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Moscow: City of Xenophobia

It is not in the provinces, but in Russia’s comparatively liberal capital, where resentment of migrants reaches its peak.

by Pal Kolsto 26 July 2013

Moscow is buzzing with heated discussions on immigration and immigration policies. A frequent argument is that Russian culture is being eroded, and Muscovites now feel that they are strangers in their own city. To some extent this rhetoric echoes debates in other European cities – but, in the Russian capital, views that in Western Europe would be deemed beyond the pale may be expressed publicly. For instance, some Russians hold that Vladimir Putin’s regime has had a clear purpose in admitting millions of immigrants from alien cultures: to dilute the Russianness of the Russian people, in a strategy to cling to power.


The topic has made its inevitable way into the current mayoral campaign.


In his campaign manifesto, opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, the dark horse in the race, argues that migrants must be not only allowed but even encouraged to integrate. To that end, he calls for the establishment of special centers in Moscow where their children can learn Russian.


Sergey Sobyanin
More hard-line is the rhetoric of incumbent Sergey Sobyanin, who, in a May interview with Moskovskie novosti, said he wanted the migrants to go home.


“If anyone should stay, it should first and foremost be Russophones with a culture that adequately meets our traditions. The compatriots, as we often call them,” he told the newspaper. “For people who speak Russian poorly, who have a very different culture, it is better to live in their own country. Therefore, we do not welcome their adaptation (adaptatsia) to Moscow.”


Immigrants from Central Asia, then, do not become  “Russophones” even if they learn to speak Russian fluently since “Russophone” for the Moscow mayor is a cultural and not a linguistic category. This places immigrants who want to stay in Moscow in a Catch-22 situation: they are expected to be bearers of Russian culture, but if they don’t have it, they should not even try to acquire it. We also note that Sobyanin does not distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants.


Such ideas are presented also in the pro-Western press that generally adheres to a democratic orientation. Moreover, a recent opinion poll shows that xenophobic ideas resonate among considerable segments of the population. Remarkably, such attitudes are encountered more often in the Russian capital than in the rest of the country.


Central Asian jobseekers, Moscow-350Central Asian job-seekers in Moscow. Photo from the IRIN news agency.


An increasingly frequent sight in Moscow is that of first-generation immigrants from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia working at poorly paid menial jobs. These people are regarded as carriers of an alien culture, even though they hail from countries that as recently as 25 years ago were part of the same state as Russia. The Russian language was a mandatory subject in these countries’ schools, and the pupils were raised in the same Soviet culture as the Russians. Even so, the Central Asians were never fully integrated into the Soviet way of life. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cultural distance between them and ethnic Russians has increased further. Fluency in Russian is deteriorating rapidly, since the school systems in many of these countries have been severely degraded – along with the economy in general. When so many Central Asians today head for Moscow, the reason is almost invariably that the chances of finding a job at home are virtually nil. The wife and children are left behind, to live off the remittances Dad sends home.


The apprehensive tenor in the immigration debate in the Russian capital is all the more remarkable since Moscow is one of the most ethnically homogeneous big cities in Europe. In the 2010 census, as many as 92 percent declared their ethnicity as Russian, as against only 78 percent nationwide. This makes Russia one of the few states in the world in which the capital is more ethnically homogeneous than the rest of the country. However, the official figures do not tell the whole story. The gastarbeitery (guest workers) do not have Russian citizenship and often go undetected by the census takers. How many they are is anybody’s guess.


As a legacy of the Soviet period, Central Asians do not need a visa to enter Russia. More often than not, they fail to acquire an official work permit when they arrive. Labor immigration is regulated by quotas that are far too small to meet the demand – among Central Asian work-seekers as well as among Russian employers. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s population has shrunk, and the country desperately needs extra work hands, for unskilled labor in particular. With Central Asians coming in droves, unscrupulous employers go on illegally hiring labor migrants who have no work permit, paying them a pittance on no contract. Often these workers live in shacks that they rent at exorbitant prices. They have become a clear underclass deprived of basic rights.


Protests against immigration have long been a recurrent theme among right-wing Russian nationalists. Tellingly, one of the largest nationalist organizations is The Movement Against Illegal Immigration (Russian acronym DPNI), banned two years ago for inciting national enmity. Many of its ideas live on and are spread among ever new groups – as seen in the huge anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow one and a half years ago when many of their slogans featured. Before DPNI was banned, Navalny expressed sympathy with its goals and a desire to cooperate with the organization.


Articles by the highly respected journalist Yulia Latynina of the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy likewise indicate how entrenched skepticism to immigration has become in the democratic camp. In 2008 Latynina was awarded the American Freedom Defenders Award (presented by Condoleezza Rice) for her investigative journalism. In a July 2012 commentary for the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper – titled “What is happening to my nation? It is dying before my eyes” – Latynina lamented that every day when she walked the streets of Moscow, she would hear people speaking languages other than Russian. “I see dark-skinned Asian faces and feel like a white planter in Jamaica, surrounded by slaves with another language and culture,” she wrote.


The Putin regime, Latynina argued, lets immigrants from Central Asia into Russia as part of a strategy to cling to power: “Prior to elections, the street sweeper from Tajikistan is hurriedly granted citizenship and is bussed to the polling station where he votes for his beloved Putin. The Central Asian mentality even more than the Russian mentality, predisposes people to venerate the Khan.” Latynina’s solution to the problem she claims to have identified is simple and radical: “When a new government takes over in Russia, the first thing it must do it to send home all [migrant] workers engaged in slave labor.” (emphasis in the original).


Latynina’s opinion piece cannot be easily dismissed as idiosyncratic rambling: it expresses viewpoints that are widespread in Moscow. This is clearly shown in a recent survey of 600 respondents in Moscow and 1,000 nationwide carried out in May by the polling institute ROMIR in Moscow on behalf of an Oslo-based research project (“Nation-building and nationalism in today’s Russia,” financed by the Research Council of Norway). The survey documents not only the extent of xenophobia in the Russian capital, but also that such attitudes are more common there than elsewhere in Russia. That was not expected: xenophobia is commonly assumed to be more frequent among groups with less income and education, whereas Muscovites have higher levels of education and considerably more money than the average Russian. On the other hand, the influx of labor immigrant has been stronger in Moscow than elsewhere; while there are proportionately more (ethnically) non-Russians in other parts of the country than in the capital, they are for the most part members of national minority groups with deep historical roots in Russia. In Moscow by contrast, the non-Russians to a much larger degree are non-citizens, gastarbaitery.


Asked if the quota restrictions for the hiring of immigrant workers ought to be lifted, only 12 percent of the Moscow respondents in the survey agreed (fully or to some degree), whereas as many as 82 percent were opposed (fully or to some degree). This opposition was considerably higher than in the national survey, where 58.6 percent said they were opposed to a liberalization of the labor immigration regime. Further, 28 percent of the national sample, but only 15 percent of the Muscovites surveyed, felt that all immigrants and their children should be granted permanent residence in Russia. More than half of the Moscow respondents – 53.3 percent – said immigrants and their children ought to be sent home. By contrast, only 43 percent of the nationwide sample thought so.


Asked whether they believed that the immigrants represent some kind of threat to Russia, only 8 percent of the Muscovites answered “no,” whereas 25 percent associated them primarily with terrorism and thieving. Another 14 percent feared that immigration would lead to interethnic and religious hostility or violence, and 16 percent that it would undermine the Russian economy. (These questions were not formulated in the same way in the national survey.)


Anti-immigration sentiments are combined with hostility toward Islam and with ethnocentric attitudes. Among the Muscovites surveyed, 74 percent agreed, fully or to some degree, that Islam represents a threat to Russian culture and to social stability in the country; in the national sample, only 25 percent agreed fully and 35 percent to some degree. Of the Moscow sample, 64 percent opined that ethnic Russians ought to play “a leading role in the Russian state.” The national average was considerably lower, at 47 percent.


In Moscow, then, there is significant potential for populist politicians to exploit the fears of an invasion of culturally alien immigrants as the city heads into the September mayoral election.

Pal Kolsto is a Russian studies professor at the University of Oslo.

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