A Street Murder Inflames Misplaced Racism

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The pattern was familiar: A man believed to be a native of the Caucasus region stabs a Russian to death in an argument over a girl, and neighborhood Russians take to the streets to demand justice. This sequence has repeated itself numerous times in small Russian towns. Last weekend, however, race riots came to Moscow, with thousands taking part and hundreds detained.

Late on Oct. 10, Yegor Shcherbakov and his girlfriend Ksenia drove home from a bowling alley. Home was Biryulyovo, a dismal area of warehouses and shabby concrete apartment blocks on the southern rim of Moscow's outer ring road. As Shcherbakov, 25, a part-time taxi driver whose dream was to become an interior decorator, parked the car next to his apartment building, a stranger apparently made a pass at Ksenia. Footage from a security camera showed the man had just accosted another woman, grabbing her roughly before she escaped. Shcherbakov, an athletic former swimmer, intervened between Ksenia and the stranger. The man, who looked like a Caucasus native, pulled a knife and stabbed Shcherbakov in the heart. Ksenia rushed home screaming, but the ambulance arrived too late: Shcherbakov was dead.

The neighborhood was abuzz with talk of the murder, but police made no immediate progress in catching the stabber. That riled locals enough to turn out in force on Oct. 12 in front of the local government building demanding action against migrants. Biryulyovo residents reiterated their old complaint against a local vegetable-storage facility, one of the biggest in the city, where many of the workers come from the Caucasus and Central Asia. The immigrants were not well-liked in the neighborhood, to say the least. Women complained of unwanted sexual advances, and men sensed danger from groups of dark-skinned strangers assembling in courtyards after work.

Unhappy with the authorities' dismissive response, locals, now supplemented by soccer fans, assembled again the following day, and this time they were much more aggressive. Local government and police officials who appealed for calm were shouted down. Chanting "We are Russians, We are home," about 600 people attacked a neighborhood store operated by migrants, threw a bicycle through a shop window and beat up workers. Riot police arrived almost an hour later and picked up several rioters. The crowd swelled, and more than 1,000 people walkedto the vegetable warehouse, forced open the gates and started breaking things. Tangerines rolled across the yard from smashed crates. Police eventually detained about 400 people, and the rest went home.

The authorities showed surprising mildness the following day. All detainees except two went free, though some still faced charges of hooliganism, a misdemeanor. The sanitary service closed the vegetable-storage facility, and the 1,200 migrants there were picked up by police. Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsevdemanded a crackdown on vegetable warehouses, said to harbor numerous illegal immigrants.

President Vladimir Putin didn't say a word about the biggest Moscow riot since he came to power in 2000. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin didn't see fit even to make an appearance in Biryulyovo during the rioting.

Regardless of official reaction -- or lack thereof -- the Biryulyovo riot highlighted post-communist social divisions in Moscow. Biryulyovo is Moscow's cheapest neighborhood, where housing costs $3,800 per square meter, 25 percent below the city average. Rentals are also the cheapest, and migrant workers often share apartments, living 10 to a room. Locals are mostly poor, working menial jobs and missing out on Moscow's conspicuous consumption boom. The number of college graduates here is 13 percent below the Moscow average. In a wealthier area of Moscow, similar riots would have been unthinkable. "The main reason for the Biryulyovo pogrom is the beggarly boredom of the city outskirts," Yevgeni Babushkin wrote on Snob.ru. "There is nothing scarier and more hopeless than a Sunday night in the ghetto where you have always lived and where you are barely alive."

The word "ghetto" was often repeated in the aftermath of the pogrom. "The more of a nightmare a compact migrant colony is for locals, the more money police and local bureaucrats can make," anti-Putin opposition leader Alexei Navalnywrote on LiveJournal. "Everybody knows there's a criminal ghetto and people who live there commit crimes with impunity because they pay off the authorities."

Lazy and corrupt cops were the true culprits, not the dark-skinned laborers and traders, journalist Yuri Saprykin wrote on Facebook: "A cop can harass you for the absence of a piece of paper or close a case for a good price. He is, however, too lazy and unmotivated to catch murderers or, better still, prevent murders."

Official silence about the riots and the subsequent raids against migrants may in fact be a Kremlin strategy to keep Russia's working poor blaming dark-skinned strangers for their woes. As poor Russians concentrate on the obvious enemy, they remain politically passive. It is stores and warehouses they storm, not municipal buildings and police stations. In the recent mayoral election, voters in Biryulyovo overwhelmingly supported Sobyanin, giving him 64 percent of the vote, albeit on a low turnout. As long as the ghetto supports the establishment, there is no point in preaching to it on the dangers of racism.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net