Democracy Lab

Russia's New Vigilantes

How anti-immigrant passions are shaping Russia's political scene.

MOSCOW — "Inspection!" someone shouts. The dark-skinned waitresses and cleaning ladies instantly jump to their feet and rush out the back door of the restaurant with horror in their eyes. The chef hurriedly pushes some of his illegal immigrant employees under the table in his office -- and even into the kitchen fridge. When the inspector arrives, he orders a cheesecake (gratis, of course). As he eats, he assures anyone who's listening that he can smell immigrants like "rats," so he's sure to hunt them down. This is a scene from Kukhnia (The Kitchen), a popular Russian TV series based on life behind the scenes of a Moscow restaurant staffed largely by illegal workers.

The show may be fiction, but it accurately captures the rise of a new Russian chauvinism -- what the Kremlin's ideologists call the beginning of "the long-awaited patriotic revival." Muscovites commuting to work one day last November were surprised to see a few round-faced Cossacks in dark blue uniforms and tall sheepskin hats patrolling a railway station in downtown Moscow. But their appearance didn't provoke outrage; just the opposite, in fact. Most Muscovites began lamenting that there probably weren't enough Cossacks around for the thousands of illegal immigrants in the city.

Moscow's booming economy has created an insatiable market for cheap labor. The result has been a flood of immigrants from other republics of the old USSR, especially from Ukraine and the economically-stagnant Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Though the authorities claim to oppose the influx, they've done nothing to alter the nearly irresistible logic behind immigration. In 2011 the Russian government reduced the quota for immigrant workers by 163,000, to 1.2 million -- but this month the authorities reported that over three million foreigners actually live and work in Russia illegally.

Whatever the reasons, the Federal Migration Service is clearly failing to catch the illegal foreign workers with its own hands. But given the buzz of nationalism under President Vladimir V. Putin, many Russians are only too eager to chase hard-working but poor Uzbek construction workers, Filipino cleaning ladies, and Tajik street-sweepers out of the country. So when the federal government called upon ordinary people to form patrols all across the country this week, hundreds of volunteers expressed willingness to participate.

Who were the patriots willing to help out? One of them is Dmitry Demushkin, the leader of the Russkie nationalist movement (and former leader of the ultra-right, now-banned SS Party), who explained to Interfax that his activists were happy to become the core of such folk patrols. There are about 20,000 active participants in ultra-right groups who would be happy to cause problems for foreigners around the country, according to surveys, and many more Russians sympathize with their ideas. The respected polling organization Levada Center reported that 58 percent of Russians said they support the nationalists' slogan of "Russia for Russians!"

A few years ago, I reported on a paramilitary training exercise by Demushkin's SS activists in Kolomna, a blighted outskirts region of Moscow. We hiked for about a mile deep into the snowy woods. The nationalists in white winter camouflage demonstrated perfect organization. Some unpacked Kalashnikovs, pistols, and knives and spread them on a piece of canvas; others quickly unrolled a long red banner with the words "Slavic Force" (and the acronym "SS" in Cyrillic). For two hours Demushkin's deputy, Dmitriy Bakharev, instructed these 20-year-old, angry suburbanites how to fight with knives and move around the forest with guns. The aim: To get ready "to clean up" the country for the Russian master race.

Training sessions of this kind have been the practice for Russkie activists over the last 12 years. In one of the interviews at a bar in an outlying district of Moscow, Demushkin told me: "I recommend that the guys in the Kremlin start a dialogue with us before it's too late, since we have allies in the army, the police, and among the FSB. Otherwise we will arrange a coup; this government is showing itself as totally incapable." For years, thousands of nationalists in black balaclavas came out for anti-Putin marches to the streets of Russian major cities. So-called "Russian marches" against immigrants have been demanding the Kremlin's initiative. The current anti-immigrant initiative seems to mark a concession to these forces.

The "People's Patrols" proposal is part of a package of other Soviet-style regulations tightening rules requiring police registration at certain addresses and an anti-gay propaganda law. "This is not the revival of patriotism, but a revival of nationalism, as clearly patrols will target a concrete enemy: particular ethnic groups," said Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the Sova Center, a group that monitors xenophobia and ethnic violence. The latest Sova survey describes almost 200 cases of attacks apparently motivated by xenophobia. The group's experts say that there is clear evidence of a trend for the worse.

Many Russians still remember the Soviet-era street patrols, the druzhinniki or people's militia, who usually consisted of high school or university students. They wore red armbands and walked the streets to keep order on May Day and other public holidays. Not everyone is excited by the revival of volunteer patrols, whether Cossack or Soviet. Only three percent of the mostly liberal listeners of the radio station Echo of Moscow approved of the notion of the new street patrols. Listeners expressed concern that the volunteer inspectors might seize the chance to crack down on anyone they choose, including gay couples or various social nonconformists.

But Russians in the southern regions of Krasnodar and Stavropol are welcoming the idea of nationalists guarding their streets. 300 well-trained Cossacks in traditional red and black uniforms already march along Krasnodar streets; Cossacks on horses guard the central park and the main church in Stavropol, and recently the governor there ordered the creation of a new professional Cossack police unit of 150 men armed with traditional knives, whips, and stun guns. It was unclear whether they would be authorized to use the whips on citizens. "Finally, Cossacks will be in charge," said Vladimir Nesterov, the head of the Union of Slav Organizations. "Our goal is to make the foreign national[s] understand that it is time to retreat from traditional Russian cities."    

Photo by ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images

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