Why Russia Is Growing More Xenophobic

Last week’s riots reveal just a glimpse of the country’s rampant nationalism.

Demonstrators protested and scuffled with police in Moscow after the killing of a young man that residents blamed on a migrant from the Caucasus. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Yegor Shcherbakov probably didn’t expect to become Russia’s newest national figure. But on October 13, the 25-year-old ethnic Russian turned into just that after he was stabbed to death by an assailant from the Caucasus following a personal dispute in Russia’s capital, Moscow. A full-blown race riot followed, complete with chants of “Russia for the Russians” and “White Power” and the destruction of a shopping center. In all, Moscow police ended up arresting some 400 people, most of them far-right nationalists seeking revenge against foreigners in Russia, and launching a city-wide dragnet for the perpetrator.

The incident was hardly an isolated one, however. Recent years have seen a marked increase in xenophobia, racism, and violence against non-Slavs within the Russian Federation. The reason, experts say, is widespread anger over economic stagnation and corruption. It is also a reaction to a surge of migrant workers from Russia’s “near abroad” of the Caucasus and Central Asia. With foreign arrivals now totaling 13 to 14 million, Russia’s migrant labor force ranks second only to the United States.

But whereas the United States largely assimilates its immigrants, Russia does not. According to research conducted by Mark Ustinov of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, nearly 70 percent of Russians exhibit negative feelings toward people of other ethnicities, and one in five believes that they have no place in Russia at all.

Most Russians, moreover, want their government to do something about it. A nationwide opinion poll carried out by Moscow’s respected Levada Analytical Center in November 2012 found that nearly 65 percent of respondents favor some form of restrictions on labor migration.

Not surprisingly, race-related violence in Russia has surged in recent years, especially in Moscow and other cities. Last year alone, 18 people were killed and nearly 200 were injured in racist attacks throughout Russia, according to estimates by SOVA, a Russian human rights watchdog group. But experts say the real number is probably much higher, since most attacks go unreported.

The rise of ethnic violence in Russia has been propelled by a surge in extreme right-wing nationalism. Historically, nationalist ideas and rhetoric have pervaded Russian politics, empowering derzhavnost—the idea of Russia as a great power—and helping to define a sense of self among the country’s citizens during turbulent economic and political times.

Yet today’s far right in Russia goes far beyond the nationalist rhetoric espoused by parties like Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and Dmitry Rogozin’s now-defunct Rodina (Motherland) faction. It is made up of an assortment of small, violent neo-Nazi groups and “political nationalists,” such as the Russkiye movement and the Novaya Sila party, that promote an ethno-nationalist agenda in Russian politics.

These right-wing groups, moreover, are growing in influence. “Although the extreme right remains a marginal phenomenon in Russian politics up to now,” Alexander Verkhovsky of SOVA has written, “it is a widely held view in Russian society that nationalism is an ideology with a future and will gain more popularity in the years to come.”

The Kremlin has been a willing accomplice to these trends. The government of Vladimir Putin has sought to harness nationalist sentiment for its own ends, and so—even as it has cracked down on the most violent offenders—has nurtured and cultivated nationalist ideas among the Russian population. In the process, it has spawned youth groups like Nashi, Walking Together, and the Young Guard; groups whose members, experts say, tend to share a common vision with Russia’s ultra-right.

But such nationalism isn’t simply a far-right notion. More and more, Russians from across the political spectrum are identifying with (and organizing around) a national identity tinged with racism. “The level of xenophobia today is rising among various social groups,” Russia’s Civic Chamber, an official civil society oversight body created by Putin in the early 2000s, noted in its 2012 annual report. “An especially sharp rise can be observed among the citizens of major cities and among those people with a high level of education. Their phobias relate first and foremost to migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, and are motivated by ‘insurmountable’ cultural differences.” The result has been the creation of what one specialist has dubbed a “fashion for xenophobia” throughout the country.

Against this backdrop, this weekend’s violence in Moscow provides everyone watching with a telling glimpse into the true state of ethnic and religious relations that now predominates in Putin’s Russia. It isn’t a pretty picture.