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

Democracy Lab

Putin Declares War on Sleaze

Vladimir Putin is vowing to make a dent in the eternal Russian problem of corruption. Skepticism is warranted.

MOSCOW — A few days ago I stopped by a low-budget beauty salon in downtown Moscow to sample the popular mood. Last week, President Vladimir Putin introduced a bill into the Duma (the Russian parliament) that aims to block top state bureaucrats and their closest relatives from holding money, shares, or bonds abroad. The ladies in the salon were abuzz about the move, enthralled by the notion that officials famous for their roomy villas and aquamarine swimming pools in Miami, the South of France, or Bulgaria were finally facing a reckoning. "Finally he's got his act together!" a middle-aged client, Irina, said of Putin's sally. "I'm sick of reading about [ruling party] United Russia wives spending billions of stolen dollars at foreign resorts." Lena, the hairdresser, denounced one of Putin's own advisers: "Pavel Astakhov keeps his family in Cannes," she declared. "He goes to visit them every weekend while I have to scrape by just to redecorate my apartment." How she knew this privileged information was somewhat irrelevant; in Russia, indeed, the cynical suppositions of the populace all too often lag far behind the grubby reality. The salon customers went on to ponder whether former Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov or ex-Minister of Agriculture Yelena Skrynnik, both currently under investigation, will actually go to jail for embezzling millions of rubles in state funds. (The photo above shows Putin meeting with the newly appointed minister of defense, Sergei Shoigu, after Serdyukov was sacked.)  

Putin's move has served to enflame Russians' smoldering anger over the obvious corruption of the elite. Ordinary Russians have historically obsessed over the division between "us" (ordinary folk) and "them" (the ruling elite). But rarely has the gap inspired as much bile as it does today. Eavesdrop on middle-class Muscovites and you're bound to hear tirades about sleaze at the top. Corrosive state corruption, which experts claim costs the Russian economy some $400 billion a year for the Russian economy, has permeated all levels of Russian society. The chairman of the Audit Chamber, Sergei Stepashin, says that bureaucrats plunder around one trillion rubles ($33 billion) from state purchases every year: "One-fourteenth of the country's budget annually goes into the pockets and offshore accounts of state officials and businessmen affiliated with them," he recently told state news agencies. 

In just the past week there have been scandals at three different ministries. The main oncologist of the Ministry of Health, Valery Chissov, quit after investigators accused his deputy of taking a million-ruble bribe from a commercial company in return for guaranteed state contracts for medical equipment. At the Skolkovo high-tech hub, Russia's answer to Silicon Valley, investigators revealed the embezzlement of $800,000 in development funds and opened a criminal case against the foundation's finance director, Kirill Lugovets. (Police suspect he paid that amount in rent to a building owned by his own parents.) Skolkovo, which once enjoyed the direct patronage of ex-President Dmitri Medvedev, is supposed to be a showcase of transparency and competitiveness; it has even succeeded in establishing a series of collaborations with MIT. But critics say the whole project has a rotten smell to it. In a recent interview, the vice president of the Skolkovo Foundation, Alexander Chernov, admitted that many remain skeptical about the center's future. "Anything initiated by the government immediately generates skepticism," Chernov said. 

Even the Bolshoi Theater, that symbol of Russia's rich cultural legacy, has been drawn into criminal scandals. Soon after an attacker splashed acid on his face, Sergei Filin, the Bolshoi's creative director, told me that he hopes that the Kremlin will make an exemplary effort to investigate his case and show results. Last year he asked both Vladimir Putin and then-president Dmitry Medvedev, the president at the time, to help put an end to the scandalous corruption conflicts tearing the Bolshoi apart, but nothing had been done. "The question is whether, after what happened to me, the authorities will tackle the bigger problems at the theater," Filin said. "If they don't manage to solve anything even now, it makes you wonder what else has to happen in order to get the authorities to react." 

Billions of stolen rubles vanish or "dissolve," as Vladimir Putin put it last week, without a trace. He has promised "intense, tough, and consistent" measures to fight high-level corruption in the bureaucracy. As if to demonstrate his resolve, last Wednesday Putin publicly scolded the minister of energy, Alexander Novak, and the CEO of state hydroelectricity company Rus Hydro, Yevgeny Dod. "You should be fighting with your teeth to recover these funds," Putin told them. "A billion rubles (about $33 million) has been stolen, a billion has been given to a fake firm, a billion has vanished. And you're still investigating, and you sometimes don't think that it's necessary to protect the interests of the company." 

The new campaign aims to change the deeply rooted lifestyle of nearly two million Russian officials: Husbands serve the motherland while their wives live abroad and their children attend the best Western private schools. Only last year, the Russian elite purchased overseas property worth $12 billion abroad (much of which was never declared). Capital flight amounted to more than $60 billion. When the Russian sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya recently issued a confidential report saying that the real incomes of leading officials are now around $60,000 dollars a month, members of the ruling United Russia party rebuked her. (Kryshtanovskaya, a long-time member of the party, left it in protest.) "After late year's protests, Putin had to push the elite to make a choice," Kryshtanovskaya told me. "They either had to quit their government jobs or take responsibility for hiding their illegitimate incomes." 

Putin's new anti-corruption law tries to draw a bright red line between two kinds of officials. On one side are the "exemplary patriots" (as the current parlance has it), who plan to earn and spend their money within the borders of Russia. On the other are the despicable non-patriots, who harbor nefarious secret plans to sneak off one day to a comfortable home in a foreign country with good roads, high-quality medical services, and a nicer climate. One of the patriots, Duma Deputy Mikhail Degtyarev, said that "the country will be sealed for Russian officials completely by the end of this year." The 31-year-old Degtyarev confirmed that dozens of Russian officials, including Igor Shuvalov, the deputy chairman of the Russian government, will have to say goodbye to their foreign assets and their multi-million dollar properties abroad -- "or they will have to use their smarts and re-register their property," as he put it. 

Ordinary Russians, who have to pay bribes every time they need surgery or apply for admission to kindergarten for their children, have a hard time believing that any law will stop state bureaucrats from stealing money. After all, hasn't bribery been illegal all along? Yet the public has welcomed the first victims of the campaign from within the ranks of the ruling party. One of United Russia's leaders, deputy Vladimir Pekhtin, quit the chairmanship of the Duma earlier this month after opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny revealed that Pekhtin owned $2 million worth of real estate in Miami, Florida. Navalny, who has made himself a figure of considerable popularity with his online crusade against graft, has promised to identify hundreds of other officials who own property overseas. But his contributions to the fight against corruption haven't exactly made him a darling of the government: He is a suspect in one criminal case and under investigation in another (though so far there is no evidence of his guilt in any of them). Stories like his, indeed, suggest that Russia's struggle against sleaze remains an uphill climb.

Photo by ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images