The Backlash Against Immigration in Russia

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. Alberto Andreani, who heads the European Union-funded Prevention of Human Trafficking Project in St. Petersburg, estimates that 300 people become victims of forced labor every day in Russia.

Official Russian policy toward immigrants has also lurched toward anti-immigrant populism. With unemployment expected to soar as the economic crisis takes hold, Putin announced in December that quotas would be cut in half in 2009, from 4 million to 2 million permits a year. Russia's State Organization for Migration complains that corrupt police and officials are now routinely shaking down foreign workers. "'Russia is only for Russians'—that's what I hear more and more from nationalist movements, even from members of the government," says Igor Yeleferenko, leader of the United Russia faction in the Moscow city Duma.

A key bellwether of official anti-immigrant sentiment is the government's attitude toward the ultranationalist Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI). In the summer of 2007, police arrested DPNI thugs after they roughed up foreigners in St. Petersburg. But last summer the DPNI was allowed to stage several marches in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Now the movement's leader, Aleksandr Belov, boasts that "finally, we have been heard—the ruling party supports our concerns about the number of illegal immigrants in Russia." Like members of the Young Guard, he now says he plans to train vigilante groups to "help the police" by seeking out illegals.

Aside from the human toll, there is an economic cost. Last year immigrant labor comprised 6 percent of Russian output, and demand for foreign labor is only expected to grow. Russia's working population has been falling steadily as a result of soaring death rates and disastrously low birthrates through the late 1980s and '90s. The State Statistics Service estimates that the country's workforce will fall by some 8 million people over the next seven years. In August, President Dmitry Medvedev was talking of Russia's "labor famine." "This problem is greater than any other facing us over the next 10 years," says economist Yevgeny Yasin.

But the damage is already done. Research last year by the International Organization for Migration showed that 76 percent of immigrants had no intention of staying in Russia for more than a few years, or bringing their families there. In the hostile new climate, the exodus of workers is likely to be as dramatic as their influx—and those remaining are likely to reap more of Russia's anger at growing unemployment and poverty.

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