On September 13, more than 300 individuals gathered for a “people’s meeting,” or skhod, outside a dormitory for migrant workers in the Moscow Oblast town of Buzhaninovo, near Sergiev Posad. The rally participants called on the local police to investigate the foreign migrants in the wake of the discovery in a nearby forest of the body of a 67-year-old woman who had been raped and suffered a violent death. Earlier in the day, the local newspaper Kopek had published a letter from local inhabitants that blamed migrants for the killing of the woman and claimed the village had
turned into an aul [a name for a non-ethnic-Russian region]” due to the concentration of foreigners at the hostel (Novaya Gazeta, September 13).
Following the skhod, the police declared that they had detained “two citizens of neighboring countries born in 1988 and 1984.” The investigation promised to check whether the accused people were in Russia legally as well look into possible inaction of officials charged with controlling the length of their stay in Russia (Mosobl.sledcom.ru, September 13). The two detained men turned out to be citizens of Tajikistan, and the mayor of the municipality, Mikhail Tokarev, pledged on Instagram to demand the closure of the dormitory where they were staying (Interfax, September 14). Migrants who had been residing there were subsequently relocated to a protected area some ten kilometers from Sergiev Posad, while the dormitory site was revamped—with trees being cut and roads repaired—and the residence repurposed for visitors from neighboring regions (i.e., ethnic Russian or white). The townspeople appeared to be satisfied with these changes, and local deputy Andrei Mardasov said that “the people are glad that the problem has begun to be resolved, but all in all it left a negative residue. A person was killed. Who may now rest peacefully?” (Lenta, September 15).
The Buzhaninovo skhod—the latest of several notable such events in Russia over the past 15 years—speaks to a number of larger trends and phenomena in Russian society and politics.
First, these spontaneous “popular” uprisings underscore to what degree xenophobic intolerance continues to be a factor in Russian society, and they provide a signpost for whether such sentiments are growing or decreasing. The first such ethnic-Russian skhod in recent memory occurred in the Karelian town of Kondopoga, in 2006, which resulted in several nights of rioting and protests directed against the Chechen population. More skhods followed: in Stavropol (in 2007), in the center of Moscow itself (2010), in Sagra (Sverdlovsk Oblast, in 2011), in Pugachyov (Saratov Oblast, in 2013) and perhaps most famously, in the Moscow suburb of Biryulovo (in 2013), which devolved into a violent riot (see EDM, October 17, 2013 and March 5, 2014). Given the diversity of the Russian Federation, acts that risk sparking inter-ethnic hostility are viewed with great concern by those in the Kremlin. And perhaps even more alarmingly for the authorities, some signs indicate that similar xenophobic attitudes have now spread to Russia’s minority populations, such as the 2019 skhod in the ethnic republic of Sakha-Yakutia, which saw the (non-Russian) native population rallying against migrants (Ponarseurasia.org, May 20, 2019).
Following the forcible annexation of Ukrainian Crimea in early 2014, there was a notable decline in hate crimes in Russia; but that trend already seemed to reversing itself right before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. And now, with many of the government’s coronavirus restrictions having been lifted, hate crimes are again on the rise across Russia, such as the shooting of a Tajikistani citizen in Belgorod, an attack on a picket in support of Crimean Tatars in Leningrad region, and an anti-Semitically motivated murder in Moscow (Sova-center.ru, August 10, 19, September 8, 2021), The recent skhod in Buzhaninovo is sure to raise temperatures and could possibly become a cause celebre for radical nationalists across the country.
This leads directly to the second reason why the Buzhaninovo skhod was so important for current Russian politics: demography and its consequences. Even prior to the pandemic, Russia was faced with a negative demographic outlook (particularly for the Slavic population), a situation that has led to both some creative as well as unimaginative measures to increase the fertility rate. Russian experts, rather optimistically, do not expect the pandemic to have major implications on the longer-term demographic situation in the country. Yet in the short run, COVID-19 has certainly impacted the economic situation, reducing both the propensity and ability of younger people to have children and raise the parlous birth rate (Moskovsky Komsomolets, February 13). Similarly, Russia’s slow recovery from the coronavirus crisis will increase the appeal of emigration for the youngest and most-highly educated Russian citizens. A growing willingness of Russians to leave the country has, indeed, been recorded for months and now stands at its highest level since the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991 (Levada.ru, June 9). Further complicating the situation is the exodus of ethnic Russians from the non-Russian titular ethnic republics, with Siberia, the Middle Volga and the North Caucasus regions at particular risk of depopulation by ethnic Russians (see EDM, September 21). In the past, shortfalls in manpower have been compensated for by immigration from Central Asia and the Caucasus; but events like the Buzhaninovo skhod, if allowed to multiply, may diminish Russia’s attractiveness as a destination for guest laborers from the former Soviet space.