What happened to the multinational Russia?

Nationalism grows increasingly stronger in Russia and it is a fact that xenophobia is gaining grounds in society today. “It is no longer just skinheads and radicalised young men shouting: ‘Attack the black people!’” So do the women with grocery bags, writes journalist Natalya Afanasyeva. She asks the question: what is the basis for today's xenophobia?

December 19 2013 Text: Natalya Afanasyeva

An ethnic riot happened in Moscow's uptown district of Birulyevo in the beginning of October. This wasn't the first incident of its kind in Russia, but for the first time even Russian mass media used the word “pogrom”. Locals took it to the streets demanding the investigation of a young man’s murder. The video recording, it was said, showed that the murderer was of “non-Slavic” ethnicity (later the suspect, a citizen of Azerbaijan, was arrested). Afterwards, the crowd commenced beating all “non-Russians”. There are many migrants in this district of Birulyevo which is an industrialized zone, a kind of Moscow “ghetto”. In an act of revenge, the dwellers of Birulyevo started crushing a shopping mall and a vegetable storage facility, where mostly migrants have been working. Police could hardly keep the raging crowd under control.

After this incident it was clear to all that privately evolving national xenophobia in Russian society reached a critical phase.

The first wave of nationalistic riots was detected by Russian sociologists in the end of the nineties, which was a new trend for our country. It became an especially strong tendency in Moscow, where almost 40 percent of migrants end up. People arriving to the capital could read to their surprise in rental adverts that properties were let “only to Slavs”, or “to Russians only”. In everyday life, words like “black” became ordinary—that's how Muscovites call people with dark hair, predominantly from Caucasus. Later words like “Tajik” or “Uzbek” came into fashion—and in this case it means not nationality, but a pejorative universalized label for a migrant worker from Central Asia. Today even in mainstream media they are called “illegals”, which puts them outside of a legal field, even though the most of migrant workers work and live in Russia quite legally.

In September last year, when Moscow's mayoral elections were held, most of candidates used nationalistic undertones as their main trump card in their campaigns. Authorities and the opposition united in their hate towards migrants promised to “clean out the city” to Muscovites. They knew how to get their voters to like them.

When asked what they would name as the biggest problem of Moscow, most of the Muscovites answered: “migrants”. Apart from that, Moscow rarely leaves the top-5 of the most expensive cities in the world, tops the rating of social inequality in Russia, the problem with traffic is about to reach its tolerable peak, and waiting in queues to place your child in a kindergarten can take dozens of years. It turns out that corruption, public transport problems, safety, ecology and social difficulties bother people much less than “aliens”.

They come from ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan to make some money to feed their families. Migrants don't claim citizenship or social benefits, they take jobs locals don't want: in construction, storage facilities, cleaning of streets. Moreover, considering the fact that Russia has a lack of labour force.

They are ready to take jobs with miserable pay and up to 20 people would share a room or a basement. These people, most commonly, are hardworking and industrious, and they, unlike Russian proletarians, don't drink, don't make noise and do their best not to go out at all in order to avoid meeting the police, who mercilessly demand bribes from them. Nevertheless, these people summon hate and totally irrational fear, which Muscovites are not ashamed to hide anymore.

Obeying and without basic rights, workers from Central Asia rank only second on the hate-list. Number one is the Caucasus, especially Chechnya and Dagestan. The fact that they are still the citizens of our country causes even further irritation.

People from the Caucasus in Moscow were treated differently during Soviet times too. Back then, problems were trivial and private dealings. Traditionally, Soviet stereotypes were meant to treat the Caucasians as traders and freeloaders, taking up the rent from the resort towns. Today, such envious concepts have transformed into slogans such as “Stop feeding the Caucasus,” which brought much popularity to the current leader of opposition, Alexey Navalny. Although the most recent figures show that more than 30 percent of people living in the Caucasian republics earn less than 9,000 roubles (around US$ 300), and Dagestan was declared the poorest region of Russia.
In the depth of this hate is most certainly the long war in the Caucasus. What's interesting is that 70 percent of Russians think that the First and Second Chechen Wars were unfair on behalf of Russians. “Most Russians deem the Caucasian wars to be pointless and useless and impossible to stop them. Here lies the internal controversy, which still cannot be resolved and which results in the sense of helplessness and irritation”, tells the leading sociologist Lev Gudkov.

All this is reinforced, of course, with the inflow of migrants from the poorest republics in the Caucasus, who bring their cultural and behavioural patterns which the “local” citizens are not at peace with. Although, if one would ask Muscovites to name the cultural features that are incompatible with their lives, they get confused and start naming their fears. The most ridiculous accusation that is usually thrown at Caucasians in Moscow—they dance the Lezginka on our streets. During the heat before the elections, Alexey Navalny even promised to ban this very unique dance from being performed in public. What is even more absurd is that I personally, for instance, have never seen anyone dancing the Lezginka on the streets.

The myth of ethnic delinquency is being actively inculcated. If a certain participant during the incident happens to be from a non-Russian, especially a Caucasian family, you can be certain that this news item will not leave the front page.

Intelligent, educated people, who cannot confess to being xenophobic, love to justify themselves by saying, “Diasporas pay bribes, and purchase their criminals in court”.

Caucasians, being closer to eastern people, are indeed traditionally more cohesive, more organized, a fact that in many cases serves as a countermeasure for hatred by the locals. “However, corruption—the most important and most destructive of Russia's problems, bribes are paid by all who can. Bribes are undoubtedly received without any discrimination—from people of all nationalities”, says Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the “SOVA” centre for information and analysis. Expert opinion suggests, that these are prejudices on which every kind of xenophobia hangs.

Hostility towards a certain ethnic group is not directly related to its actual behaviour, believes leading Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov: “xenophobia is the projection of personal aggression and dissatisfaction on others”.

So what happened with the multinational country that takes pride in the fact that it saved the world from fascism? Only 20 years have passed since the collapse of Soviet Union, where we all lived together. “A fundamental transformation of society always generates uncertainty and disorientation. Speaking about our country this has been strengthened by the fact that people lost their place in reality, a requirement for self-respect. Russians continue losing their sense of national pride and personal pride. People depend heavily on the attitude towards the authorities and feel vulnerable in the face of arbitrariness and violence. But all this increases inner pressure. The aggression spills out onto 'others'. Xenophobia is an attempt of self-affirmation through antipathy towards others”, explains Gudkov. In a recent report about global welfare, compiled by Credit Suisse bank, Russia ranks as having some of the highest wealth inequality within the population, and being outranked only by a number of small governments in the Caribbean Sea.

According to expert data, in present day Russia 110 billionaires hold 35 percent of all the wealth. The economy totally depends on oil and gas production. Soviet infrastructure is rapidly wearing out, which is confirmed by numerous industrial disasters. Authorities do not conceal the coming stagnation and pruning of the budget.

The state has spent billions for the Sochi Olympics which brings only disadvantages to citizens. Volunteers make charity fundraising to help flooded Russia’s Far East. People start feeling strongly irritated and robbed by their government. But they see no way out. Most of us remember starvation and unsettled life in the 90s, trying to capture a subtle and illusive sense of stability. This is why it is very important to have an enemy. An enemy who was working during the Cold War is not effective nowadays because most of Russians travel around the world and see normal people. But a hate to “aliens” turned out to be the quickest and best answer to trivial principle of “divide and rule”.

Several years ago, it was said by sociologists that in spite of the fact that xenophobia and ethnic hate is quite spread in the society, it was still not radical nationalism and was treated with fear.

“Organized groups such as skinheads are not supported up by society. They are met with abrasion and are associated with a threat to a subtle stability,” experts said in 2010.

These years passed and Birulyevo showed that times have changed. It is no longer just skinheads and radicalised young men shouting: ‘Attack the black people!’ So do the women with grocery bags. Violent comments on social networks were treated with permissiveness. Authorities supported such speeches and mass police raids began against “illegals” after the “pogrom”. Markets were closed and deportations ordered.

And all this holds out a hope for people to listen to one another and understand that the problem is separate from real life problems. All this hate sets people against each other. Violence in a Russian society has become aggressive and is spreading. I sometimes find myself thinking that I would be relieved if my son looked like my father—a blonde—because it is uncomfortable to be “black” in today’s Russia.