Julia Reed in Moscow -
Moscow police rounded up and arrested more than 1,000 migrant workers at a vegetable warehouse on October 14, the day after rioters staged the most violent nationalist unrest in the Russian capital in three years, with more than 3,000 going on the rampage, smashing up a market, overturning and burning cars, before clashing with police.
Racial tensions in the capital are on the rise once again, just as the Kremlin has been playing the nationalist card in response to the rise of an increasingly legitimate opposition movement. It is an effective and popular stance with the conservative Russian population. Hidden behind the Iron Curtain in the 1960s, Russia missed out on the wave of liberalism that swept the western world and are only in the process now. Racism is endemic and deeply entrenched in Russia, and with the government fanning the flames for political ends, inevitably this has led to violence.
Riot police battled and arrested hundreds of Russian nationalists after they raided a warehouse in southern Moscow that is used by migrants. Police were searching of the man they blamed for the murder of a young ethnic Russian, Yegor Shcherbakov, who was killed on October 10. On October 15, police arrested a 30-year-old citizen of Azerbaijan, Orkhan Zeinalov, on suspicion of committing the crime.
Strangers in our midst
There is hardly any other group of people less liked in Moscow than migrants, especially if they come from the Caucasus or Central Asia. Migrants, commonly referred to as gastarbeiteri by the Russian media, are usually disliked and avoided for their dark skin, unfamiliar language, sometimes different faith and a tendency to form diasporas and enclaves.
Discrimination is widespread, institutional and casually accepted by most ethnic Slavs. Advertisements seeking rental property routinely point out that prospective clients should belong to a Slavic nationality. Parents try to avoid enrolling their child in a school with a strong non-Russian presence. They claim it's because a child would pick up habits of an alien ethos and learn Russian that is far from perfect.
The dislike of migrant workers is not a recent phenomenon. Moscow has historically enjoyed a much higher standard of living than the rest of Russia because it lived on federal money. There is even a joke that the problem with Moscow is that it is surrounded by Russia on all sides.
In the Soviet times the capital's residents frowned on those from the provinces. They were labelled limitchiki (workers who came on government quotas) and also blamed for taking more lucrative jobs and wanting to occupy valuable Moscow property, as well as for their lack of education and common manners.
By the 1990s, with the expansion of Moscow and rapid growth of economic and political migration from Russia and the former Soviet republics, core Muscovites became a minority. While a significant number of well-educated professional Muscovites left Russia, Moscow has continued to be the magnet for both rich and poor for Russia at large and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Much like in the Soviet times, it has preserved its reputation of the mighty capital of the former Soviet empire. Whoever made it big elsewhere would flock to Moscow to enjoy their prosperity. And of course many more migrants moved to Moscow to avoid poverty, unemployment and political unrest at home.
The anti-immigrant sentiment is very strong across Russia and spans across all classes, backgrounds and ages. It's especially present in older people who remember the Soviet times when all ethnic groups lived in their respective regions and republics, and would only come to Moscow to receive higher education or on short, organised tourist visits.
The official rhetoric widely supports the general public opinion that immigration should be tightened, with recently a provision being discussed that the CIS nationals must enter Russia only on their national passports and the reinstatement of the old Soviet practice of propiska - the right of residence granted only to those with an official registration. It is also widely recognized that the influx of migrants, both legal and illegal, has to do with corruption in the immigration system.
Yet all these ideas fade in the face of reality that the economies of big cities like Moscow are completely dependent on migrant labour. The Uzbek yard cleaner has long replaced the more traditional Tatar from the Soviet Union. Since every construction site in Moscow is unimaginable without Tajik workers, it's not uncommon for all the signs to be in their native language. Many school populations consist of at least 50% migrant children.
While Muscovites almost openly dislike migrants and don't make much contact with them, they routinely use their services simply because they cost half as much as employing a Slav. "My family is from Moldova. First my parents came to Moscow about 15 years ago. My mother works as a house cleaner, my father does odd jobs," says Andrei Vieru, a 36-year-old migrant worker. "Then I came with my brother-in-law 10 years ago. I have a university degree in electrical engineering but here I am a jack-of-all trade in a private house."
It is the peoples from Russia's southern belt with the dark skins that receive the worst treatment. However, conditions at home are usually far worse, so they stomach hard jobs to send money home to wives and children. "I work pretty much around the clock for three months, then go home for a month, then come back again. At home I have a wife and a son. I get paid RUB20,000 a month (about $666) by the housing cooperative, plus I get to do private jobs in electrics, plumbing or wall painting from the house residents. They pay another RUB2,000 per visit on average ($66)," says Vieru. "I live in the basement of the same house with my brother-in-law. My pay isn't enough to bring my family to Moscow and also at home they have a much higher standard of living with the money I bring, living in a house with a garden. But I don't like the way I'm being treated. I am a highly qualified engineer, but here people treat me like a slave."
And it is not just immigrants from the Caucasus that come; Russia is also significantly richer than other more Slavic nations like Belarus and Ukraine, whose people also suffer discrimination and poor working conditions. "There was no work at home and I came to Moscow," says Vera Kravchuk, a 55-year-old migrant from eastern Ukraine. "I rent a flat here together with my son and work as a nanny for a well-to-do Russian family who live in the country house. I get paid RUB40,000 ($1,333) a month and work six days a week. Eventually I will probably retire in Ukraine, but I still have to earn my pension money. I'm used to my life now and like my job, but I have no real future here."
Many of these workers either don't have work documents or in the case of the Ukrainians they have to cross the border every three months to renew their temporary status. Getting officially registered is beyond most because of the bribes involved. "I went through a fake marriage to get a Russian passport," says Natasha Sedovchenko, another Ukrainian immigrant. "I got it after three years of 'marriage' and now I work legally. If I didn't sort out my citizenship, I would not have had any prospects of finding legal employment".
However, even these people have some hope of building some sort of permanent life in Russia if they can navigate the bureaucratic obstacle course. Other immigrants from nations friendly with Russia are simply living on borrowed time. "I am from Syria," says Nur, who wouldn't give his surname. I came here 19 years ago to study medicine and never left since then."
Nur speaks excellent Russian and is reasonably well dressed in glasses and smart casual clothes. He doesn't look obviously Arab and so doesn't stand out too much. But he lives a precarious life. "I lost my passport 10 years ago and never got a new one since I would have been jailed in Syria for avoiding military service. Now I own a small business making oriental sweets outside of Moscow. It's just a few rooms on the grounds of a neglected factory. My business is a complete secret from anyone," says Nur, who has to sell his sweets to Russian shops through Russian intermediaries.
All of Nur's staff are also from Syria, most of whom entered on tourist visas and simply stayed. Not speaking Russian and having no papers of any sort, they are all too scared to leave the factory's territory. "The car I drive I bought in my Russian ex-girlfriend's name. I have a fake driving license. I am a careful driver, so I don't get stopped much," says Nur. "If I do, they will be looking at a foreign driving license with an Arabic name. Mine is even expired but they don't notice it. I have no intention of going back to Syria, at least not for a long time".
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