MOSCOW— The holiday was National Unity Day, but the favorite chant was “Russia for Russians; Moscow for Muscovites!”
Instead of calls for unity among Russia’s diverse religions and peoples, demonstrators chanted: “Soon, soon, Moscow will be a white city.”
After the United States, Russia has the world’s second largest number of immigrant workers: 12 million. With 10 percent of all workers in Russia now from Central Asia, stresses are forming between Russia’s historically Slavic Christian population and the overwhelmingly Muslim newcomers.
The slogans and banners at Monday’s annual Russian March spoke of a backlash.
One banner warned: “A Mosque Today -- Jihad Tomorrow.” Another read: “Youth Against Tolerance.”
City authorities exiled the marchers to a working class suburb far from the city center. The night before, intruders destroyed 500 protest signs stored in a locked warehouse. Authorities hoped that rain and a heavy police presence would keep people away. Instead, thousands flowed out of metro stations to protest workers from Central Asia and from Russia’s Caucasus region.
Expel the 'foreigners'
Vladimir Tor, a nationalist leader, recalled Russia’s expulsion of Polish invaders 400 years ago.
"Our ancestors four centuries ago threw out the foreign occupants from our Kremlin,” he said. “God willing we can do the same in our century. We are speaking up for the celebration of the Russian nationalist interest, for a Russian national democratic government, for introducing a visa regime with Central Asian and Caucasian republics.”
Many charged that profit motives explain Moscow’s changing face. Ilya paused between leading a group of young men in black leather jackets in shouting chants.
“We are against illegal immigration,” he said. “And there needs to be changes and economic sanctions so that it won't be profitable for businesses to pay illegal immigrants salaries that are two to three times smaller than those for legal residents.”
Historically, Cossacks have patrolled Russia’s borders with the Muslim south. Sergei, a Cossack, says migrants undercut wages.
“All of the Asians and Caucasians and minority groups come here to work, because it's more beneficial for the government to pay them lower wages than to pay the Slavs," he said. "However, we Slavs have a huge population -- and there's no work for us.”
Government officials say Russia’s unemployment rate is 5.3 percent.
A surge in Moscow’s Muslim population to about 2 million people has led some residents to feel a loss of control. In response, officials say that this year they have quadrupled deportation orders and increased fingerprinting of foreigners eightfold.
Two weeks ago, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a nationalist politician favored by the Kremlin, went so far as to call for imposing Chinese-style population controls on families in Russia’s Caucasus.
“They should be allowed to have the average amount of babies of a middle-class family -- two or one, that's all,” he said, speaking on Poedinok, a show on Russia 1, a state channel with the nation’s largest audience. “They should be fined for the third child. If they don't want to, we'll close it off. If they don't want to, we'll surround the territory with barbed wire. And if they don't want to, we'll close everything we can and let them stay there,” he continued.
In response, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a veteran human rights leader, told reporters that Zhirinovsky should be surrounded with barbed wire.
She said the Kremlin is following a dangerous strategy. “They are kindling strife between nationalities. It's a type of distraction. They are taking people's dissatisfaction with the government and changing it to dissatisfaction with people of other nationalities. It's really easy to see,” said Alexeyeva.
However, the young nationalists who danced in the rain Monday night to a skinhead band may be only the tip of a larger iceberg of Russian xenophobia.
In October, 81 percent of the Muscovites polled by the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling agency, said they would like to see Central Asian migrants workers deported. The same poll showed 84 percent said they wanted the Kremlin to stop subsidizing the Caucasus.
Russia’s new, post-Soviet generation, seems to be growing up nationalist.