The Kremlin Vigilantes
Matthews, Owen, Nemtsova, Anna, Newsweek International
Byline: Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova
As anti-immigrant groups grow more violent, they get more explicit support from Russian authorities.
One day this winter a trainload of migrant workers from Uzbekistan arrived at a railway station in Moscow where they were greeted by a crowd of 100 people waving placards that said things like ILLEGAL ONES, GET OUT OF HERE! and AN ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT IS A THIEF. Behind the demonstration: the Young Guard--the youth group of the ruling United Russia party--which says its mission is to help fulfill Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's plan to rein in the number of migrant laborers coming into the country. "The party is responsible for executive and legislative policy," says Andrei Tatarinov, deputy director of the Young Guards' central headquarters, "and we are responsible for taking that policy onto the streets."
Such a policy represents a big turnaround for Russia, which until very recently has officially welcomed immigrants if not with open arms than at least with grudging acceptance. Since the fall of the Soviet Union there have been no restrictions on travel between most of the former Soviet states, though the number of work permits issued has varied from year to year. Russia's massive building and retail boom fueled by years of steady economic expansion created millions of largely semiskilled jobs that workers from Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan rushed to fill, with official blessing. As a result, Russia last year was the second biggest immigrant destination in the world (after the United States), with nearly 7 million migrants, 2.8 million legal and about 4 million illegal.
But as the Russian economy craters, its immigrant community looks set to suffer most as a backlash against foreigners--Russia's time-honored scapegoats from tsarist times--gathers pace. Over the last year, the number of attacks on foreigners has risen sharply. Sova, a Moscow NGO that monitors hate crimes, reports that 96 foreigners were killed and 410 wounded as a result of racist attacks in 2008--an increase of nearly a third over the year before. Aleksandr Verkhovsky, head of Sova, says racist gangs of armed vigilantes are "walking the streets, their faces wrapped in black scarves" and assaulting and terrorizing immigrants. The police do virtually nothing to stop them, he says.
Almost every illegal immigrant has a horror story to tell. Boria Zhan, a 26-year-old from Tajikistan, says he spent 18 days last fall building a dacha for a rich Moscow family 150 kilometers out of town. When he asked for the promised 20,000 rubles ($843), his employer threw him out on the road penniless. In a spate of particularly horrific incidents, the head of a Tajik laborer was found in a Moscow trash bin in December, and in October a gruesome video of two immigrants being decapitated by masked Russian-speaking men began circulating on ultranationalist Web sites. …