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.”