Racism in Russia: How Moscow Capitalizes on Xenophobia

By Ilyana Ovshieva

The North Caucasus may be the most dangerous place in Europe. But for Russia's embattled minorities, it is the only safe haven. Deadly attacks and insurgency-related violence are still features of life in the North Caucasus, but there’s also an overlooked pattern of structural and symbolic violence against Caucasians. Looking at the North Caucasus solely through a security lens ignores the reality of an increasingly discriminatory state that capitalizes on public xenophobia.

Last week, a Moscow court handed a suspended sentence of five years to a skinhead woman who took part in the torture and beating of two Dagestani men on a Moscow train six years ago. One of the victims was stabbed six times and died of bleeding. The other Dagestani man survived despite receiving 28 stab wounds. Still the woman will only serve her term when her newborn child is 14-years old, an act of compassion refused to Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who was denied parole to care after her young daughter.

When the FBI killed a Russian citizen of Chechen origin in Florida last month, Russian online commentators professed their new love for "pindos" (a derogatory vernacular term for Americans) for doing Russia's job of "exterminating" Chechens. The still-unclear incident didn't elicit even a whimper of complaint from the Russian government, in stark contrast to the muscular campaign it mounted in defense of orphan Dima Yakovlev, who died in the United States after his adopted father's alleged neglect.

Today almost half of Russians support the principle of "Russia for ethnic Russians," and a third admit that they would vote an ultranationalist party into power if those parties were legal.

On the concrete walls of Moscow, swastikas and "kill the Caucasians" signs are a common sight. Browsing through job websites, one finds that landlords and even employers explicitly give preference to "Slavic-looking" candidates. Racial slurs are ubiquitous and have been universally adopted by politicians and citizens alike.

When a half-Tatar woman was crowned Miss Russia this year, social networks exploded with racist anger. After receiving thousands of xenophobic insults, the beauty pageant was forced to shut down her social media accounts. The woman was attacked for not being "Russian enough." Numerous groups appeared on social networks claiming that only Slavic women should be allowed to participate in beauty contests. One Russian even said that the half-Tatar beauty should be crowned "Miss Churkistan" ("churki" is a derogatory term for ethnic minorities) instead of "Miss Russia."

Two years ago, Russian opposition supporters were invited to vote online on who they would like to see in the post-parliamentary election protest. Blogger Alexey Navalny, known for his anti-Caucasus sentiments, topped the list. But more unsettling was the third place showing of convicted criminal and skinhead leader Maksim Martsinkevich, alias Tesak. In his multiple public appearances and interviews, Tesak vowed to kill "negroes and Tajik girls" and professed admiration for Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik.

A staggering number of hate crimes—1,448—have been committed across the country since 2009, according to SOVA Center that reports on racism in Russia.

Hardly anyone in Russia knows the names of these victims, but almost every single Russian remembers the name of Egor Sviridov, a soccer fan who died in December 2010 in a brawl with natives of the North Caucasus. His death at the hands of a man from Kabardino-Balkaria provoked an unprecedented mobilization with thousands rallying in 12 Russian cities. Many protesters went as far as to perform Hitler salutes. Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited Sviridov's grave, an act of support for the unapologetically xenophobic protesters. In his electoral paper last year, Putin called for limiting "internal migration" from "culturally and behaviorally incompatible" regions of Russia.

Both in popular discourse and official parlance, there is an overarching attempt to entrench the idea of Russian ethnic superiority. It’s an idea proven to galvanize Russian public opinion and garner support for the ruling party at the expense of Russia's minorities.

When the Boston bombings turned the gaze of the international community toward the North Caucasus, attempts at conceptualizing the region were reduced to radicalization and so-called Islamist violence. But analyzing the North Caucasus without casting an eye toward Russia's complex interethnic dynamics is an exercise in futility.

The pervasive hostility and discrimination entrench a sense of otherness among North Caucasians and other ethnic minorities. It feeds their discontent with the central government. Consigning the problem of the North Caucasus to terrorism does not address the grievances that breed estrangement and radicalization.

Ethnic minorities in Russia suffer from both casual, routinized racism and officially sponsored discrimination, which finds expression in restrictive laws against internal migration, laxity in prosecuting hate crime offenders, and an increasingly polarizing public discourse.

North Caucasians' identity does not fit the boundaries of a nation-state. But their plight is not only one of searching for identity—it is a question of survival, the ability to live at ease without threats of violence or the need to acquiesce to the domineering culture.

Until these issues are properly and fairly addressed, the North Caucasus will remain Russia's "inner abroad," as analyst Alexey Malashenko puts it. But more than that, it will remain the only place where sequestered and un-integrated minorities feel safe.

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Ilyana Ovshieva is a Washington D.C.-based writer originally from the Russian republic of Kalmykia in the North Caucasus.

[Photo courtesy of Diana Markosian]