The Rain Came Down

 

 

TV Rain, April 8, 2020. “Three years after the first terrorist attack in the Petersburg subway, the court sent eleven people to prison—an entire terrorist network. We studied the evidence, talked to witnesses in Russia and Kyrgyzstan, and realized that there are too many secrets and questions left in the case. We assembled our own jury to decide whether the case should be reopened.”

People Freaked Out in a Good Way
Ilya Ershov spoke with TV Rain reporter Yevgenia Zobnina about her documentary film on the strange investigation of the April 3, 2017, terrorist attack in the Petersburg subway.
Open Space

Why did you decide to tackle this topic?

I was working as a correspondent for TV Rain in Petersburg and spent the whole day [of April 3, 2017] outside the Tekhnologicheskii Institut subway station. The most amazing thing was what happened afterward. The entire city raised money [for the victims and their families], government-organized rallies were held, and then somehow everyone abruptly forgot about it . Then there were fragmentary reports that the culprits had been caught. Next there was the trial. On the first day, reporters came running to film and photograph those eleven [defendants]. That was it. And then there was the verdict. There has been a good trend in journalism, on YouTube, of returning to the sore spots in our history. It seemed to me that this story should also be told.

Were there things you found out when shooting the film that didn’t end up in the film?

There was this thing with one of the relatives of the Azimov brothers, who had been corresponding on WhatsApp with unknown numbers. The investigation used some of them as evidence of [the brothers’] connection with terrorists. One of the relatives said, This is my number, I exist, I live in Ukraine, I am not a terrorist. If Ukraine had not gone into quarantine, we could have found more witnesses there.

How many people refused to talk to you?

It was a big problem for the relatives of the defendants to give their relatives’ contacts, because everyone is scared. None of the relatives turned us down. They were happy that someone was interested in their lives. They say that if their relatives were terrorists, the local security service would not have left them alone. But they came once, took their information, and never showed up again.

zobninaYevgenia Zobnina. Photo courtesy of her Facebook page

How openly were Kyrgyzstan’s human rights defenders ready to communicate with you? Were they and the relatives [of the defendants] under pressure from the local security services?

It was a great surprise for me to talk with Sardorbek, a lawyer at the [Kyrgyz] human rights organization Justice. He says that they know how to assert their rights. In Kyrgyzstan, there are laws that enable one to defend one’s rights. When they found out about the disappearance of their relatives, the Azimov family practically lived in the offices of the human rights defenders for several days, and no one came and tried to take them away. But we did not find any attempts by [the governments of] Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to stand up for their citizens.

Have the Russian authorities reacted to the film?

We made official inquiries even as we were making the film, but we didn’t get any answers. This film was made for society, not for the state.

What kind of reactions have their been to the film in general?

People have freaked out in a good way. Their reaction has been, “Wow, why is it like that in our country?”

You staged a jury trial in the film? Are such trials the future?

There should be jury trials at some stage. But there will never be a jury trial in this case. [On the day the verdict in the real trial was announced] Putin came to Petersburg: how could those people have not been convicted? In the film, the jury was there to keep us from turning into accusers of the FSB. We thought it vital to turn this into a conversation about what was wrong with the case. Jury trials are demonstrative. Every detail of a case is examined carefully, because both sides understand that they are facing people who do not understand anything about it. The verdict depends on how you explain the evidence. When we begin to explain what happened in the investigation of the terrorist attack, everything immediately becomes clear.

Thanks to Ilya Ershov for the heads-up and for permission to translate and publish this interview here. Translated by the Russian Reader. Please read my previous posts on the terrorist attack, the case against its alleged financiers and planners, its roots in the Islamophobia that has infected Russia under Putin, and the shocking absence of local and international solidarity with the eleven people convicted and sentenced to long prison terms in the case:

 

Ivan Davydov: A Poor Excuse for a Belarus

800px-Europe-Belarus.svgHow many Belaruses would fit into Mother Russia? Eighty-three! And yet, as Ivan Davydov argues, the current Russian regime is a “failed police state,” unlike the Belarusian regime. Neither fish nor fowl (although most certainly foul), Putin and his vassals have tanked their country’s economy while also signally failing to save people’s lives, nor have they been able to conjure away the coronavirus pandemic (rhetorically, if not in reality) as successfully as their frenemy the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

A Poor Excuse for a Belarus: The Collapse of Vladimir Putin’s Police State
Ivan Davydov
Republic
May 14, 2020

My apartment looks onto the Yauza River and the park on the shore. In peacetime, there are crowds of people strolling there when the weather is good. And lots of shishkebabers, who are famously to blame for all our troubles.

For more than a month now, I have been locked up like all law–abiding Russians, making only occasional trips out of the house on urgent business. I watch the world mostly from my balcony, and my world has narrowed to the size of this selfsame park.

Going to parks has been prohibited in Moscow by a special decree of the city’s all-powerful mayor. In parks, the coronavirus is particularly brutal, tracking down rare passersby, lonely morning jogging enthusiasts, and mothers with children, attacking and devouring them. On construction sites, on the contrary, the virus is weak and cowardly: it is afraid of construction workers, whom it does not touch.

Parks are a different matter.

The irresponsible residents of my neighborhood would still go to the park. Not in droves, as was the case before, no. They would go in small groups, as families, apparently. Joggers occasionally popped up, and bicyclists flashed by. Children made their way to the playgrounds (which were also closed, of course). In other words, they violated the mayor’s wise orders.

To put a stop to this unbridled lawlessness, police patrols would come to the park. The guardians of law and order would park their car on a hillock and stand around smoking and watching people walking. Once, when it was particularly cold, wet snow was pouring down, and only a lone madman was sitting on a bench, they went up to the madman and forced him to sign some papers.

And once they went down to the park and fed the ducks, pointedly ignoring the people walking around, before returning to their car. Oh yes, and a couple of times they shouted into a megaphone about the fact that going to parks was temporarily prohibited, and that citizens should look out for themselves and their loved ones.

I will explain later what this pastoral sketch was all about, but in the meantime let us look through the window at our neighbor to the west. It is a fascinating story.

A Wonderful Neighbor
While the rest of the world has been in quarantine, Alexander Lukashenko has gained fame as a maestro of fiery speeches and colorful aphorisms. He has suggested treating the coronavirus with vodka, a bath, and field work. He has advised Belarusians who have lost their jobs to find a job and get to work. (It’s brilliant, really, and simple, like all brilliant solutions.) He advised overly light-minded men to be patient and not to mix with other men’s women for a while. Lukashenko is a president with real gusto, not a president who talks about ancient battles with the Polovtsy from his bunker.

To the frenzied delight of Russian jingoists, Lukashenko held a parade on May 9 [Victory Day], attracting crowds of people, including the elderly. And the very elderly—veterans, in fact. But that was only half the trouble. He also said that after the parade, the statistics on the incidence of pneumonia had gone down. He confessed (he’s an honest man) that he had feared an increase in the incidence of pneumonia, but it didn’t happen. “Well, what did we end up with? There has been a significant reduction in pneumonia in Minsk: it dropped by half yesterday. And I made the sign of the cross yesterday: God grant that we will continue giving hell to pneumonia like this.” Fresh air, he said, helps a lot.

And if Lukashenko had wanted, he could have said that people who died from the coronavirus had begun resurrecting after the parade. (As of May 12, according to the official statistics, 142 people in Belarus had died from the coronavirus.) Why? Because he can, that’s why. He can stamp out any protest. He can ignore the reports from the doctors.

It’s not even the Swedish model. The Swedish model, whose success is a matter of debate (a debate we will have later) stipulates that big public events not be held, and citizens behave responsibly. The Belarusian model assumes that there are no citizens. There is a populace that absolutely obeys the decisions of the supreme leader. Happily for us, the new virus is not the medieval black death: clearly, the country will not die off if you purposely avoid imposing a quarantine in order to save the economy. The Belarusian president made his choice by deliberately deciding to sacrifice a certain (non-essential) number of inhabitants, who cannot be saved by vodka or field work.

And after Vladimir Putin announced a “phased exit” from the semi-imposed non-quarantine, Lukashenko condescendingly praised his junior comrade, saying that Russia had followed the Belarusian path.

The Russian Miracle
But in fact, Russia has its own special path. The “non-working weeks” battered the economy considerably, but it is questionable whether they were able to protect residents. When the quarantine was imposed, there were very few cases. When the government started lifting the quarantine, Russia shot up to second place worldwide in the number of infected people.

Discussing the reliability of Russian statistics is a risky business: nowadays, the prosecutor’s office does not see much difference between well-founded criticism and “spreading fake news” about the coronavirus. But we will not make any arguments, we will just note what respected officials and politicians have been saying.

On May 12, Anna Popova, the head of [Russian federal consumer watchdog] Rospotrebnadzor, said that 28.4% of people identified in Russia as infected with the coronavirus were hospitalized. At the time, the total number of people identified as infected was around 230,000; a simple mathematical calculation gives us approximately 65,000 people in hospitals. (In fact, the real figure is another ten thousand less, since we are not taking into account the people who have recovered). But the next day, Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said at a cabinet meeting that there were more than 100,000 Russians hospitalized with the coronavirus. You would agree that all this makes it seem that our government is surprisingly footless and fancy-free with statistics, even with their own official statistics, with statistics intended for the public.

On May 13, the Moscow Health Department reported that 60% of those who died with a diagnosed coronavirus had not been included in the coronavirus fatality statistics for capital, because they had died from “obvious alternative causes.” The governor of Petersburg also reported that there had been a spike in the incidence of pneumonia in the city: the indicators were “five and a half times higher than the average.” Since the first of March, 694 residents of Petersburg have died from pneumonia, and 63 from the coronavirus.

Perhaps this is the reason for the Russian miracle of rather low mortality rates from the coronavirus infection. Especially if you remember that Russia is not only made up of capital districts and metropolitan areas, that in the regions, as a rule, all or almost all media outlets are controlled by the local administrations, and it is even easier for them to turn statistics from an enemy into an ally.

And why did the head honcho announce the end of the “non-working weeks”? Well, it’s not so hard to turn a terrible virus into a non-scary one. It’s like with elections: what matters is not what really happened, but who counts the votes and how they count them.

Amulets for MPs
But what’s really going on? In fact, our high officials are afraid, and they are trying to protect themselves by turning the nightmare into a joke and not standing on ceremony with the public. Saving your own life is more important than standing on ceremony.

On May 13, Igor Molyakov, an MP from A Just Russia, asked State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin why some of their colleagues were coming to sessions of parliament not wearing their MP pins, as required by law, but wearing quite different pins featuring a white cross on a black background. Molyakov added that he was a dog breeder himself and would like to know whether it would be possible for him to wear the pin of his kennel club instead of the Russian tricolor on his lapel.

Volodin’s answer, I hope, will go down in the annals: “Let’s ask the people who are wearing these pins, but as far as my colleagues have told me, they are special devices for repelling the virus.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day soon, MPs ran naked around the State Duma building on Okhotny Ryad banging on pots: this method of fighting pestilence has been described by anthropologists. And we can only pray that no one tells them that fresh human flesh, for example, staves off the virus. They would believe them.

Dmitry Peskov, the president’s press Secretary, has fallen ill. And now he remembers regretfully the “virus blocker” that he wore and then stopped wearing after he was mocked in the press.

Here it is important to understand that the people wearing the miracle badges and warding off the virus with life-giving white crosses are the same people who explain why “phasing out restrictions” at the peak of the epidemic is justified, and make decisions that affect our lives.

Of course, they themselves get sick and get infected, but let’s not forget that we will be treated in slightly different hospitals, if push comes to shove.

It’s hard to stop. For dessert we have another intellectual delicacy, this time from Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov. He has explained why masks cannot be distributed for free in the city during the mandatory mask regime: “Yesterday, we adopted a resolution not to give out free masks, but to hand out money. There are a lot of people in our city, both visitors and non-visitors, and people from other regions. How should we should distribute these masks? We should make you show your passport and ask where you are registered.”

The virus, you understand, asks to see people’s residence permits and attacks only native Petersburgers. It presents no danger to out-of-towners and migrant workers, nor can they themselves infect anyone. Governor Beglov is in charge of Russia’s second largest city, the home to millions of people and a “pneumonia outbreak” that, of course, has nothing to do with the coronavirus.

By the way, Beglov’s “money” amounts to 800 rubles [approx. 10 euros] for pensioners and members of large families to buy masks.

A Failed Police State
But let’s go back to my park. I started with it to illustrate the fact that the police state in Russia has failed. There has been a lot of overkill, and people all over Russia have been pretty annoyed, but the police have been unable to ensure compliance with the imposed restrictions. They are good at breaking up peaceful protest rallies, but bad at everything else.

The government had a choice. It could have engaged the citizenry in dialogue, rejected intimidation in favor of education, sought compromises where possible, and, of course, provided direct financial assistance to those forced to stay at home. It could have made Russia’s citizens its allies instead of making them the targets of an incoherent police dragnet. To do this, however, it would have had to see the populace as citizens, but we have a big problem with this sort of thing in Russia.

The government could have done it, but it was impossible—forbidden—for the government to do it.

It would have been possible to issue endless prohibitions of varying degrees of savagery and to force the population to comply with them using an old and proven argument—the police billy club. But that didn’t work out either. It turns out that there is no police state in these parts. There is a useless system of governance that starts to crumble at the first serious test. Ensconced in his bunker, the head honcho denounces the immorality of the Spartans, while his subordinates are decked out in life-saving amulets, expecting that by summer everything will have somehow worked itself out.

The reason they terminated the “non-working weeks” is that they simply could not enforce the lockdown measures. And they decided to rescue the economy since they had been unable to save people. But there was a tiny twist: they did this only after after the economy had been dealt a serious blow.

The Russian state makes war on Russian citizens as if they were the main threat when, in fact, there are no real threats to it, but it simply vanishes when there is a real threat. This is exactly what Putin has built over the last twenty years. This is the whole “Russian federal system”—terrifying, unsinkable, tending to totalitarianism. It’s a poor excuse for a Belarus. It’s a slightly rotten Belarus.

Take care of yourselves and help each other. No one else is going to help us.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Half a Million Migrants in Moscow Have Lost All Sources of Income

d8a5aa0e-9470-11ea-be48-fa163e074e61Photo by Sergei Lantyukhov for NEWS.ru

Study: Half a Million Migrants in Moscow Have Lost All Sources of Income
Sociologists say government should introduce social security for foreigners, otherwise “social tension” inevitable
Sergei Vilkov
NEWS.ru
May 12, 2020

More than half the migrants in Moscow have lost their jobs, and a significant portion of them have also lost all sources of income, according to a study done by a group of sociologists, led by Evgeni Varshaver, at the Center for Regional and Urban Studies in RANEPA’s Institute for Applied Economic Research. NEWS.ru took a look at their preliminary findings, which have been presented to the Russian government in the form of a briefing paper. The sociologists analyzed the risk of a sharp uptick in crime and social unrest among migrants, as well as making recommendations, one of which was to provide migrants with social security and health insurance. The lead author of the study backed up the findings with his own arguments.

An Invisible Army

While 32% of Moscow residents who are Russian nationals have lost their jobs or been sent on unpaid leave [due to the coronavirus pandemic], 54% of those who come from other countries have lost their jobs in the Russian capital. 32% of migrants have lost all sources of income, while among Muscovites who are Russian nationals this figure is 17%. Only about one in ten guest workers reported that their financial situation had not changed, the report says. (NEWS.ru has a copy of the report.)

If one extrapolates the data from the study to all migrant workers in Moscow, then, given that their number has been estimated by experts at about 1.5 million people, around 500,000 people have completely lost their livelihoods, according to the briefing paper. Reports continue to appear about migrants who have lost their homes and remain in the Russian Federation with no fixed abode [i.e., they are homeless de jure, if not de facto—a critical distinction in Russia, where everyone is required by law to be registered with the authorities at their actual residence]. Migrants often do not receive the free medical care to which they are entitled by law, and other forms of medical care are often too expensive for them.

As the researchers note, migrants are, at the same time, at special risk for the epidemic. The apartments that they rent are, on average, twice as densely inhabited as those of Russian nationals.

Speaking of a possible increase in crime among migrants due to the pandemic, the researchers argue that “although it is possible to assume a slight increase in the number of property crimes by this category of persons, expectations of an explosive increase in crime among migrant workers are not borne out.”

The researchers argue that there was no surge in criminal activity among guest workers during previous crises. This was partly due to oversight by diasporas and similar communities.

When NEWS.ru asked whether diasporas can really control their fellow countrymen, the head of the research group, Evgeni Varshaver, warns against extreme views on this issue. Migrants, he says, like all other people, listen to figures of authority. It is also important to understand that if such respected people have been living in Russia for a long time, they have often been incorporated into local elites (albeit, sometimes, as something exotic), and it is in their interests to prevent the growth of crime among migrants, because in the eyes of their “partners” in Russia, they are responsible for the behavior of their compatriots. Varshaver admits, however, that this influence is often exaggerated.

“However, this does not mean that it does not exist at all. It does exist, and the smaller the locality, the more intense the communication among elites and ordinary migrants, and the more these two groups rely on each other: the first can help with money or put in a word with the migration service; the second, if push comes to shove, can stage a protest rally.  In a large city, due to greater differentiation and multilayered social structure, this link is not so obvious, and the possibilities of atomization are greater. But now let’s get back to what prompted us to discuss diasporas, namely, whether migrants will commit more crimes. I think that they will, along, however, with other deprived groups, and this is understandable in circumstances of acute impoverishment, but this surge will not be as powerful as predicted in some pro-migrant and anti-migrant publications,” says Varshaver, a senior researcher and head of the Migration and Ethnicity Research Group at RANEPA.

In addition, the authors of the study refer to the findings of sociological studies of past years, indicating that among migrant workers in Russia, “the prevailing attitude has been to comply with the laws of the country of residence.”

In 2016, RANEPA sociologists surveyed 2,412 migrant workers in different regions of Russia. 83% of them indicated that it was absolutely necessary to comply with the laws of the host country. However, it would be strange to expect respondents to say the opposite, although even in that study, 3% of migrants chose the option “No, it’s okay if not all the rules are followed.”

A Reason for Welfare

Separately, the researchers considered measures to support migrants. They identified as positive the fact that the presidential decree of April 18 granted foreigners the right to stay in Russia regardless of the length of their residence permits. The requirement to obtain a work permit was then temporarily lifted, meaning that if migrants were out of work and their permit expired, they would not have to buy one. From the same decree, it followed that migrants no longer had to work in the region where they were issued a work permit. The ability to move to another region without bureaucratic barriers has significantly expanded the options of migrants for finding work in crisis conditions, according to the authors of the study. Simultaneously, volunteer aid programs have been implemented, and some migrants are now able to receive charitable support in the form of food and compensation for housing costs.

However, these measures do not solve the problem. According to the RANEPA researchers, it is necessary to ensure that the minimum needs for food and housing of migrants who remain in Russia are met until they have been employed or they can return to their countries of origin. During an epidemic, the link between the well-being of local residents and the circumstances of migrants is more pronounced than in other periods, including after the the risk of property crimes has been taken into account, they argue. In addition, it is necessary to ensure better access to medical care for migrants and to lessen the load on temporary detention centers for foreign nationals subject to deportation.

“This will inevitably be an unpopular decision; moreover, such assistance should be provided along with the assistance that is provided to non-migrants,” explains Varshaver. “A pained reaction on the part of nationalistically minded Russians to the decision to provide this assistance is inevitable, but on the other side of the scale you have total impoverishment accompanied by real hunger, a possible increase in crime, and other negative social consequences, and so it is necessary to make an informed decision, which obviously is to take care of all those who were forced to stay in Russia when the borders closed and hence cannot go anywhere.”

These measures seem to be necessary at the moment. Otherwise, a significant number of migrants will lose their livelihoods, which, regardless of how valid current alarmist expectations are, will lead to significant social tension, the authors of the study claim.

cd21b5aa-9471-11ea-a603-fa163e074e61Photo by Kirill Zykov for Moskva News Agency

When asked how the end of “non-workdays,” as announced by President Vladimir Putin, would affect the circumstances of migrants, Varshaver explains that it is difficult to make forecasts.

“On the one hand, there has been a lot of talk about the situation with migrants, and aid resources have been mobilized, which is why the crisis has been dampened as much as possible. On the other hand, every day of quarantine has a negative impact on the economy as a whole and on migrants in particular. On the third hand, yes, of course, the exit from the quarantine, for example, of the construction industry (I wonder if it has really gone into a full lockdown?) will also enable migrants working in construction to start earning money. On the fourth hand, not all migrants work in construction. There is also, say, the hospitality sector, which the crisis has affected and will continue to affect much more, and this is the second important area of migrant employment, and many who were employed, say, as waiters, are now out of work. On the fifth hand, the summer season is beginning, and this means dacha construction and agricultural work, which means additional jobs. Generally, predicting is not easy, but that the lives of migrants are now no bowl of cherries is a fact, and most likely they are no bowl of cherries to an even greater extent than life for Russian nationals,” says Varshaver.

In late March, NEWS.ru investigated how the crisis brought on by the coronavirus epidemic had severely affected people from Central Asia who work in Russia or even found themselves passing through the country. Transit areas in some of the capital’s airports experienced a collapse due to flight cancellations. Workers and visitors from neighboring countries faced not only being forced to wait for weeks to be sent home without having a source of income. NEWS.ru talked to migrants waiting to leave and found out how the spread of COVID-19 and related quarantine measures had affected these people. We also learned that problems with departing Russia were not the only ones that had impacted migrants, further aggravating the situation of one of the most vulnerable groups in Moscow.

Additional reporting by Marina Yagodkina

Translated by the Russian Reader

Outcasts

domoMigrant workers from Tajikistan stranded at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport, March 31, 2020. Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko. Courtesy of AP and Radio Azzatyq

Around 300 Migrant Workers Driven from Domodedovo onto Street at Night
Radio Azzatyq
Март 31, 2020

In the early hours of March 31, unidentified uniformed men chased about three hundred migrant workers, two hundred of them Tajik nationals, from the terminal building of Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, as reported by Russian journalist Galiya Ibragimova on her Facebook page. All of them, she wrote, were trying to return home, but had been stranded at the airport due to the coronavirus and closed borders.

According to Ibragimova, she got a call from Farukh, a migrant worker from Tajikistan who was stranded at Domodedovo, and he told her what happened.

“We were kicked out of the airport. Uniformed employees arrived, asked how many of us there were, and told us to get everyone together. They promised that we would fly home tonight. We gathered everyone, nearly three hundred people. When we had gathered, they just tossed us out on the street at night, in the cold. They said, That’s it, you can’t be in the airport. And they kicked us out. People are now out on the street. We don’t know what to do,” he told Ibragimova.

Farukh also complained that the migrant workers did not have the means to leave the airport and get to temporary accommodation.

“We  work like oxen in Russia. We rarely have a day off. But now no one wants us. We were simply thrown out like an unnecessary burden. Why are things this way? Help us!” Farukh complained to Ibragimova.

Farukh also made a video of how people ended up on the street in the wee hours of March 31.

The TV channel Current Time also made a report about migrant workers who were stranded at Domodedovo: they had no way to wash up and slept on chairs.

According to the migrant workers, neither the Tajik embassy nor the Russian authorities helped them in any way—it was volunteers and compatriots who brought them food and water. A promised charter flight to Tajikistan on Somon Air was canceled.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Scapegoats

anatrrra-dvornikiCentral Asian yardmen in Moscow taking a break from their work. Photo by and courtesy of Anatrrra

‘People shout “Coronavirus!” at me as if it were my middle name’
Lenta.ru
March 29, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has led to an increase in xenophobic attitudes towards people of Asian background around the world, even though the US has already overtaken China in the number of infected people, as have European countries, if you add up all the cases. However, according to an international survey of several thousand people, it is Russians who are most likely to avoid contact with people of Asian appearance, although one in five residents of Russia is not an ethnic Russian. Our compatriots of Asian appearance have been subjected to increasing attacks, harassment, and discrimination. Lenta.ru recorded their monologues.

“Being Asian now means being a plague rat”
Lisa, Buryat, 27 years old

Sometimes I am mistaken for a Korean, and this is the best option in Russia, when you are mistaken for Chinese, Koreans or Japanese. The disdainful attitude is better than when you are mistaken for a migrant worker from Central Asia, because the attitude towards them is clearly aggressive. At least it was before the coronavirus.

Now, basically, being Asian means being a plague rat.

A couple of days ago, a young woman approached me at work—I’m a university lecturer. The lecture was on fashion, and naturally I had talked about the epidemic’s consequences for the fashion industry. The young woman works in a Chanel boutique. She said right to my face that “only the Chinese have the coronavirus,” and she tries not wait on them at her store, but “everything’s cool” with Europeans.

My mother has to listen to more racist nonsense because she has a more pronounced Asian appearance than I do, because my father is Russian. For example, there are three women named Sveta at her work. Two are called by their last names, but she is called “the non-Russian Sveta,” although she has lived in Petersburg since the nineteen-seventies. And when I enrolled in school, the headmaster asked my father to translate what he said for my mother, although five minutes earlier my mother had been speaking Russian.

In the subway, she can be told that immigrants are not welcome here and asked to stand up. A couple of times, men approached her on the street and asked whether she wasn’t ashamed, as a Muslim woman, to wear tight jeans. She is learning English, and when she watches instructional videos, people in the subway, for example, say, “Oh, can these monkeys speak Russian at all? They’re learning English!” Police are constantly checking her papers to see whether she’s a Russian citizen. When I was little, we were even taken to a police station because the policemen decided she had abducted an ethnic Russian child—I had very light hair as a child.

Recently, she was traveling by train to Arkhangelsk, and children from two different cars came to look at her. At such moments, you feel like a monkey. (By the way, “monkey from a mountain village” is a common insult.)

Everyone used to be afraid of skinheads. Everyone in the noughties had a friend who had been attacked by skinheads. Everyone [in Buryatia] was afraid to send their children to study in Moscow. But being a Russian Asian, you could pretend to be a tourist: my Buryat friend, who knows Japanese, helped us a couple of times make groups of people who had decided we were migrant workers from Central Asia leave us alone. Another time, the son of my mother’s friend, who was studying at Moscow State University, was returning home late at night and ran into a crowd of skinheads. They asked where he was from, and when he said he was from Buryatia, one of them said, “I served in Buryatia! Buryats are our guys, they’re from Russia,” and they let him go.

Now all Asians are objects of fear. People shout “Coronavirus!” at me on the street as if it were my middle name. They get up and move away from me on public transport, and they give me wide berth in queues. A man in a store once asked me not to sneeze on him as soon as I walked in. I constantly hear about people getting beat up, and I’m very worried. My Buryat girlfriends, especially in Moscow, are afraid to travel alone in the evening. People also move away from them on transport and behave aggressively.

You can put it down to human ignorance, but you get tired of living like this. When you talk about everyday racism with someone, they say they worked with an Asian and everything was fine. This constant downplaying is even more annoying. You haven’t insulted Asians—wow, here’s your medal! It doesn’t mean there is no problem with grassroots racism in multi-ethnic Russia.

“When are you all going to die?!”
Zhansaya, Kazakh, 27 years old

On Sunday morning, my boyfriend, who is an ethnic Kazakh like me, and I got on a half-empty car on the subway. We sat down at the end of the car. At the next station, an elderly woman, who was around sixty-five, got on. When she saw us, she walked up to my boyfriend, abruptly poked him with her hand, and said through clenched teeth, “Why are you sitting down? Get up! We didn’t fight in the war for people like you.”

I am a pharmacist by education, and I have seven years of experience working in a pharmacy. The pharmacy is next to a Pyatyorochka discount grocery store. Recently, I was standing at the register when a woman of Slavic appearance, looking a little over fifty, came in. She came over with a smile that quickly faded from her face when she saw me. I only had time to say hello when suddenly she screamed, “When are you all going to die?! We are tired of you all! You all sit in Pyatyorochkas, stealing our money, and then act as if nothing has happened!”

I didn’t hold my tongue, replying abruptly, “Excuse me! Who do you mean by you all?” The woman was taken aback as if something had gone wrong. Then she said something about “CISniks” [people from the Commonwealth of Independent States], ran out of the pharmacy, and never came back.

I had always dreamed about driving a car since I was a kid. At the age of eighteen, I found a driving school, where I successfully passed the classroom training, and after three months of practice I had to pass exams at the traffic police. I got 100% on the written test the first time. But during the behind-the-wheel exam, the examiner began talking crap the minute I got into the car. When I introduced myself by first name, middle name, and last name, he said something I missed since I was nervous. Then he, a rather obese man, hit me on the thighs and screamed, “Do you want me to say that in Uzbek?”

I immediately unbuckled my seat belt and got out of the car. I gave up for good the idea of taking the driving test.

covid-19-coronavirus-actions-ipsos-moriResults of an Ipsos MORI poll published on February 14, 2020

“The chinks piled into our country and brought this plague”
Anna, Buryat, 27 years old

We live in a multi-ethnic country that supposedly defeated fascism, but now every time I go into the subway, the police check my papers as if I were a terrorist. People really have begun to move away from me, give me a wide berth, and throw me contemptuous glances, as if to say “There goes the neighborhood!”

I live near University subway station [in Moscow], and there really are lots of Chinese students there. I feel quite sorry for them: they are constantly stopped by the police in the subway, and people look at them with disgust and demonstratively steer clear of them. If there are Chinese people who have stayed here, they probably didn’t go home for the Chinese New Year. Where would they bring the virus from? If they had gone home for the holidays, they would not have returned to Russia, since the border was already closed by the end of the holidays. Accordingly, the Chinese who are here are not carrying the virus.

Recently, I was going down an escalator. My nose was stuffy from the cold, and so I blew my noise softly. I thought I was going to be murdered right on the escalator: some people bolted straight away from me, while others shouted that I was spreading the contagion.

Recently, in a grocery store, a woman and her teenage daughter were standing behind me. The woman said something to the effect that all sorts of chinks have come to our country and brought the plague. She said it out loud and without any bashfulness, aiming her words at me. She and her daughter were less than a meter away from me, as if I didn’t understand them. My level of indignation was off the charts, but I didn’t say anything.

Another time, I went into my building and approached the elevator. A woman and her children literally recoiled and almost ran out—they didn’t want to ride in the elevator with me! I said I’d wait for the next one. They were not at all perplexed by the fact that I spoke Russian without an accent.

“I will always be second class here”
Malika, Uzbek, 21 years old

Recently, a mother and daughter passed by my house. Tajik yardmen were cleaning the yard. The girl asked the mother why she was rolling her eyes, and the mother explained that the yardmen were probably illegal aliens and terrorists. I walked next to them all the way to the bus stop—it was unpleasant.

During three years of living in Moscow, I very rarely felt like an outsider: the people around me were always sensible, and I was almost never stopped by police in the subway to check my papers. But when I decided to leave the student dorm, I realized that I would always be a second-class person here. It took four months to find an apartment. A girlfriend and I were looking for a two-room flat for the two of us for a reasonable amount of money, but every other ad had phrases like “only for Slavs.” There were jollier phrases like “white Europe” or “Asia need not apply.” But even in cases where there were no such restrictions, we would still be turned down when we went to look at flats.

After a while, I started saying on the phone that I was from Uzbekistan. Some people would hang up, while others would make up ridiculous excuses. In the end, we found a place through friends, but the process was quite unpleasant.

I’m no longer bothered by such everyday questions as “Why is your Russian so good?” I like talking about my own culture if the curiosity is not mean-spirited. But I am terribly disgusted to see how my countrymen are treated on the streets and realize that I’m left alone only because I’m a couple of shades lighter. Because of this, people take me for a Russian and complain about “those wogs” to my face.

“He shouted that I was a yakuza and had come here to kill people”
Vika, Korean, 22 years old

I’m an ethnic Korean. I was born and raised in North Ossetia, and graduated from high school in Rostov-on-Don. I have lived in Moscow since 2015, and I encounter more everyday racism here.

One day a woman on the street started yelling at me to get the hell out of Moscow and go back to my “homeland.” Another time, a madman in the subway sat down next to me and shouted that I was a yakuza and had come here to kill people.

When I was getting a new internal passport at My Documents, the woman clerk asked several times why I was getting a new passport and not applying for citizenship, although I had brought a Russian birth certificate and other papers.

Once my mother was attempting to rent an apartment for us and humiliated herself by persuading the landlords that Koreans were a very good and decent people. I wanted to cry when she said that.

There is a stereotype that Asians are quite smart and study hard, that they have complicated, unemotional parents, and so on. As a teenager, I tried to distance myself as much as possible from stereotypical ideas about Koreans. Now I can afford to listen to K-pop and not feel guilty about being stereotypical.

Generally, we are not beaten or humiliated much, but I don’t feel equal to the dominant ethnic group [i.e., ethnic Russians], especially now, when everyone is so excited about Korean pop culture, generalize everything they see in it to all Koreans and can come up to you out of the blue and say they love doramas. That happened to me once. It is very unpleasant—you feel like a pet of a fashionable breed.

In questionnaires on dating sites you can often find preferences based on ethnicity, and they can take the form of refusals to date people of a certain race, as well as the opposite, the desire to date such people. It is not a sign of tolerance, however, but the flip side of racism—fetishization. It still reduces a person to her ethnic group, suggesting she should be perceived not as an individual, but as a walking stereotype.

“Several times it ended in attempted rape”
Madina, from a mixed family (Tatar/Tajik/Kazakh/Russian), 25 years old

I was born in Moscow. My Russian teacher from the fifth grade on liked to repeat loudly to the entire class, “Can you imagine? Madina is the best Russian and literature student in my class!” By the end of the sixth grade, my classmates were sick and tired of this, but instead of boning up on Russian, they decided to throw me a blanket party. They got together, backed me into a corner, and kicked the hell out of me.

I recently returned from doing a master’s degree abroad and was looking for an apartment to rent in Moscow. Several times, landlords offered to rent an apartment without a contract, explaining that I undoubtedly needed a residence permit. When I showed them my internal passport and Moscow residence permit, they turned me down anyway.

Before moving to the United States, I had to forget about romantic relationships for several years because several times it all ended with attempted rape under the pretext “You’re an Asian woman, and I’ve always dreamed of fucking a woman like you  in the ass.”

Nor was it strangers I’d met on Tinder who told me this, but guys from my circle of friends at school and university. There were three such incidents, and all of them combined racism, objectification, and a lack of understanding of the rules of consent.

“She looked at me like I was death, shoved me, and ran out of the car”
Aisulu, Kazakh, 22 years old

Recently, I was a little ill: I had a runny nose and sneezed once in a while. I wouldn’t even say it was the flu, just the common cold. I decided to attend lectures and put on a mask for decency’s sake.

I went into the subway, where people got up and moved away from me twice. I wasn’t particularly offended, but it was unpleasant when I stood next to a women after moving to another car and sneezed. She looked at like I was death, shoved me, and ran out of the car. That was quite odd.

I told a classmate about the incident, and she asked why I was wearing a mask, because it attracts more attention. I felt even worse, and took it off.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Making Women Visible: Russian Language Classes for Immigrants and Refugees in Petersburg

apa-1
Darya Apahonchich with students during class. Photo by Anna Shevardina. Courtesy of Radio Svoboda

“Making Women Visible”: Why Female Immigrants Stay at Home for Seven Years
Karina Merkurieva
Sever.Realii (Radio Svoboda)
March 7, 2020

“My husband and children and I came to Russia from Afghanistan over eight years ago. At first, I had no time to learn the language: I had to help the children and work at home, and then I was unable to find suitable courses. So this is only my second year studying Russian,” says Suraya.

Since she is shy about speaking Russian, she agrees only to a written interview. She has been studying Russian for a second year at courses for female immigrants and refugees in Petersburg. Classes are held at Open Space, a co-working space for social activists, and at two libraries. Groups are divided into several levels according to how well the students speak Russian.

In February, project organizer Darya Apahonchich announced the launch of a new group for beginners. According to her, she saw the need for such courses in 2018, when she worked for a similar project run by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“There were classes for children and adults. I taught Russian as a foreign language. The only problem was that only those who had official immigrant or refugee status could attend. In Russia, not everyone obtains this status. Another thing was that the course was limited in time. Not everyone was able to get the necessary minimum of Russian under their belt in this time,” Apahonchich says.

The group she led mostly consisted of women over the age of thirty.

“Young women who come to Russia at an earlier age and go to university have one set of opportunities. As soon as a woman becomes a mother, her set of opportunities decreases dramatically,” Apahonchich adds.

At one of the classes, a new student from Syria decided to join the group. In order for the students to get acquainted, Apahonchich suggested that everyone introduce themselves by telling what country they had come from, how long they had lived in Russia, and how long they had been studying Russian. It transpired that nearly all the women in the class had lived in Russia around seven years, but had only begun to study the language. According to them, they had no opportunity to study Russian before: they had to raise children. Working outside the home was not the custom in their native countries, so their husbands had not allowed them to take language classes.

apa-2A lesson in Darya Apahonchich’s group. Photo by Anna Shevardina. Courtesy of Radio Svoboda

“I was very shocked at the time. These women’s children have basically grown up in Russia: they know Russia on the level of native speakers, and make jokes more easily in Russian than in their native languages. The women have found themselves linguistically and culturally isolated, however. They stayed at home all those years. They didn’t even have a place to learn the language,” says Apahonchich.

When the Red Cross courses were coming to an end, Apahonchich suggested to the women that they should not quit their studies, but continue studying Russian elsewhere. They leapt at the suggestion.

“I realized that those woman would go back to their families, and that would be the end of their introduction to the Russian language. I didn’t want to let that happen,” she recalls.

Other groups and new teachers have subsequently emerged. The project currently encompasses four groups at different levels of proficiency. Classes are taught by eight volunteer teachers. Some of them, like Apahonchich, majored in Russian language pedagogy at university, while others are native Russian speakers with humanities backgrounds and experience teaching history or Spanish, for example.

“I wanted to create a horizontal structure in which each teacher could organize their own groups and take responsibility for the learning process,” says Apahonchich.

As a result, the teachers work autonomously: they find venues for holding classes on their own, and decide with their groups what topics would be interesting to discuss in class.

In her group, for example, Apahonchich focuses not only on teaching the Russian language, but also on the legal aspects of life as an immigrant in Russia. During classes, her students read brochures on how to behave if you are faced with aggression from the police, how to get a job, and how to rent an apartment without falling victim to fraud.

“Our all-female collective discusses issues related to health and doctor visits,” says Apahonchich.

According to Suraya from Afghanistan, this is one of her favorite topics.

“I also like to read texts about Russia and Petersburg, and discuss the weather and family. I really need this vocabulary when I pick up my daughter from kindergarten or go to the clinic. In the clinic, however, I often encounter aggression. The people at reception shout at me if I don’t immediately know what to say,” Suraya explains.

While the courses are more aimed at teaching Russian, the instructors sometimes also talk to the female immigrants about women’s rights.

“Right now, the easiest way, I think, to get women out of linguistic and cultural isolation is to get them into the world of work. That way they could learn Russian more quickly, adapt socially, and make new friends. At the same time, we have before our very eyes the example of women from Central Asia who come to Russia to work and eventually find themselves separated from their families. That is the other extreme. For the time being, I just want these women to stop being invisible. Currently, the majority of the Russian populace doesn’t even suspect how many female immigrants live in cultural isolation in their country,” says Apahonchich.

According to the UNHCR, about 220,000 refugees and persons with temporary asylum status were registered in Russia in 2019. Most of those people came from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, and Yemen.

Thanks to Darya Apahonchich for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader