country that defeated fascism, was produced by the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights and is among several that throw the spotlight on a dark underbelly of Russian society the authorities would have you believe barely exists. It comes at a time when Russia is celebrating its part in liberating the victims of the Nazi concentration camps.

"Today in Russia there are 50,000 skinheads at the very minimum while in the rest of the world, including America, Europe and other countries, there are about 70,000," says Semyen Charny, the report's author. The real number could be much higher, he adds, because neo-Nazi groups actively try to keep their organisations secret.

If nothing is done to combat the skinhead menace, experts warn that their numbers could swell to 100,000 within a few years.

With names such as "Blood and Honour", "Moscow Hammer Skin", "United Brigades 88" (H is the eighth letter in the alphabet. HH stands for Heil Hitler!), and "Skin Legion", there are estimated to be up to 10,000 in Moscow and perhaps 5000 in St Petersburg.

Their code is simple: they don't drink vodka (beer is the Aryan drink), they do not do drugs, they do not do petty crime (only murder and assault), they are supposed to have a good knowledge of Russian culture and to be able to hold their own in a 15-minute fight. Girls are welcome and are often used to spot targets without attracting attention.

But what unites them above all is a hatred of foreigners, in particular of anyone with dark features hailing from the Caucusus region of southern Russia or from Asia or Africa.

The views of Semyon Tokmakov, a convicted skinhead who brutally attacked a black US Marine in Moscow seven years ago and still espouses skinhead rhetoric, is typical. "Why have they [foreigners] all come here?" he asked. "They bring nothing but drugs and Aids. Every day they harass and steal our women."

Neither do skinheads make any distinction between children and adults or the young and the old. In St Petersburg, a crucible of skinhead activity, a 9-year-old Tajik girl was murdered last year and her case was no exception. Hurshida Sultanova was stabbed to death in front of her father by a group of about 10 skins. She was knifed 11 times.

When asked whether he felt sorry for the murdered Tajik girl, Tokmakov did not bat an eyelid. "When you kill cockroaches you don't feel sorry for them, do you?"

In recent years, experts say, the skinheads' methods have become far more brutal. "They now use screw drivers and knives and increasingly their attacks end in murder," Sergey Belikov, a specialist in "skins", told the weekly Argumenty i fakty. "Earlier, there was an unspoken rule to leave children and the old alone. That has been abandoned. The first wave of skinheads [in the early 1990s] could be called simple hooligans. Today's are professional killers."

Many "skins" look up to Alexander Sukharevsky, the leader of the far-right National People's Party. Party members favour the Nazi salute and wear black armbands featuring a Russian swastika-like cross.

Sukharevsky preaches the politics of hate, believing that the white race is under attack from a tide of non-white foreigners. He has admitted that his movement thrives on Russia's post-Soviet social problems. "They [recruits] come themselves," he has said. "They are like small moths; they are so defenceless, these skinheads, and are very vulnerable.

"Nearly all of them are from poor families; they are a product of society's disease. We are forced to raise them like fathers and mothers do because nobody has ever raised them or taught them anything. They are the future of our country."

Sukharevsky is also deeply anti-semitic. He openly laments that Hitler did not succeed in "liberating Russia from the yoke of Jews".

Experts say wannabe skinheads are soaked in a culture of neo-Nazi and revisionist literature and white power music. They favour greetings such as "Heil Hitler!" or "Hail Russia!" and their favourite battle cries include "Forward Russians!" and "Russia for the Russians!"

They tend to hang about in each other's homes or in abandoned buildings and communal areas on the outskirts of Russia's big cities. Some crime analysts have claimed that they sometimes have links to, or are the same as, Russia's home-grown football hooligans, singling out Moscow's Spartak and TsKA teams as their favourites.

This theory gained credence in 2002 when Japan ejected Russia from the World Cup, starting a riot in central Moscow with cars set alight, shops attacked and passers-by beaten. Many saw the hands of the skinheads behind what looked like a well-planned riot.

Some say Russia's skinhead problem is a product of society's general malaise. Alla Gerber, head of the Holocaust Fund, has said she believes the problem is getting out of control. "Society is sick with xenophobia. Like a cancer it is spreading through the country."

She says surveys show 28 per cent of adult Russians want to bring back special settlements for Jews and 48 per cent are in favour of curbing the rights of national minorities.

Alexander Brod, head of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, believes almost two-thirds of the population believe that "Russia is for the Russians and all misfortunes stem from foreigners".

APRIL 20, Hitler's birthday, is always a time of increased tension in Russia since skinheads have promised to mark the occasion "by killing African or Asian people". The human rights group Sova said that last year, citizens from at least 24 different countries were attacked on different dates and that the method rarely varied.

"As a rule, such crimes have common characteristics: the victims have a non-Slav appearance and will be attacked by a group of teenagers not usually numbering less than five. The victim will be kicked, beaten with baseball bats and, if the attackers are fewer than five, will usually be stabbed."

The skinheads have become frighteningly well organised, targeting human rights activists, lawyers and academics who oppose them.

Last June they murdered Nikolai Girenko, an anti-skinhead expert, in an attack apparently designed to punish him for his work in helping convict young neo-Nazis. Girenko acted as a special adviser to the public prosecutor in St Petersburg in high-profile race-hate cases. He was shot through his flat door with a sawn-off shotgun.

He was best known for his work in the trial of three youths accused of the racist murder of an Azerbaijani man in 2002. He was subject to many death threats and the communal entrance hall to his building was daubed with fascist and racist graffiti including, inevitably, the swastika. A shadowy far-right group called "Russian Republic" claimed responsibility for the murder.

The toll of skinhead victims is staggering. Last October, a 20-year-old Vietnamese student, Vu Anh Tuan, was stabbed to death in St Petersburg, prompting students to demonstrate against far-right violence.

Last September, St Petersburg skinheads attacked Tajiks. Armed with knuckle-dusters and metal rods, 10 to 12 "skins" fell on a group of women and children described in the media as "Tajik Gypsies" at a railway station. Five-year-old Nilufar Sangbaeva died on the spot and a 6-year-old girl died later. One attacker said they wanted "to cleanse our land of gypsies". They were sentenced to up to 10 years in jail.

This month, several high-profile Jews were attacked in Moscow, and a Jewish cemetery in St Petersburg was desecrated. Again this month, a man with Uzbek features was murdered in provincial Russia and a man from the Caucusus knifed to death in Moscow.

Many skinheads say they resort to violence because they are bored. In Voronezh, a university town 480km south of Moscow which has an unusually high number of racist attacks, Amaro Antonio Limo, a 24-year-old medical student from Guinea Bissau, was stabbed to death last year.

"We were bored so we decided to go down to Mir [Peace] St where there are many foreign hostels and kill a black," said one skinhead. "It didn't matter to us which country he came from."

Russian authorities say the problem is grossly exaggerated and all countries have similar elements, but activists disagree. Russia's bovver-boy problem is, they say, a direct result of society's problems: high unemployment, low wages and grim prospects for many young people.

"When there are such economic and other hardships there are usually two ways of dealing with it," Brod of Moscow's Human Rights Bureau says. "The first is to reflect, and the second is to look for an enemy and blame him for your problems. Unfortunately, Russia has chosen the second path."