As Muslim worshippers — migrants mainly from central Asian republics who were once part of the Soviet Union — streamed out of a Moscow mosque on an overcast and chilly morning, many turned to nod or wave to a slender Korean-looking man observing the scene.
While returning the salutes, he maintains his scrutiny of the police to work out whether they're going to swoop and start detaining migrants, often on made-up charges for minor immigration or registration infractions. Police sweeps occur regularly after Friday prayers. For migrants caught in police dragnets, the choice can be either to pay a bribe or to find themselves instead before an unsympathetic administrative court and deported.
On the Friday that VOA accompanied Alexander Kim, several worshippers came up to shake his hand — and then sheepishly request a selfie with him. The 37-year-old is fast earning a reputation as the migrants' street champion.
He patrols likely spots for detentions — on the Moscow Metro, in or outside the capital's nine main railway terminals or at open-air food markets — and often steps in to remonstrate with bemused cops and to explain to migrants their legal rights. He posts to YouTube footage of incidents and tutorials on what to do if arrested. He has 56,000 regular followers and two of his YouTube posts recently attracted more than one million views each.
An Uzbek migrant, 27-year-old Ikram, who has lived in Moscow for two years, beams when he spots Kim and detaches himself from the stream of departing worshippers heading to a nearby Metro station to grab a selfie with Kim. "I follow Alexander on YouTube. And I know many guys who also follow him and talk about him. Tell journalists to support Alexander!" he told VOA.
Kim is also gaining a reputation with the Moscow police, he acknowledges with a shy chuckle. On one occasion the police recognized him and let some detainees go after he demanded to know the reasons for their arrest. His one-man mission patrolling the streets is risky, he acknowledges reluctantly.
In 2017, after intervening, he was arrested for "having an Asian face."
"I explained that was discrimination and discrimination is forbidden by Russian law to the policeman. He grabbed me and broke my finger," he said. "It all depends on the personality of the policemen."
Russia is now home to nearly 12 million migrants, many lured from impoverished central Asian republics by more job opportunities and the chance to make better money than they could in their home countries. Most of the recent migrants are men in their 20s and 30s who have at least four dependents back in their home countries — a wife, two children and either a parent or a younger sibling.
Russia's lowest-paid laborers — sweepers, gardeners, janitors, warehouse workers — generally come from the central Asian countries. Uzbeks are the largest group, with nearly 2 million living in Russia.
Much as in western Europe, the migration wave has prompted anxiety and resentment among the native-born population and is frequently exploited by politicians, even by prominent figures in the anti-Kremlin opposition, including those often portrayed in Western media as liberals. A 2018 survey by the Washington-based Pew Charitable Trusts showed that nearly 70 percent of Russian nationals felt the country should reduce migrant numbers or stop migration altogether.
With anti-migrant sentiment soaring, police have few restraints on them. There are no high-profile Russian champions defending them. Hence the importance of campaigners like Kim.
Asked if the police are inherently racist, he pauses before answering. "It is a difficult question," he said. "You cannot guess the real attitude of police in regard to migrants." But, he says at the very least, widespread racist attitudes act as "a public endorsement" for police actions.
"Migrants are vulnerable and the police can make easy money from them," he added.
Kim knows that firsthand. Born in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk to a Russian father and a Korean mother, he moved to Moscow for university, securing two degrees, one in history, the other in ecology.
As he stepped off the train in 2005 from Siberia, he was immediately confronted at Moscow's Kazansky railway station by a policeman who threatened to arrest him unless he paid a bribe. "I hadn't even left the station. I gave him 100 rubles [$3.50 in 2005]. It was a standard rate at that time," he said. The rates are much higher now. It can cost around $80 to avoid deportation.
In another part of Moscow, Valentina Chupik roars with laughter when Alexander Kim's name is mentioned. She runs a migrant center, Sunrise of the World, funded by the international Catholic charity Caritas, offering advice to migrants in trouble. Kim gives her tips and names and contact details of migrants he's run across and who need assistance.
She's clearly a Kim fan herself. And, like him, she can be confrontational in her bid to protect migrants. VOA heard this firsthand as she berated a Russian businessman over the phone and threatened to report him to authorities for tax evasion and a variety of other likely infractions unless he paid a migrant worker the money he owed him.
"Blackmail? Of course I use blackmail," proclaimed the no-nonsense 46-year-old, who has an infectious laugh and clucks around her migrant-clients like a fussy mother hen. "If I am dealing with landlords or businessmen I warn them of their infractions, of the complex of legal violations. If this information became public, they would have many problems, I tell them."
And she doesn't hold back with the police. "When I talk to police in cases of legal violation I blackmail them too. I say, 'OK, if you won't do that, I'll contact the prosecutor's office or security services,'" she said. The blue-eyed woman beams and offers packets of cakes and cookies littering her office, all gifts from grateful migrants.
"Don't mistake my blue eyes," she said. "I have Uzbek citizenship. And I couldn't get a job I wanted or medical aid. I cannot rent an apartment without being discriminated against. So I experience everything myself. The police are the biggest problem for migrants in Russia," she said. But that is partly thanks to institutional racism, she explains.
Central Asians can migrate to Russia without a visa. But they still need to be registered and to get a license for labor activity. They have to pay big money for that — about $195 for the first payment and then monthly $78, and from $70 to $78 quarterly for their registration. That's very expensive for low-paid migrants," she said.
"Russia is not state. Russia is a corporation of bribes," she added. "Many migrants come and work without registration and a license because it's much easier to pay smaller bribes to the police."
Chupik says everyday racism is becoming worse and police violence toward migrants is increasing.
"Most landlords won't rent apartments to black people, and migrant hostels are subjected to police raids, which means beatings and robberies," she said.