On the surface, the riot in Biryulyovo, a working-class district in southern Moscow populated by a heavy mix of Russians and migrants, reveals the extent of Russian racism toward migrants, especially Muslims, and particularly North Caucasians. But writing off this latest ethnic explosion as mere racism brushes over the complexities of Russianness in a country that has been ruled by a multiethnic state since its inception. To understand Russian nationalism, even racism, you need to realize that despite their political, cultural and numerical dominance, many Russians see themselves a nation without a state.
The multiethnic character of the Russian state has always precluded Russians from becoming the first among other ethnicities. During the Soviet period in particular, Russians were the unmarked Soviet people, their national identity suppressed, and at times, Russians were legally discriminated against. Non-Russian people, in contrast, had their own ethnically demarcated territories, organizations and celebrated traditions. This persists today. Chechens and Tatars, among others, have their own autonomous territories, while there is no definable Russia for Russians. Historically, the state has been paramount, and this central rule, according to the historian Geoffrey Hosking, came “at the cost of Russia’s own sense of nationhood.” This legacy underlines today’s Russian ethnic violence.
The Biryulyovo riots should be read first and foremost as a protest against the multiethnic state. Through the hatred for the migrant, the riots represent a political demand that Putin’s state represent them as Russians against non-Russians. Many Russians believe that the police stand idle while migrants kill, rob and rape Russians, either because they’re paid off or incompetent. Every Russian ethnic riot over the last decade (Kondopoga in 2006, Manezh in 2010, Sagra in 2011 and Pugachev earlier this year) was ignited by similar sentiments.
Biryulyovo was no different. On October 10, Yegor Shcherbakov, 25, was stabbed to death, allegedly by a Caucasian. The killer fled the scene of the crime. Later police identified the suspect as Orkhan Zeinalov, a native of Azerbaijan. The two got into a fight after Zeinalov reportedly harassed Shcherbakov’s girlfriend.
The murder caused ethnic tensions between Russians and migrants in Moscow to finally burst. Convinced that the police were ignoring the murder, a crowd gathered on Sunday demanding cops find the killer. The crowd gradually swelled to about 3,000 and turned violent when a group of them attacked a local shopping center. The mob also erected barricades, smashed shops, and fruit and vegetable stands, torched other structures and turned over cars and trucks. Nationalist slogans like “Russia for Russians,” “Forward Slavs!” and “Moscow for Muscovites” rang throughout. Another large group of attackers also marched on the Pokrovsk warehouse. “We’re sick of the lawlessness in this warehouse,” a rioter told Dozhd TV, “[Migrants] come here to set their own rules.” As another Biryulyovo resident told Gazeta.ru, “We get the feeling that we are living in a completely different country.”
The crowd’s ire wasn’t only directed against non-Russians. Residents of Biryulyovo explained their rioting as a reaction to “the complacency and corruption of local officials.” Operators of fruit and vegetable markets are widely known to pay local officials or police for protection or krysha (literally “roof”). Shcherbakov’s murder concentrated locals’ ethnic hatred and hurled it at the police and the state. When the riot police showed up to quell the violence, Biryulyovo residents lashed out at them: “Where are you when they’re stabbing us?”; “You do nothing when people get murdered!”; “If Putin’s daughter got raped, you would do something! Now you’re doing f***-all!”; and “People are getting stabbed, and you’re saying that everything’s normal, that everything’s wonderful!” One resident summed up the crowd’s frustration: “I don’t hate anyone. I want a normal neighborhood, safe for kids. People noticed us only when someone started turning over cars.” From this video, you don’t need to understand Russian to get a sense of the anger. As Yuri Lebedev, the chairman of the Council of Civic Control tweeted, “Citizens don’t trust the police, judges, government and the president. Is this Russia’s future?”
The Ministry of Interior troops’ reaction to the violence was cautious but firm. The police managed to quickly mobilize riot cops, which are concentrated in the center of the city, to the southern outskirts. Their presence was justifiably large but not heavy-handed—even soft compared to how the cops dealt with protesters at Bolotnaya Square in May 2012. The police was trying to avoid looking as if they were beating on ordinary Russians while “defending” migrants. Excessive police violence would have only poured gasoline on an open fire.
In many societies, whipping up racist hysteria strengthens the bind between the state and the people. This has limits in Russia. Russian nationalism has historically served as a dangerous and destabilizing force because it upsets Russia’s delicate multiethnic balance. This is not to suggest Russian politicians don’t play to it. Putin knows he has to cater to Russian nationalism to some degree to keep it quelled. Also, the rioters are his new political constituency. But playing the ethnic populist card too often is a dangerous game.
But Putin and those of his clique aren’t alone in pampering to base populism. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny played up his populist nationalism as he championed the rioters’ for confronting “hordes of legal and illegal immigrants” on his blog. “If there is no fair way to resolve conflicts and problems, then people will create it themselves, with primitive and desperate measures,” he wrote. Echoing the sentiment that Russians are victims of bestial migrant violence, he wrote, “From [the city’s bazaars] they crawl out to the surrounding neighborhoods. They’re not going to die of hunger when they can’t find work, not when they can snatch a purse in the subway or take somebody’s money at knife-point in an elevator.” Such are the words of Russia’s most prominent oppositionist to Putin’s regime.
The authorities are afraid of Russian nationalism gone awry. This is why the immediate reaction by newly re-elected mayor Sergei Sobyanin was to give a pat condemnation of the riot and then crack down on migrants. In a replay of the campaign against migrants in August, Sobyanin called for an inspection of fruit and vegetable markets for illegal migrants. The raids netted around 1,200 migrants. And in a repeat of the campaign against illegal migrants in August, the Moscow police plan to conduct weekly migrant raids and promise to check every Moscow apartment for migrants by the end of the year. Minister of Internal Affairs Vladimir Kolokoltsev called the raids necessary because the markets, not the rioters, are “perpetual sources of tension.” They needed to be cleansed of illegal migrants because “provocateurs and extremists will use anything possible to lead youth to the barricades.” Also, the riot transformed police complacency into action. Three days after the riot, the police identified and arrested Zeinalov. It was reported that Zeinalov initially confessed to the killing, but has since recanted.
The lesson of all this was not lost on Vladimir Tor, the leader of the Nationalist Democratic Party. “Everything the authorities do after the riot will present every citizen of the Russian Federation with a very dangerous lesson. If you want to be heard and you want to get the authorities to work and put things straight, it means you need to provoke a riot,” he told BBC Russian.
But perhaps there’s a much larger lesson in all this. The race riot has returned to Moscow. But this time it’s different. “It not important why this occurred in Biryulyovo and not somewhere else,” says Aleksandr Verkhovskii, the director of the Sova Center, which monitors hate crimes. “It’s important that the discontent crossed a certain line that it didn’t cross before. There have been riots in Moscow before, but nationalists are always the force behind them. Riots where local residents are participants are a sad novelty.” And with this fertile soil of discontent, the view that Russians are a nation without a state blossoms anew.