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Strangers In Moscow: A City's Contradictory Contempt Of Immigrants

Although the number of foreign workers has declined sharply in Russia, Muscovites in particular fear the influx of immigrants - not that they necessarily want to do their jobs.

Moscow's Red Square
Moscow's Red Square
Nadezhda Petrova

MOSCOW - Of all the common phobias in Russia, the most popular is of immigrants. About 35% of Russians have a touch of xenophobia, regarding foreign workers as a real threat to the country.

Ramzan Kadirov in Chechnya worries about the Vietnamese, and says that with a 27.8% unemployment rate, his region can’t afford to have an uncontrollable influx of labor. He also accuses guest workers of being involved in all sorts of crime.

In Moscow, former mayor Sergei Sobyanin urges other cities to “follow the path we have taken” by punishing businesses that employ illegal immigrants and deporting anyone who is found to be in the country illegally.

Those words probably warm the hearts of most Muscovites, who feel that they suffer from the migrant problem more than anyone else in Russia. They are almost twice as likely to say that immigrants are more problematic than advantageous, and 88% of Muscovites say that there should be controls to allow fewer immigrants into the city. In response to a poll about the city’s most intractable problems, 55% of Muscovites responded that there are too many migrants from the North Caucasus and former Southern Soviet Republics.

This is surprising, because unlike the former Soviet Republics, the North Caucasus is still part of Russia. According to Lev Gudkov, director of the polling agency Levada Center, about 70% of the xenophobia in Moscow is actually anti-Caucasus. Muscovites do not consider migrants from Chechnya to be Russian citizens, adds Dimitri Poletaev, director of the Center for Migration Studies — but they are.

In the shadows

Although many believe there really are too many migrants, official statistics show the number of foreigners in Russia has actually dropped precipitously in recent years. Ten years ago, the Ministry of Internal Affairs said there were about 20 million foreigners in Russia, with about 2 to 3 million people staying illegally every year. Now, migration services officials say the number of foreigners in Russia is 10.8 million. Of that, 3.7 million come as guests to study or receive health care, 3.2 million work legally in the country, and a little less than 4 million are in the “shadows.” Of those, about 3 million work illegally.

Poletaev says those numbers sound about right. When the topic comes up, he says, people tend to estimate that there are some 3 to 5 million people who are working in the country illegally. He stressed, though, that no one knows for certain what the numbers really are.

So, adding the legal and illegal foreign workers in Russia represents just over 6 million people. Those who try to spread fear about foreign workers usually cite vastly inflated figures. Some have even claimed that between 25 million and 30 million foreign workers are employed in Russia. If that were true, that would mean one out of every three workers in Russia would be a foreigner.

Half of the country and 60% of the capital city are convinced that immigrants are stealing jobs from locals. But simultaneously, most people also think that it is acceptable to hire foreign workers for undesirable jobs, like working in public transport or as janitors. Foreign workers earn, on average, about as much as Russian workers do. But they are likely to work many more hours to earn the same monthly salary.

A broken system

There is no way for Russia to survive without foreign workers. That's because the working-age population in Russia decreases by a couple of hundred thousand every year, which can be felt even during economic stagnation. “If the economy starts to take off,” explains Poletaev, “businesses will quickly find out that there are just not that many people who are physically able to work.”

But companies who want to hire a foreign worker legally must submit an application to receive a part of the “quota” for doing so. There is furious complaint, though, that the slots are often awarded to the same companies, who then resell them for about $1,000. That is too much for most employers, who can also make a $100 bribe for the same result. In the end, foreign workers and their employers have no choice but to get caught up in a pyramid of corruption.

In addition, the number of quota slots available is just 1.7 million — for the 6 million foreign workers we know are working in Russia. Even government officials acknowledge that this is a problem in need of reform, but the process for changing the quota is cumbersome.

Some 28 percent of migrants want to stay in Russia permanently, and Russians’ lack of enthusiasm for that prospect largely comes down to cultural differences. “Ten or 15 years ago, migrants were coming from cities,” Poletaev says. "Now they are coming from agricultural areas. Muscovites are not happy about that. City migrants understand what city life is like — people from rural areas don’t know the language as well and have a completely different culture.”

It might seem paradoxical, but the people who are most likely to think of migrants as a problem are those who arrived in Moscow 10 or 15 years ago. Second-generation Muscovites are more tolerant “because they are much more secure in their right to be in the city,” Gudkov says. “More recent arrivals don’t have enough resources, and they are afraid that they will be competing with other migrants for social resources, so they insist on things like an ethnic hierarchy.”

That is why poor Muscovites are much more likely to have a problem with immigrants than middle-class or wealthy residents. According to Gudov, people think that the government should provide not just security, but also a certain standard of living, like during Soviet times. But the government is not doing that, so people take their frustration out on foreigners. “It’s an example of misplaced aggression,” Gudov said. “You know, a dog won’t bark at its master. It will bark at the corner. A dog that has been trained, at least.”

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

That Man In Mariupol: Is Putin Using A Body Double To Avoid Public Appearances?

Putin really is meeting with Xi in Moscow — we know that. But there are credible experts saying that the person who showed up in Mariupol the day before was someone else — the latest report that the Russian president uses a doppelganger for meetings and appearances.

screen grab of Putin in a dark down jacket

During the visit to Mariupol, the Presidential office only released screen grabs of a video

Russian President Press Office/TASS via ZUMA
Anna Akage

Have no doubt, the Vladimir Putin we’re seeing alongside Xi Jinping this week is the real Vladimir Putin. But it’s a question that is being asked after a range of credible experts have accused the Russian president of sending a body double for a high-profile visit this past weekend in the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

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Reports and conspiracy theories have circulated in the past about the Russian leader using a stand-in because of health or security issues. But the reaction to the Kremlin leader's trip to Mariupol is the first time that multiple credible sources — including those who’ve spent time with him in the past — have cast doubt on the identity of the man who showed up in the southeastern Ukrainian city that Russia took over last spring after a months-long siege.

Russian opposition politician Gennady Gudkov is among those who confidently claim that a Putin look-alike, or rather one of his look-alikes, was in the Ukrainian city.

"Now that there is a war going on, I don't rule out the possibility that someone strongly resembling or disguised as Putin is playing his role," Gudkov said.

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