When I take the lift down from my flat in a standard Moscow suburban high-rise and go outside, it feels like I’m back home in Uzbekistan, as the caretakers, electricians and plumbers from the maintenance department all greet me with an ‘As-salaam alaykum! How are things? How’s the family?’ I know ten or so of the team of thirty who work in my area by name: Abdullazhon, the crew leader, and Malika, the cleaner, are both Uzbeks; Rustam the carpenter is from Tajikistan.
For most of the people who live here in Moscow the incomers are not individuals, but a mass, a swarm of aliens.
I was born in Uzbekistan, but have lived in Moscow for twenty years now. The stream of migrant workers from other former Soviet republics into Moscow, which in the last few years has grown into a flood, puzzles me, but doesn’t scare me as it does native Muscovites. If you’ve grown up in an ethnically mixed area you don’t think about people in racial terms, but as individuals – is someone a good or bad person, welcoming or cold, friendly or aggressive?
But for most of the people who live here in Moscow the incomers are not individuals, but a mass, a swarm of aliens with their own, unfamiliar, fantasies and myths. If you live here, this is something you come up against all the time. My mother in law, for example, lived in Tashkent for most of her life, but was recently really worried when some ‘suspicious Asians’ got into one carriage of our local train and then for some reason got out and went into a different carriage. Some of my friends automatically tense up at the sight of ‘non-Slav’ faces in buses, cafes and cinemas. And Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the phoney Liberal Democratic Party (which nevertheless has seats in Parliament) organises show raids on markets in search of ‘real Russians.’
The Biryulovo riots follow on from a heated mayoral election campaign, which saw all major candidates revert to some form of migrant bashing in the quest for votes. Indeed, against the backdrop opposition politican Alexei Navalny's more extreme policy positions, the Kremlin's vision of a "multi-ethnic" Russia seems decidedly tolerant. Photo (c) RIA Novosti/ Anton Denisov
‘We’ve had it up to here with these blacks’
What I think is very significant and symptomatic about the events at Biryulyovo is what happened after the ‘active phase’ and was barely registered by the media and the government. At night, as police and riot forces formed a cordon around the market, ordinary, sober local residents stood on the street, anxious to give their views on the events. It’s a long time since Russian TV reflected real life and real people’s opinions, but there were a few camera teams feeding live footage into the networks and the locals started approaching them.
There was no question of this being ‘staged’, which made it all the more revealing: Russian television, where nothing is ever unscripted, has long deprived us of live, uncensored programming. And these were actual ‘ordinary people’ – not nationalist party members or fanatics, not hooligan rioters – but what they said was shocking. ‘We’ve had it up to here with these blacks’, said an unnamed woman who described herself as working at the Lenkom Theatre. ‘We’re not trying to stir anything up’, her husband added, ‘We’re just Russians.’ They didn’t, however, go as far as condoning the rioters; they probably didn’t want to in front of the cameramen. But 80% of anonymous listeners to our most independent radio station, polled the next day, approved of their actions.
Where is all this xenophobic hysteria coming from?
This flood of ‘others’ into Russia has never happened before in all its history, and the country is having to deal with it at the worst possible moment. It is now over twenty years since the collapse of the USSR and its ‘internationalist’ ideology, shaky enough at the best of times, has long since vanished from memory. Any promotion of multicultural values disappeared years ago from our school curriculum and TV screens, and a generation of school drop-outs has grown up in Moscow’s gyms and doorways with no idea of where Tashkent, Ashkhabad or Tuva are, and who regard all ‘blacks’ as the same. It’s become the fashion to wear an orange and black St George ribbon [a recently revived Tsarist decoration] at the May 9th celebrations of the end of World War Two, but many young Russians don’t even know who fought against whom in that war. They certainly have no idea that Armenians, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Ingush died side by side with their grandfathers.
Our previous identity has well and truly disappeared and we don’t yet have a new one to replace it. The Soviet ideal of a brotherhood of nations has been forgotten; Putin and his cronies are the only people who harbour neo-imperial ambitions of ‘geopolitical influence’ over former Soviet republics; and most ordinary Russians feel no connection with its ‘family of nations’ or nostalgia for its lost ‘underbelly’.
Stalin, himself a non-Russian, often presented himself as the standard bearer for friendship between the Soviet nations. That internationalist position has long disappeared from a country increasingly hostile to immigrants.
Many young Russians don’t even know who fought against whom in the Second World War, and have no idea that Armenians, Uzbeks and Kazakhs died side by side with their grandfathers.
In fact, all the most dynamic Russians are migrating themselves: they are leaving the country, want to leave or have indeed already left. Tonnes of Russian brainpower have drained in a westerly direction; the country has lost most of its movers and shakers, who can find very little to do at home, and all that is left is the legion of ‘passive-aggressive’ public service employees and a few tens of thousands of ‘Bolotnyites’ [so-named after Bolotnaya Square, the scene of mass protests in 2012] who haven’t got round to splitting yet.
They have been replaced by those who want to work and earn, and who can’t make ends meet back home in their republics. This perfectly natural example of market forces is reinforced by the greed of the regime and business owners. Putin’s now fully-fledged infamous ‘vertical’ gave power not to the law, but to big money. Money only loves money: business doesn’t need workers; it needs slaves – hungry, defenceless, temporary, unpaid, downtrodden slaves.
Human relationships in this corruption-ridden country are built on advantage, profit and greed. As far as Muscovites are concerned, the migrants who come to live in their suburban estates are only good for one thing: you can let out your flat to them and live off the rent. Many (5-10%) have done so. The rest haven’t a hope – they lack the required upward mobility, police connections, capital and business acumen.
As far as Muscovites are concerned, the migrants who come to live in their suburban estates are only good for one thing: you can let out your flat to them and live off the rent.
Not having had any historical experience of dealings with foreigners, Moscow’s ‘native’ majority is uncritical of itself, but unbelievably prejudiced against people from anywhere else. A Muscovite will ignore local teenage gangs stealing and vandalizing in the ‘hood’, but freak out if he or she meets a Chechen in an alleyway at night. They will put up with all kinds of anti-social behaviour from people like themselves, but any ‘breach of local tradition’ by outsiders is considered a threat to their very existence.
The atmosphere in Moscow is always tinged with aggression, but it is now also heavy with ‘apolitical’ social rage: the slightest provocation sees anger and hatred taken out on a neighbour with a different skin colour or a stranger in the queue; but never on the regime, which is unfortunately still regarded by most people as sacrosanct. Which is why slogans such as ‘Stop Feeding the Caucasus’, and calls for visa regulations to be introduced for citizens of former Soviet republics are so popular.
Why Russians are racists
I am forced to the grim conclusion that Russians today are generally racist in both their political and social attitudes. This racism, however, springs not from any evil intent but from a number of external factors: sheer ignorance and lack of historical contact with people from other societies; government and opposition pandering to popular prejudice; TV that encourages indifference to other people’s problems; inane sketch shows that stereotype people from Central Asia as stupid and incompetent; the sham imitation that is Russian politics; the total scepticism of our judicial system. And the fact that no one values their own human dignity or sees themselves as human.
What can be done about this, and how it can be done – I have no idea. All I can do is teach my son, born in Moscow, a few elementary principles – there are no good and bad people; there are no chosen or damned nations. The Orthodox Church should probably also be teaching its flock that, in the words of St Paul, ‘Here there is no Greek or Jew…’; but instead, its official representatives go on about the need for ‘harsh, exemplary and inescapable punishment’.
The highest value, I tell my ten-year-old son, is human life. I wish we could hear something like this from our president. But no – it’s all pretentious claptrap about strengthening the state, and how someone somewhere is ‘getting off their knees’, and the daily brief mention on the TV News of another Uzbek citizen being knifed by persons unknown on the outskirts of Moscow. Unlike the death of an ethnic Russian at Biryulyovo market, there is no mention of a reward for information given to the police or hourly updates about the investigation being sent to the Interior Minister.
The migration of foreigners into Russia is inevitable, both now and in the future. The country simply must develop tolerance and a respect for the law, and must stop regarding the immigrants as alien and start respecting both others and themselves.
Can this happen? I hope so.