Wednesday was shaping up to be a day of excitement in Moscow. But the verdict expected in the second trial of the jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky (whom David Remnick writes about in the current issue) was postponed; an unceremonious note taped to the courthouse door announced the delay. Meanwhile, across the ice-clogged Moscow River, a gathering army of police was bracing for a race riot, the second in four days.
Tensions have been running high here ever since the night of December 6th, when a soccer fan named Egor Sviridov was killed, allegedly by a group of eight men from the Caucasus, a region between the Black and Caspian Seas whose residents are stereotyped much like Italian-Americans once were in the United States: as dark-haired, swarthy, passionate southerners with a taste for organized crime. Their complexions are why Russians call them “black,” or, worse, “blackasses.” When the Soviet Union collapsed, many Caucasians—but also ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, and others—began migrating to Moscow, increasingly the center of commerce and opportunity. The day after the killing, rumors began to circulate that other Caucasians had bribed officials to release the presumptive perpetrators from jail. Sviridov’s fellow soccer fans, enraged at the corrupt police and the alleged Caucasian killers, rioted and closed off one of Moscow’s biggest thoroughfares. The police arrested no one.
Then, on Saturday, seven thousand “real guys”—a combination of soccer hooligans, nationalists, and run-of-the-mill hoodlums—gathered, ostensibly to protest the murder of Sviridov. (Spartak, the team that Sviridov rooted for, announced its refusal to participate, whereas nationalist groups eagerly stepped in to help organize.) The mob screamed, “Russia for Russians!,” spray-painted swastikas and phrases like “Yids, get out of Russia!” and threw flares, bottles, and metal guardrails. Anyone on the streets who didn’t look Slavic got attacked. Then some of the thugs descended into the Metro, and, screaming “white car!” dragged Caucasians and Central Asians from the trains and beat them unconscious as policemen looked on helplessly. (Trains eventually started passing through the overtaken stations without opening their doors. Watch the horrifying footage.) One person was killed, and dozens were wounded.
Saturday’s pogrom was such a jaw-slackening display that the Russian President appeared on national TV and declare that “such actions threaten the stability of the state.” For the next few days, the number of hate crimes spiked, there was talk that migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia would stage a retaliatory riot Wednesday night on Kievskaya Square—right by my apartment, as it happens. Special forces and armored personnel carriers started gathering in the fifteen-degree cold on Tuesday.
On Wednesday evening, there were already three thousand special forces, Interior Ministry soldiers in green camouflage, and plainclothes officers. Generals in lamb-wool hats directed troops armed with helmets, clubs, and riot shields. Buses idled, waiting to transport would-be marauders. Kiosks and flower shops around the square shut down; most of their shopkeepers are “blacks.”
About a thousand Russian teenagers turned out to face off against a handful of Caucasian kids. Many of the Russians who gathered were girls decked out in their cutest pink pants and Uggs. If it weren’t for the special forces and the teens’ shouts of “Russia for Russians!” it could have been a Justin Bieber concert.
It was hard to take the protest seriously, especially when the kids shouting “Moscow for Muscovites!” turned out to be from outside the city. But this, the festive farce that followed Saturday’s tragedy, had unsettling moments. Like Saturday’s rioters, some of the Russian youths wore ski masks or surgical masks and, when asked, said they were here to “kill khachi,” or some other Russian equivalent of the N-word. One especially youthful-looking boy named Nikita (who said he was seventeen) said he was here to get the “blacks” because “they cut our guys and fuck our women.” A fourteen-year-old named Lesha, who also came to do his part in driving non-Russians from Russia, explained that he heard similar sentiments at home. “My dad supports me in everything,” he said.
The disturbances were not limited to Kievskaya; more than thirteen hundred people were detained in clashes around the city. Police also seized a nice stash of pistols, crowbars, hammers, and even an axe. Moscow went to bed with nary a word from its officials. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin was silent, and President Dmitry Medvedev said on Twitter: “The police behaved professionally. They deserve a rest. And you should rest, too. Good night.”
As for why this happened, there is, as always, the shadow of the Soviet Union. The vast multi-ethnic empire both emphasized and glossed over ethnic differences, without much discussion. Surveys indicate that about half of Moscow’s population is sympathetic with the calls for “Moscow for Muscovites.” “Moscow’s never been very hospitable to newcomers,” says Alexandr Verkhovsky, who runs the Sova Center, which tracks xenophobia in Russia.
A million young Russian men have rotated through the Caucasus during their compulsory military service, either in the wars in Chechnya or in the current counterinsurgency. When they return home, they often enter law enforcement and are expected to protect people who look like the ones they had just fought. “These were not citizens of your country but your enemy on the battlefield,” says Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. Which may explain why much of Russia’s law enforcement sympathizes with the rioters. And, as Charles Clover of the Financial Times explained, Russia has the largest and most violent population of skinheads in Europe, and law enforcement, for fear of their strength, has taken to co-opting these extremists, protecting them, even giving them financial support.
Oleg Kashin, a journalist who covered youth movements for the Russian daily Kommersant, told me, “These nationalistic organizations are shot through with police and are well-controlled by the FSB,” the successor to the KGB. Kashin spoke from his hospital bed where he was recovering from a savage beating for which some have—implausibly—blamed soccer hooligans. “When something of this size is planned, the Interior Ministry knows in advance exactly when and where it will happen. There are enough rats in these organizations.”
They didn’t even need that: in the leadup to the recent violence, all the information they needed was widely available on the Internet. “The police reacted improperly on Saturday,” says Verkhovsky, the xenophobia expert. Had they blocked off the square where the riots took place, had they sent out enough people and rounded up instigators, the situation, Verkhovsky says, would have been like Wednesday night: a few sporadic fights and a lot of teenagers looking for a rush of adrenaline.
After a week of silence, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin finally addressed the issue this afternoon in a televised question-and-answer marathon with the Russian public. He said that Russia has always been a multi-ethnic state and this kind of violence was out of line. “We are all children of one motherland,” he said sternly. But he did quibble with those who blamed law enforcement. If they criticize the hard work of the police—whom a full sixty per cent of the Russian population don’t trust—he suggested that “liberals shave their little beards, put on helmets and get out into the square to fight the radicals.” In other words, if you don’t understand the seriousness of the task before us, keep your mouth shut.
Race Riots in Russia [TNY]