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Unfiled April 21, 2006
Xenophobia East & West
By Kirill Pankratov Browse author

The last few weeks have seen unprecedented demonstrations by illegal immigrants in the US. Huge crowds are demanding legalization and civil rights, and they protested a restrictive new immigration law now being considered by Congress. By some counts these are the biggest demonstrations in the US since the Vietnam War. Although remarkably peaceful, they suddenly revealed the extent of the problem and the huge number of people affected by this issue, people who are nearly invisible in everyday life.

But the US isn't the only country where this problem has received a lot of attention lately. A recent UN study concluded that Russia has the second largest population of illegal immigrants in the world, after the US. It is believed that there are roughly 12-18 millions "undocumented foreigners" in America. In Russia some estimates of the number of illegals run up to 10 million. A more realistic number is probably 4-5 million, which will make it only slightly less per capita than the US.

On February 23 of this year, a roof collapsed over a large indoor market in Moscow, killing some 60 people. Almost all of them were produce vendors from Azerbaijan. It happened in the early morning hours, before the market opening. Most of the victims spent the night inside the building itself, since they had nowhere else to go.

The collapse appears to have been caused by illegally-built stalls and storerooms filled with heavy junk on the second floor of the market  an area which wasn't designed to support that much weight. The market was built in the mid-70s, and there've hardly been any repairs since then. It had a concave roof the opposite of a dome, which is pretty strange for a city with so much snowfall.

The architect of the building was Nodar Kancheli  a native Georgian, but a long-time Moscow resident. He was the same architect who also designed the Transvaal water park a hyperboloid of glass and concrete that crashed on a very cold winter day two years ago, killing 28 people. Previously Kancheli designed buildings with domes and complex roofs for warmer climates, such as on the Black Sea coast. Did he really not understand Moscow's cold, snowy winters, even after living there for decades?

Ironically, there is another famous ethnic Georgian related to this story, a sculptor named Zurab Tzereteli, a personal favorite of the Moscow Mayor Luzhkov. He filled the Russian capital (as well as some other cities and even countries) with his pompous, overwrought statues, which are perennial butts of jokes among Russia's chattering classes. And here we are, with two Georgians: one builds grotesquely heavy kitsch sculptures, where elegant minimalism and understatement would have been more appropriate; the other designs shady buildings with curved paper-thin roofs, when sturdiness and safety should have been more important than anything else.

The purpose of the above paragraphs is not to pile all the blame on Georgians. Many of them have greatly contributed to Russia's culture, science and even statehood, and they've achieved high positions in Russian society (a certain Djugashvili comes to mind, for starters). But all this illustrates the dilemma facing immigrants from distant lands. Many ethnic non-Russians easily achieved fame and fortune in the Russian and Soviet empires over the centuries, and they can be equally accountable for the country's successes and faults. And many, like those unfortunate Azeris buried under the collapsed roof, can just as easily become its victims.

Xenophobic, anti-immigrant feelings are rising in Russia. The economic boom of the last few years brought millions of immigrants to the capital and other cities, filling the streets with unfamiliar faces, speeches and habits. In America (and to a lesser extent in Europe) the ghettoization of major cities has been a reality for many decades, if not centuries. In Russia it was far less typical, and the way it's changing now is quite painful for locals. Up to the early 90s it was pretty hard to find a neighborhood in a big city (outside of the official ethnic enclaves) with a non-Russian majority. Today in some of the Moscow's nooks and crannies Russian is no longer the primary spoken language. The real estate market is far less developed in Russia than in the West, and many people have great difficulty moving out when a neighborhood rapidly changes ethnic composition. They often vent their frustration in xenophobic rants, on the streets and online forums.

Ethnic diasporas and enclaves also bring ethnic organized crime. Some of these groups had been around for decades, while some burst on the scene in late 80's and early 90's, when the Soviet Union crumbled... and some of them are completely new.

The Chinese diaspora in Russia alone is half a million to a million strong. The Chinese mafia can be pretty vicious, but it preys largely on its own people. The Vietnamese, largely peddlers of counterfeit jeans and sneakers in the many rynoks and bazaars, are considered to be somewhat more violent, though not to the same extent as Chechen or other crime groups from the Caucasus. Gypsies are said to be the main drug pushers in many Russian cities. Tajiks and Afghanis are those who mule drugs in long-distance trains, and distribute them wholesale in local Russian markets. The Caucasian mafia is heavily involved in financial fraud, gambling and prostitution. Many of the prostitutes themselves come from Ukraine or Moldova. Armenians are widely considered to be hustlers and swindlers in about every market niche imaginable.

Nobody knows how much of these generalizations are true and how much are just stereotypes, but the rhetoric is heating up everywhere.

This, of course, shadows more "normal" jobs that foreigners take up, often receiving little thanks but plenty of blame for locals' job losses just as in the US. Azeris can be found as fruit and vegetable vendors all over Russia. Uzbeks and Tajiks sweep the streets, and provide a lot of unskilled labor for urban construction. Ukrainians and Belorussians build suburban dachas and cottages. Moldavians for some reason specialize on kitchen and bathroom tiles and other interior decorations in "remonting" (and are constantly blamed for shoddy work).

A few weeks ago a journalist, Ilya Zimin, who wrote sharp exposes on Moscow's pricy restaurants, was brutally murdered in his apartment. Before the liberal and Western media whipped themselves into a frenzy over "yet another victim of the Putin regime's conspiracy against media freedom," the circumstances quickly became known: his murder was a case of a drunken misunderstanding and perhaps homophobia. Zimin met a young Moldovan immigrant in a bar and brought him home. The two of them had some drinks. In the process Zimin apparently came on to his companion. The guy didn't take kindly to Zimin's apparent-homosexual overtures, a vicious fight ensued which ended in Zimin lying dead on the floor in the pool of his own blood. The Moldovan is still at large.

Some commentators noted a certain symmetry to a previous murder case in which immigration issue played a big role (at least in the rhetorical sense): the killing of Armenian student Sergei Bagdasaryan by a Moscow woman, Alexandra Ivannikova, who hitched a ride late at night in his car. She stabbed his thigh with a knife, severing the artery and causing fatal bleeding, after he apparently threatened to kill her if she wouldn't blow him in his car, or so she claimed. Bagdasaryan was indeed found with his pants down and not cut by the knife.

Ivannikova had been raped at a younger age and habitually carried a knife in her purse. She was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter at first, but after a huge outcry from nationalists and some liberals alike, the prosecution withdrew its case. Her story became a big rallying cry for anti-immigration politics. The stereotype of the Caucasian immigrant male disrespecting, harassing and raping Russian women has been around for many years, and it's not simply an urban legend, as politically-incorrect as it may be to say this. Eventually Ivannikova walked free from the court room and was presented with flowers by the "Movement Against Illegal Immigration"  a xenophobic but relatively moderate recent political grouping, advocating severe restrictions but not violence against foreign newcomers. This caused lots of anger in Moscow's Armenian community, while Russian nationalists claimed a big victory.

But quite a few foreigners, mostly African or Asian students, have become victims of senseless attacks and beatings recently. For some reason a big concentration of such attacks is occurring in St. Petersburg and the provincial city of Voronezh. The latest case is particularly puzzling. A student from Senegal was shot dead on a St. Petersburg street while returning home from a nightclub. A rifle with a swastika and the misspelled word "skinhead" scribbled on it was found nearby  suspiciously convenient for putting the blame straight on "skins" the young thugs who famously attack foreigners. For years a claim has been floating around in the media about 50 thousand skinheads in Russia. Nobody knows for sure. This might be overblown, but the numerous people viciously attacked by them don't take the problem lightly.

Immigration is an issue that won't go away, both in Russia and US. Most locals like their cheap labor, but don't like to live near these poor and strange newcomers, and would prefer them to disappear right after performing their job. It doesn't work that way. In 20, 30, and 50 years from now we'll still see demonstrations and riots, the "amnesties" and the fences, the human cattle in dirty wagons at the bottom of the wage scale, and politicians spewing demagoguery on airwaves, agonizing over "job losses," "illegals," "xenophobia," "freedom" and whatever suits them to score some points in the middle of all this drama.

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