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“Get out of the country? But this is my country!”: Russia’s native ethnic minorities facing xenophobia after March terrorist attack

In the aftermath of the March 22 terrorist attack that killed more than 140 concert goers at Crocus City Hall outside of Moscow, Russia has seen a sharp rise in nationalism and xenophobia, particularly aimed at migrants from Tajikistan. While Kremlin authorities publicly denounce the worsening interethnic relations, they turn a blind eye to the actions of ultranationalists, whose support they seek as part of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. A correspondent from The Insider visited neighborhoods with significant migrant populations and found that, due to aggressive “clean-up” operations, many of them are afraid to venture outside unnecessarily. Taxi drivers are experiencing a surge in aggression, and those caught with expired documents are being deported en masse — at their own expense. Even Dagestanis, ethnic minorities who by and large hold Russian citizenship, are falling victim to the crackdown.

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Content
  • “Police could arrest them just because they're Tajiks”

  • Racist informers are on the rise

  • “Deportation at one's own expense”

  • “Most of the people are sensible”

“Police could arrest them just because they're Tajiks”

“I'm sorry, my Russian isn't very good,” I hear twice within half an hour in Kotelniki, a district in the suburbs of Moscow, after voicing the phrase “terrorist attack.” Then my interlocutors literally vanish, not even letting me finish my sentence.

A few long months ago, it was just the opposite: the Tajik residents living here were more than willing to discuss the situation in the area and the challenges they faced. They talked about raids on mosques, police operations near the metro, and their interactions with local Russians. They even showed me videos from online chats. However, everything changed after the March 22 attack on Crocus City Hall, for which four Tajik nationals stand accused of carrying out the deadliest terrorist act in Russia since the 2004 Beslan school siege.

“There's definitely tension, a lot of negativity online,” says Aziza, a resident of Kotelniki. She's wearing a hijab and pushing a stroller, walking with two friends along the edge of the pond — a popular spot for locals to take evening walks. But it's unusually quiet today. “I'm not afraid to go out,” Aziza continues. “I'm a Russian citizen, even though I was born in Tajikistan. But our men worry that they could be arrested by the police just because they're Tajiks, that they might be accused of immigration violations. No one knows what to expect.”

Raid against migrants in Kotelniki, April 10th
Raid against migrants in Kotelniki, April 10th

As a Gazelle van passes by, driven by a bearded driver, we hear a nasheed — a Muslim hymn — coming from the cabin. Despite the closed windows, it's clearly audible. The driver, Islam, 37, works in cargo transportation during the day and drives a taxi in the mornings. He picks people up in Kotelniki and takes them to the Sadovod market. Originally from Dagestan, he too has felt the repercussions of the Crocus terrorist attack:

“Russians have started refusing rides. Many in our area usually don't use the app; they just step out of their homes in the morning and get into taxis. Well, they used to. But lately, they peek into the car and step back. My colleagues have had ride refusals even on the Yandex app, even though they have all their documents in order, with Russian passports. But they're Tajik by origin, with Tajik names, and some have beards like me. Although there aren't many Tajiks among us; mostly it's Kyrgyz drivers now.”

According to The Insider's interlocutor, what concerns him the most is the hatred on the internet — in neighborhood and residential chats: “Some of the stuff they post makes me feel sick. But I know not all Russians are like that. I hope they'll calm down soon.”

Amina also faced aggression. She works in a bakery in the Kovrovy microdistrict in Kotelniki. Like Islam, she's from Dagestan, but she claims that the “Nazis” don't make distinctions after the terrorist attack. As a result, anyone can become a target.

“Some youngsters came up to me, started being rude, saying I should get out of the country. But this is my country! My fellow Dagestanis are fighting and dying in the North Caucasus, and these Nazis are enjoying themselves in Moscow. They only have the courage to curse at me! Go fight if you're so smart, brave Russian!”
In the Yuzhny microdistrict, some Tajik migrants only go to work unloading trucks late in the evening in order “to avoid being too conspicuous”
In the Yuzhny microdistrict, some Tajik migrants only go to work unloading trucks late in the evening in order “to avoid being too conspicuous”

In a different district in northwest Moscow, 50-year-old Rashid sells dried fruits. Originally from Bukhara, Uzbekistan, he identifies ethnically as Tajik but has held a Russian passport for a long time. “I'm ready to go and kill these terrorists myself. I don't know how they can even be called human,” Rashid says of the men accused of carrying out the Crocus attack. “I don't feel threatened. I fear only God.” Despite his conviction, he temporarily removed the sign with the word “Tajikistan” from his trading stall.

Schoolchildren also felt the impact of the terrorist attack. On Monday, March 25th, all Russian schools conducted a themed lesson titled “Conversations about Important Things,” focusing on the attack at Crocus City Hall. The official teaching guide suggested children listen to a recording of Vladimir Putin's speech, in which he hinted at Ukrainian involvement.

“My daughter has two Tajik classmates,” said Irina, a mother living in southwest Moscow. “Both were unusually quiet, almost stunned. When asked, one of them, on the verge of tears, said, ‘The news claimed the terrorists are Tajiks, and I'm from Tajikistan.’ My daughter mentioned how both the teacher and classmates tried to reassure them.”

On social media, migrants began posting avatars with the message “Stop tajikophobia!”

Audio recordings purportedly containing instructions for managers of companies that employ migrant workers circulated in chat groups:

“Tomorrow, there's to be no venturing out onto the streets whatsoever. It's strictly prohibited. All dormitories will be closed. Those involved in deliveries should forget about work tomorrow. Anyone caught will be deported immediately. No one will be spared,” one audio recording declares.

“Deportation and very harsh treatment will be dealt out to everyone, especially citizens of Tajikistan,” according to another message.

While the authenticity of these chat messages is questionable, mass raids resulting in deportations have occurred throughout Moscow and other cities. In one incident, police officers stormed the apartment of Manas Zholdoshbekov, a Kyrgyz embassy staff member, demanding his documents for migration registration. Security forces also assaulted the diplomat's wife. In response, Bishkek lodged a protest note with Moscow.

Manas Zholdoshbekov, an employee of the Embassy of Kyrgyzstan in Russia
Manas Zholdoshbekov, an employee of the Embassy of Kyrgyzstan in Russia

“If they're treating embassy staff like this, I dread to think what they're doing to citizens without diplomatic immunity,” remarked Dastan Bekeshev, a member of Kyrgyzstan’s Parliament.

Racist informers are on the rise

The suburban district of Kotelniki, situated approximately five kilometers from the MKAD (Moscow Ring Road), has earned the moniker of a “migrant enclave.” In the summer of 2023, tensions escalated between local residents and migrants from Central Asian countries, predominantly Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Many of the newcomers have resided here for years, obtaining Russian citizenship and purchasing apartments. However, local Russians are slow to embrace them as fellow residents, largely due to cultural differences. One contentious issue involved the establishment of unofficial prayer centers inside residential buildings, the result of a shortage of official mosques — Moscow has only four, not enough to accommodate all worshippers.

Moscow has only four mosques, not enough to accommodate all worshippers

One of the most controversial prayer centers was located in Kotelniki’s “Yuzhny” microdistrict. It was shut down after nationalist groups, alerted by local residents, intervened. Now Kotelniki is quiet: there are no protests or prayer rooms — and, consequently, no opportunities for collective worship.

Following the Crocus terrorist attack, there are also fewer Tajiks around — at least on the streets — locals say.

Yuzhny Microdistrict, Kotelniki, Moscow Region
Yuzhny Microdistrict, Kotelniki, Moscow Region

“Ladies from their community used to stroll around here with their children at this time of day. When they arrested those terrorists, there were immediately fewer headscarves [a word nationalists use to refer to women in hijabs — The Insider]. But now they're starting to slowly reappear,” a man at a playground explains in a conversation that took place approximately one week after the attack.

An SUV with open windows turns onto a street from Dzerzhinsky Avenue, and a song performed by the Sretensky Monastery choir fills the entire street. The song is “Orthodoxy,” part of the Revival propaganda project, and its theme is the so-called “Russian world.” The video for the song was shot in Donbas, a Russian-occupied area of eastern Ukraine. The rear window of the car bears the emblem of the “Northern Man” nationalist organization.

The car stops at the Friendship sports club, located at Kovrovy Microdistrict, 33. There, the driver is greeted by a group of five sturdy like-minded individuals with sports bags. On this particular day, a joint training session is scheduled for members of various nationalist organizations, including the Russian Community, Northern Man, and Forty Forties. These citizen groups frequently engage in joint activities within the area — activities that involve blaring nationalist music as a means of asserting their presence and conveying the message that: “Russians are here, and they are not going anywhere!”

Nationalists entering the sports club
Nationalists entering the sports club

These organizations, along with their affiliated online platforms, actively promote an anti-migrant agenda. It's unsurprising that they capitalized on the Crocus tragedy to further their cause. In a video appeal, the coordinator of the Russian Community and the creator of the widely popular nationalist track “Russians Are Coming” urged followers to join their movement, form Russian squads, collaborate with law enforcement, and obtain permits for firearms. The release of videos showing the torture inflicted on the detained suspects in the terrorist attack inspired at least one participant in one of these nationalist groups to suggest using castration as punishment.

After the terrorist attack, the Russian Community announced the creation of a cyber squad. Judging by the description, its task will be to write reports on anyone who dares to doubt the government's narratives:

“A post was found online from a female creature stating that she's annoyed by all the talk about Crocus, that she couldn't care less, and everyone should go to hell with this Crocus. In my opinion, such crap bloggers shouldn't be running their blogs. In a well-coordinated move, the cyber squad can help this creature shut down her social media accounts and sit at home quietly. And just to be thorough, it can file 20, 30 or 100 reports with the Investigative Committee asking them to review her statements.”

The post in question, which cast doubt on whether the men arrested by the police were indeed the ones who carried out the Crocus attack, became the focus of the attention of the Russian Community members, who expressed their intent to use bots to uncover the author's identity.

A blogpost casting doubt on whether the men arrested by the police were actually involved in the Crocus attack became the focus of the attention of the Russian Community members, who expressed their intent to mass-report the author to the Investigative Committee
A blogpost casting doubt on whether the men arrested by the police were actually involved in the Crocus attack became the focus of the attention of the Russian Community members, who expressed their intent to mass-report the author to the Investigative Committee

In the town of Dmitrov, a few dozen kilometers north of Moscow, members of a local militia have taken branding all migrants as “potential terrorists,” compiling a list of hostels where they reside and forwarding it to law enforcement.

Nationalist movements backed by pro-Putin figures promote nationalism with an imperialist flavor. They contrast the “greater Russian nation” against the Western world, a narrative that closely aligns with the rhetoric of the Russian elites themselves.

During the 2000s, Russian nationalists called for the punishment of all non-Russians. Until these neo-Nazi groups emerged as a political force, instigating riots on Manezhnaya Square in 2010, the authorities largely turned a blind eye to them. After that step, however, Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code — which “prohibits the instigation of hate and enmity” — was deployed against them, with the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (BOR) coming in for notable scrutiny.

For the next several years, nationalists remained relatively inconspicuous inside Russia. However, following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many of the most extreme neo-Nazi and racist movements re-legitimized themselves by participating in combat operations, opening a path for their reentry into the public sphere. It is these groups that have most actively exacerbated interethnic tensions since the Crocus terrorist attack.

“Deportation at one's own expense”

The Sakharovo special detention center, situated 65 kilometers southwest of Moscow, serves as the destination for migrants detained during law enforcement raids. In response to the terrorist incident, Russian authorities launched extensive operations across thousands of construction sites, warehouses, hostels, and cafeterias where migrants work, live, and eat. Following perfunctory hearings for violations of immigration laws, Russian courts have deported thousands of non-citizens. Proposals for additional measures to curb migration have emerged from Russian officials, often with the backing of nationalist groups.

Migrants at the Migration Center in Sakharovo
Migrants at the Migration Center in Sakharovo

I meet Rushon at the entrance of the special detention center. He arrived with a food package for his brother, but he was not permitted to hand it over to him. Both men are in their early twenties. They had been laboring together at a construction site, and they shared an apartment provided by their employer. “It was better than staying in a dorm,” recalls Rushon.

A few days after the terrorist attack, their residence was raided by the police. Rushon was out, so he avoided being taken into custody. “My brother's documents had expired. They apprehended him and took him to the precinct. From there, straight to court. I was confident his paperwork was in order; our employer assured us. Even if there was a delay, it was just for a couple of days,” Rushon recounts.

He was clueless as to which precinct his brother had been taken to after the arrest. He also had no idea about the trial's location — or if a trial had even been scheduled at all. Rushon managed to connect with his brother only after he had spent two days in Sakharovo: “He called me from a phone he borrowed for 15 minutes from a cellmate.”

At Sakharovo, Rushon was instructed to pay a fine and given directions to visit a specific police station for further instructions. Subsequently, he was asked to purchase a ticket for his brother's journey back to their home country: “Deportation at one's own expense. You buy a ticket, bring it to the special detention center, and they use that ticket to take the person to the airport and send them back to their country. That's the system,” Rushon explains. As of the time of our conversation, his brother had been in the special detention center for 13 days.

Migrants in Sakharovo
Migrants in Sakharovo

“If you don't buy the ticket yourself, immigration authorities will certainly do it for you, but the wait can be very long,” says Rushon. He never mentioned that he and his brother are from Tajikistan, but I noticed a passport in a transparent folder he held in his hands.

“Most of the people are sensible”

While the actions of small nationalist groups indeed pose a genuine threat to migrants — and also Russian citizens of minority ethnicities — it would be a stretch to suggest that Russians support these movements en masse. The more extremist groups’ online channels and chat groups do not boast large followings. Typically, they have only a few thousand subscribers, occasionally reaching tens of thousands. The most significant channel, “Russian Community ZOV,” run by propagandist Andrey Afanasyev of the Tsargrad TV channel, has 287,000 subscribers. Misha Mavashi's nationalist organization, Northern Man, counts 111,000 subscribers. The official channel of their allied group, the Orthodox radicals Forty Forties, has 88,000 subscribers.

Since spring 2023, these three organizations have rallied their core nationalist supporters. However, their regional and thematic branches seldom attract more than a few thousand members — and often only a couple of hundred — despite substantial propaganda and financial backing from coordinators linked to the Presidential Administration and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Nationalists from Russian Community
Nationalists from Russian Community

One of Russia’s more prominent nationalists is Konstantin Malofeev, the founder of Tsargrad TV and a former deputy head of the World Russian People's Council (WRPC). Recently, Malofeev announced his resignation from this body, a move that he said would leave him with more time to deploy the Tsargrad Foundation in pursuit of anti-migrant initiatives, including proposed legislative reforms aimed at tightening Russia’s immigration policies.

Malofeev said he would be promoting legislative reforms to tighten migration policy

Nevertheless, the rhetoric of figures like Malofeev serves to demonstrate just how fantastical Russian nationalist arguments have become:

“The Crocus terrorist attack should make everyone in Russia realize the war can now reach any region, no matter how far it is from the front,” Malofeev said while blaming Ukraine, rather than Central Asian migrants, for the attack. “We need to respond finally with a massive use of weapons that will allow us to win this war. We should give 48 hours for the civilian population [of Ukraine] to leave the cities and strike with all our might. Then the war will quickly end, and thus, the sponsorship of various terrorist acts will stop.”

The fact that Russian extremists express virulent hatred for Ukrainians as well as Central Asians is of little comfort to those still being subjected to raids, deportation, and torture at the hands of Russian law enforcement officials. And yet, Tajik residents of Moscow interviewed by The Insider expressed their hope that “Tajikophobia” is a temporary phenomenon.

“I read these chats and see that there are also people who say that blame should be placed on specific individuals rather than on the entire ethnic group,” says Aziza, who was walking around the pond with friends in the Kotelniki district. “I can't say that I'm surrounded only by nationalists. Most of the people [in Russia] are sensible.”

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