The Race War in Russia’s Capital

How simmering ethnic hatred in Moscow exploded into violence.

Yan Sizov/Kommersant/Getty Images
Yan Sizov/Kommersant/Getty Images

MOSCOW — It’s been a sad Eid al-Adha this year for many of the Muslims living in Russia. On the eve of the holiday this year, police took to the streets of Moscow to arrest hundreds of illegal residents, many of them Muslims. As I followed the news I found myself recalling a recent conversation with my friend Magomed. Magomed, who hails from the southern republic of Dagestan, has nurtured a lifelong fondness for the Russian heartland — and it pains him to realize that many mainstream Russians often don’t reciprocate. He’s fond of Russian culture and the Russian language, and he’s happy that Dagestan became a part of Russia two hundred years ago. Like the many people from his part of the country who now live in Moscow, however, he speaks Russian with a perceptible accent, and his skin is darker than that of many European Russians. So despite his longing to be treated like other Russian citizens, his everyday experience tends to be somewhat contradictory: "If you’re a dark-skinned guy from the Caucasus, they assume you’re the enemy."

Ethnic tensions have been ratcheting up in Moscow lately, and last Sunday they exploded. The scene was a western suburb of the city known as Biryulevo, which has a large population of immigrants from the Caucasus. It’s a depressing industrial district without many attractions, it’s never had a subway station, and it’s notorious for its bad pollution — all reasons why immigrants have traditionally found it affordable.

It’s important to understand that most of the immigrants living on construction sites and markets all across the country are living in Russia illegally. They tend to come from cultures that stress close family ties, and they use those networks of trust to protect each other when they’re outside of their homes, a tactic that can often generate fear and mistrust amongst those excluded. Over the past decade, diaspora groups from places like the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia (especially Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), as well as the Russian territories in the North Caucasus (Dagestan and Chechnya), have monopolized the gypsy taxi network in the area. Others have established corrupt connections with local officials and businesses.

Instead of punishing corrupt employers for unlawfully taking advantage of low-wage workers, the Kremlin aims instead to close the borders — which, needless to say, will merely boost the demand for cheap labor and thus end up exacerbating the problem. The widespread sense that the immigrants often live by their own clannish rules also aggravates resentment. Simple xenophobia is a factor, too. Despite Russia’s long history as a multiethnic state, people from the Caucasus often look different from European Russians, and simmering discontent over current economic stagnation, inequality, and corruption can all too easily find itself transferred to the visible "others" within the community.

Biryulevo just needed a spark to set it off. Last week came the news that an Azeri immigrant had stabbed a young Russian man to death in the area. The initial failure of the police to nab the suspected killer additionally inflamed the situation. On Sunday afternoon, an angry crowd converged on the area’s huge vegetable warehouse, which is alleged to be a locus of criminal activity in the neighborhood. Rioters also broke into a shopping center famous for employing migrants, as seen in the photo above. The crowd, which included men, women, and teenagers, vowed to smoke the foreigners out of the area, and soon a full-fledged riot was under way. The rioters attacked anyone who looked "dark," beating some of them badly. Raging crowds burnt shops and cars and ruined stacks of market goods. The ground turned red from watermelon and tomato juice. Even when squads of police arrived by bus to club and detain riot participants, the rioters held their ground. In some cases, members of the angry crowd surrounded the policemen, who cowered under their riot shields.

Alexander Belov, one of the leaders of a popular nationalist movement known as "Russkie" ("Russians"), told me that the participants in the Biryulevo pogrom were ordinary, angry citizens, not activists of any organized groups. Belov told me that he’d been on the scene "to monitor and coordinate the people’s gathering." In his account, the locals had demanded action from the authorities, and, having received no response, proceeded to beat up the "blacks" (a slur often used for members of ethnic groups from southern Russia).

On Monday the authorities responded — but not by cracking down on the architects of the violence. Instead they went after the victims, detaining more than 1,200 immigrants from the south Caucasus and Central Asian countries. On Oct. 16, three days after the riots, the police caught up with the 25-year-old Azeri man suspected to be responsible for the killing. It says a lot about the current state of race relations that the police had no compunction about recording themselves beating him up before they put him on a helicopter and flew him back to Moscow.

The authorities’ only solution to the problem of ethnically motivated violence seems to be a crackdown on its targets, draconian reform of immigration laws, and the arbitrary arrest and deportation of hundreds of people. Such initiatives make leaders of the nationalist movements happy: finally, they say, the Kremlin has heard their calls to "cleanse" Russia of non-Slav faces. They were especially pleased by the announcement that the Moscow city government has decided to shut down the vegetable storehouse in Biryulevo, which has employed hundreds of immigrants for over a decade.

This week’s events show that the Kremlin has more tolerance for angry crowds fighting the police over ethnic hatred than they do for liberal opposition activists. Last year, prosecutors started criminal investigations against dozens of opposition activists; by contrast, only three hooliganism cases have been opened against organizers of the Sunday event. Politicians are scrambling over each other in their efforts to cater to the nationalist fervor. Lawmakers are considering banning foreigners from renting or buying real estate without a special permit. Anti-immigrant groups are also collecting signatures in support of instituting a visa regime for visitors from Central Asia and the South Caucasus. The opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is sometimes accused of pandering to the nationalists, supports the idea of immigration reform. But the solutions he proposes are based on reinforcing the rule of law by fighting corruption and creating conditions to prevent businesses from daring to use the cheap labor of illegal immigrants.

The nationalist Belov says he is happy to see how authorities meet the demands of the people who were behind the Biryulevo pogrom: "Unlike the liberal opposition, we don’t yell "Down with Putin!" he told me. "Instead we ask for solutions to concrete issues: to close markets run by ethnic mafias, to establish a visa regime for Central Asian immigrants and eventually for anybody who comes from the North Caucasus" — even though the North Caucasus is actually part of Russia.

Independent experts say that the crackdown on immigrants is actually rooted in politics. "The Kremlin is playing a dangerous game of compromise with Russian nationalists in order to distract public opinion from the real picture of Putin’s declining popularity," human rights activist Tanya Lokshina told me. "It’s always easier to create a foreign enemy than to fight corruption and improve the system." That is, of course, a tactic that could easily backfire.

 Twitter: @annanemtsova

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