26 February 2008

Russia, Racial Democracy and the Specter of Ethnic Violence

A month ago in my relatively sleepy bedroom community, a young Tajik citizen was stabbed thirty-six times. He died in the courtyard that my bedroom window looks out onto. I read about his attack a week later.

Now, as the second month of 2008 closes, the victims of such private acts of ethnic violence in Russia sickeningly pile up. Even the New York Times has finally picked up the story, taking a short respite from its usual Putin-baiting and glamorous lifestyle reporting to publish an online post on the matter of Russian racism in The Lede. To get some sense of the severity of the problem, here’s a sampling of what the past ten days in Moscow looked like, based on information collected by the SOVA Center.

20 February: A 43-year-old Uzbek man was severely beaten by two teenage skinheads in the North of Moscow.

19 February: In Severnoe Izmailovo, a Tajik citizen was stabbed multiple times but survived.

19 February: A 27-year-old Tajik citizen was found murdered with multiple stab wounds in Moscow’s South.

19 February: A 38-year-old Azeri man was fatally stabbed twenty-five times near Metro Station Shchelkovskaia.

18 February: A 25-year-old Uzbek was murdered on Ulitsa Miklukho-Maklaia in Moscow’s South. He died on the scene from multiple knife injuries.

18 February: The body of a 30-year-old Tajik native was found with multiple stab wounds on Dmitrovskoe Shosse in Moscow’s North.

17 February: In the northwestern neighborhood of Tushino, the body of a 34-year-old migrant was found. He had been stabbed in the back and head.

15-16 February: Late in the night, two Kyrgyz citizens were attacked near Metro Station Tekstil’shchiki in Moscow’s Southeast. One died from multiple stab wounds and the other has been hospitalized.

15 February: A group of drunk teenagers set upon a 22-year-old Tajik citizen in Moscow’s Southwest, beating him and stabbing him more than ten times. He managed to make it back to his apartment and as of 18 February was alive in intensive care.

14 February: On Ulitsa Pokrovka in Moscow’s Center, five teenagers attacked two Tadzhik natives, killing one.

12 February: The body of a 20-year-old native of Kabardino-Balkariia was found in the eastern neighborhood of Novogireevo.

12 February: A series of attacks occurred in Moscow’s South. In the neighborhood of Severnoe Chertanovo, a 21-year-old migrant was attacked, suffering knife wounds to his back and neck. An hour later, a Chechen migrant was beaten and stabbed near Metro Station Tsaritsyno. Some time later, again in Severnoe Chertanovo, another migrant was attacked.

In the face of this rash of violence, the Russian-language media has switched gears from its intermittent blasé coverage of racially-motivated murders as troublesome individual acts to searching for some explanation for the specter of ethnic violence that threatens dark-skinned migrants and visitors to the capital. It is worthwhile to review the major explanations that have come up in the past month as a window on the state of ethnic relations in Russia and thinking about nationality, migration and identity. I present them roughly in order from least plausible to most productive explanations.

The first analysis might be called the “un-explanation,” as it posits that there is not a problem with ethnic violence against migrant workers because (a) such lethal attacks are but a small percentage of the overall number of murders in Russia; (b) ethnic Russians suffer more attacks than non-ethnic Russians; and (c) the violence that happens is just hooliganism, that is, motivated by youthful vim and alcohol, not racial animosity.

Let me get the irresistible ad hominem attack out of the way. The “un-explanation” is most prominently espoused by Moscow police chief Vladimir Pronin and Aleksandr Belov, the leader of DPNI (Movement against Illegal Immigration); it is the point of view of a bureaucrat reluctant to find more work and a self-avowed racist, respectively.

Ad hominem argumentation aside, the ostensible merits of this analysis can be quickly dismissed. Argument (a) ignores the historical meaning and continuing threat of racial violence in the modern world; proposition (b) does not account for polls of Central Asian workers (18% of whom said that a member of their family had been threatened with violence and 11% of whom said their family had been victimized by ethnic violence) and African students (amongst whom, according to a conference paper I heard in September, over fifty percent responded that they had been threatened by or victims of ethnic violence while in Russia); frankly, contention (c) no longer even makes a prima facie case for plausibility.

More recently, Komsomolskaya Pravda has trotted out what I like to label the “Columbine Theories,” that is, groundless cultural explanations akin to the “charges” against Marilyn Manson following the high school shootings in Colorado. To summarize, these violent youngsters are not being properly raised in wholesome families, they lack father figures, their mothers have failed to provide for them and they spend too much time on the internet. Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has announced that the violence stems from parents’ poor raising (vospitanie) of their children. Why this moral failure takes the form of virulent ethnic hatred is left unaccounted for—presumably it came from the internet.

This being Russia, there are, of course, the gossipy conspiracy theories that you hear over tea and vodka. Putin sponsors the skinheads and neo-nazis to stir up nationalist fervor, only to crack down on them when he needs to demonstrate control. Or the police employ bands of skinheads to crack down on migrants in various neighborhoods. Or there’s the flipside conspiracy that you can find presented by a character in Eduard Bagirov’s novel Gastarbaiter: ethnic violence is sponsored by Jewish human rights activists so that they can drum up more support and money from Western donors. Like all good conspiracy theories, you can neither confirm nor deny any of these.

One of the more complex and productive explanations looks at ethnic violence as the result of alienation and competition over scarce resources between ethnic Russian and non-ethnic Russian migrants to the city. Sociologist Emil’ Pain outlined the broad contours of such an analysis in Izbrannoe earlier this month: “The roots of xenophobia lie not in the ideological sphere, but in the sphere of socio-economic and political affairs. The sensational events at Kondopoga were for the most part an expression of social protest, couched in the form of ethnic protest.” In other words, migrant workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus are being scapegoated for the failings of Russian society, economy, and government. Specifically, this dynamic takes form in Moscow as ethnic turf wars (etnicheskie razborki) and xenophobic fears of the formation of ethnic enclaves (kvartali) (as Moscow has long taken as a point of pride the absence of segregated ethnic neighborhoods in contrast to Western metropolises). The Russian term etnicheskie razborki here, I think, invokes two different meanings at the same time—one of a “turf war” and the other of a “settling up of affairs.” The first meaning refers to contestations over the ethnic identity of a particular place and the second calls attention to the snowballing effect of interethnic fights (think: Jets and Sharks). In fact, one might label this bundle of explanations as “West Side Story on the Moskva.” Despite my fondness for WSS, I'm not sure that this theory addresses the spatial dispersal of attacks listed above. I also find the explanation lacks a sense of history and the role of ideology/nationalism in motivating ethnic violence.

Such a denial of the history of racism and national chauvinism is common, framing the current attacks as an aberrant break in an uncomplicated story of Russian multinational tolerance. But ethnic violence, like many facets of Russian society and politics, should be put in its pan-European and global contexts. Specifically, it is useful to think about violence against migrant workers from former outposts of imperial Russia and the Soviet Union as part of a larger post-imperial hangover, comparable, though not the identical, to the development of xenophobia and racist attacks against migrants in London or Paris. That is, the story of ethnic violence in Moscow should not be disentangled from the story of imperial expansion, Russian chauvinism (including in the Soviet period) and bloody wars in the Caucasus. This framing also highlights the role of the State in propagating racism, through a variety of mechanisms from police harassment, failure to prosecute hate crimes, fostering nationalist rhetoric, xenophobic legislation and providing the conditions for labor exploitation. Representatives of Central Asian and Caucasian diasporic populations have been insistent on making this connection to the authorities. It’s always valuable to listen to the people.

The other part of the pan-European story is the commonality of the rise of white supremacist organizations that convert economic distress, a vague sense of nationalist chauvinism and political disenfranchisement into violent ethnic hatred. The failure of a countervailing multicultural vision in the post-Soviet period has allowed such extremist racism to help raise a young generation that is proportionally more xenophobic and racist than their elders. (And yes, their message is, in fact, quite often piped in via the internet.) A few months ago, an older Russian lamented to me and some others, “We act surprised. Where did these violent racist youth come from? But we must have raised them, somehow.”

That “somehow” is something that is still being worked out. It is a question that journalists and intellectuals need to seriously address, casting aside sensational coverage. This task will take thorough data collection, theorizing and reflection on all of the explanations offered above (particularly some combination of the last three, in my speculative opinion).

In the long-term, perhaps the most encouraging sign is the self-organization of national minorities around this issue. As the New York-based Coalition against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) pointed out long ago, the best solution to ethnic violence is community empowerment. Of course, what prospects there are for “community empowerment” in the Russian context is entirely another question.

And here we might return to the one insight of the “un-explanation.” Ethnic violence is but a part of a large tangle of problems faced by residents of Russia. But to imagine that those other problems will have to be solved first misses the point that ethnic violence is a problem of governance and those struggling against it might well form a bulwark for democracy.

In the meantime, Moscow's migrants face daily violence.


Chrisius Maximus said...

This is excellent Buster. Thanks!

Have you seen the book Kondopoga, chto eto bylo? It's a very interesting sociological overview of the city and the riots, with the results of a huge number of interviews with city residents of varouss sorts (nondescript locals of various ages, members of criminal groups, members of the Caucasian/Chechen community, government officials and policemen, etc.). A very informative little book.

McFry said...

Make It Plain , Brother Buster!

this is the most brilliantly articulated and frighteningly close-to-the-bone post yet.

yr fucking courtyard? dude.

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

CM, will try to track that down. But I swear I'm trying to focus on the dissertation these days. Cut down time on blogging and current affairs. That said, it's inevitable that I'll grab a copy sooner or later. Thanks for the rec.

McFry, what are you saying about the other posts? And, yeah.

McFry said...

well, of course, they're all pretty good & interesting, but to a philistine scumbag like me, this one distills the various themes and tangents to their most urgent essence.

ok, why am i fawning over you, you stuck-up academic prick? go on, piss off to the pub!

Kei said...

Very interesting piece, and quite comprehensive for a blog posting. From where I sit (San Francisco), it seems like you wouldn't be able to walk down the street or ride the subway in Russia without worrying about a pack of drunken hooligans descending upon you, were you to be unfortunate enough not to be blond and blue-eyed. Hard to believe. I spent a little while in St. Petersburg about 10 years ago and this wasn't even an issue. Is it as bad as the media coverage would suggest?

Chrisius Maximus said...

Well, in my 8 years in Moscow, I've only seen skinheads once. I would imagine they congregate in specific areas where they think they can find targets.

kg said...

Kei, perhaps there should be a distinction b/w drunken hooligans and skinheads. I don't think I've seen the latter in the last year that I've spent on and off in Moscow, though I really suck at spotting that sort of thing. On the other hand, one sees groups (usually 3-4) of drunken, loud, and one thinks it safe to say not all that enlightened young men all the time. I mean, on a Friday or Sunday night, you'd think there were a law against riding the metro sober! And not being an expert on this, I sometimes wonder whether such drunken debauchers (and not just people deliberately looking to kill and maim) that are part of the problem. That said, no, it's not the land of the living dead hear and you still can leave the house after 8 p.m.!

Russian-American said...

Thanks Buster. I just want to add a little bit about "that somehow". I believe I know how it happened.. I was 17 y.o. when the USSR collapsed, and my generation was lucky to be well educated. Also, we grew up knowing what is good and what is wrong. Years from 1991 to 1999, as I remember, were really tough; there was a huge stress for all age groups. What yesterday had a high value, became nothing the next day. In what people believed crashed and became a dust. We did not know where we as a nation were going. Many older people I knew died a year after the end of the USSR. The "somehow" generation is 16-20 y.o. youth (see 2010 year - 20years=1990)who was left behind without anything good like education, love of their family members and so on just because their parents had to struggle in order to find just a piece of bread. These children are angry. They can't feel that they are accepted by the society as no one even now doesn't care much about them. I hope that things with younger children are a little bit better now, but "somehow" generation will create more problems in the future unless studied and "corrected" by Putin's government. This is a scary thing, those "somehow" people, as they are not happy with who they are and how they live. Angry and jealous young people.