This weekend, a working class neighborhood erupted in violence after a 25 year-old Russian was stabbed to death, allegedly by a migrant from Russia's Caucasus region. Hooligans and soccer fanatics quickly joined the fray, as did local residents, shouting "Go Russians!" and "Russia for Russians!" They looted fruit and vegetable stands run by migrants from former Soviet republics. They beat up people who looked distinctively non-Russian. Police chased the protestors around, and arrested nearly 400 of them.
Now, Russia has a serious problem on its hands. It's second only to the U.S. in the number of illegal migrants, except that it is far worse at counting them and, unlike the U.S., does not even try to keep them out. They too live abysmal, perilous lives, and they too cause tensions with the local population. And, like in the U.S., the law of the land is far, far behind the reality. In fact, it doesn't address it at all, leaving the more extreme elements in the country to take action themselves—kind of like in the U.S. (See: Arizona.)
But the problem in Russia is that, for the local population, the tension is not an economic one, but an overtly racial one. To wit: many of the migrants from the North Caucasus are Russian citizens because the North Caucasus is part of the Russian Federation. (They are illegal because they don't have the special permits required to live in Moscow.) The problem with people from the North Caucasus is that they are Muslim and have dark hair and dark complexions; that is, they stand out from the Christian Slavic part of the population. On good days, people from the North Caucasus or from former Soviet republics in Central Asia inspire derision and nasty, racist slurs. On bad days, it's really, really bad.
Look at that video, shot for the Lenta.doc mini-documentary series, and you hear people yelling some pretty vile things. "How long are we going to suck the dicks of churki," one man yells at a police cordon, using the Russian equivalent of "spic." "Why are you just standing there? You guys are Russians, too!" An old woman shouts at cops that her father fought for this land and he didn't do it so that these "black" migrants could sweep in. The police protecting them infuriate her and she curses a long, blue streak. A young man wonders shrilly, "How long can they fucking rape the Russian homeland, huh?" Then he leads the crowd in a chant of "Ru-ssia! Ru-ssia! Ru-ssia!"
Unfortunately, the roots of this kind of ethnic violence run deep in Russia. It is no accident that, afterwards, the police targeted not the looters but the targets of their violence, rounding up 1,200 migrants and looking into the legality of their vegetable stalls. It is also no accident that this kind of violence is still called a pogrom in Russian. In 2013.
To my Jewish readers who have roots in this part of the world, if you ever wanted to see why your ancestors left, this is very likely what it looked like, but with less Adidas.