What's Behind Russia's Recent Race Riots?

30/10/2013 14:12 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

Russia is as different from Western Europe as a bear is from a house cat and although it is often said that Russia and the West face a similar struggle with mass immigration, the truth is far more complex.

As the spate of recent race riots in Moscow have shown, tensions between migrants from the Caucasus and ethnic Russians are running high these days. Tony Halpin, former Russia correspondent for The Times, tweeting that Russia's football world cup qualifier against Azerbaijan couldn't have come at a worse time is not far off the mark. (

Centuries of occupation from the time of Catherine the Great and ending with, in many respects, the USSR stand between Russians and their new neighbours. Add to this the open wounds of two bloody wars in Chechnya and terrorist incidents in Beslan and Moscow and you have a real mess on your hands.

Yet are we really to believe that recent scenes are the culmination of a grand narrative of coloniser and colonised? The truth is probably far more mundane.

Russia's comparatively booming economy and surplus of work attracts Caucasian and central Asian workers to Russian cities. A few years earning hard money through road resurfacing allows the opportunity for migrants to return comfortably to their homelands and keep their families well. The consequence is that, for the first time, Russians are coming face to face with a people who they have long felt an animosity towards and excuses for racial tension start to appear.

Young Russians who I used to socialise with blamed the temptations of the big city, namely alcohol which is frowned upon in traditional Caucasian communities, for the increase in anti-Russian violence on the capital's streets. Views on marriages in the Caucasus are also miles away from the cosmopolitan culture of Moscow's bars and nightclubs.

I worry that this pseudo-sociological reasoning is a way of sidestepping wider antisocial issues within the Russian mindset. Racially motivated killings are not a fair response to immigrant crime and immigrants are not always the root cause of disturbances. Life for a migrant worker is harder still if the society you live in is happy to use your acceptance of its liberties to condone violence against you.

As we have seen recently, White Power movements and reactionary ideas are prominent in Russia, although we must be careful not to ignore the resurgences happening in Europe as well. What makes the Russian case unique is that, in mainstream political discourse, "Nationalism" is a word not treated with the same level of suspicion and disdain as it is in Britain, for example.

Here is, perhaps, the crux of the recent race riots. Even Alexei Navalny, paraded as a kind of liberal hero for Russia's anti-Putin protestors, is himself a nationalist. Of course we risk falling into a translation error by taking any foreign term that sounds similar to an English word as having the same meaning but parallels exist between both understandings. If you fancy a laugh then have a look at the sorts of things that The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia come up with and you'll see how misleading their British namesake is.

What makes the whole mess of the last week even more futile is the fact that "Russian" in itself is an unstable ethnicity. It is a cultural mix, an umbrella term describing the descendents of Rus Viking tribes from the north, Tartar descendents of the Golden Horde, German settlers from the time of Peter the Great and often Eastern or Turkic influences via central Asia and Siberia. A Russian professor once explained to me that "Russia is an enormous country!" yet Russians seemingly have the capacity to be both proud of their diverse origins and xenophobic about the appearance of foreign bodies in their apartment buildings.

The funny thing (or not) is that we might as well be talking about modern day Britain.

I have always loved Russia and having lived in it, worked in it and studied it, I worry for the next year. More than any nation on earth, The Russian Federation will be under international scrutiny with the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi. Without wanting to sound patronising (I apologise if I have) what the government and the people don't need is more bad press. Russia has some serious issues to think about, immigration being just one of them.