Russia’s migrants and ethnic minorities shiver at new Putin terror crackdown

President Vladimir Putin’s failure to halt a lethal terror attack by Tajik militants in Moscow last month has had some crushing side effects for Russia’s immigrants and ethnic minorities.

While the Kremlin has internationally pinned the blame on Ukraine, the U.S. and Britain for the terror attack, domestically it has found more vulnerable scapegoats, intensifying a crackdown on migrants, central Asians and non-white Russians.

Since the Crocus City Hall attack on March 22 — which led to the deaths of 143 people and was claimed by a branch of the Islamic State group — Russian police have been conducting raids on migrant dormitories in several cities, while non-white people have been searched on the streets.

In late March some 40 migrants were detained at their place of work 60 kilometers from Moscow. Law enforcement agencies also conducted a major operation including mass searches and the immediate arraignment of people accused of breaking migration laws. As a result, 466 individuals were sentenced to expulsion from Russia.

Central Asian authorities from TajikistanUzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan — traditional countries of origin for many migrants to Russia — have all issued statements advising their citizens not to participate in mass events in Russia and to stay home.

But it’s not just migrants who feel the Kremlin’s icy breath on their necks.

“The wave of xenophobia [after the attack] is very tangible for indigenous peoples,” Victoria Maladaeva, the president of the Indigenous of Russia Foundation, told POLITICO.

By “indigenous peoples” Maladaeva means the many non-Slavic groups who have been living on the territory of modern Russia for thousands of years. “People are afraid to leave the house, they travel by cab, [some may have] canceled all part-time jobs for the next week and sit at home, [others] keep the phone always at hand,” she said.

In an example of the escalating trend, the Asians of Russia organization reported that a woman from Yakutia, in Russia’s far east along the Artic Ocean, had been harassed on the Moscow subway system by Russian nationalists who directed Nazi salutes at her, shouting “Russia is for Russians. Moscow is for Muscovites.” Yakutia is the country’s largest republic.

Maladaeva said people have been receiving threats online, urging them to “go back to [their] place.” Some Russians of Asian origin, along with indigenous Russians, are now considering migrating to Central Asia, according to messages that Indigenous of Russia Foundation has received from its subscribers.

Two-faced Putin

Putin — as always — has distanced himself from this discussion to maintain the image of a moderate president who represents all 195 of Russia’s ethnic groups.

“Russia has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country; it was created that way. The diversity and strength of our common homeland — Russia — have been and still are in the mutual enrichment of cultures, traditions, and religions,” he said in 2015 at the opening ceremony of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque.

Shortly after invading Ukraine in February 2022 Putin added: “I am a Russian person. But when I see examples of such heroism [by non-ethnic Russians in Ukraine], I want to say: I am a Lakian, I am a Dagestani, I am a Chechen, an Ingush, a Russian, a Tatar, a Jew, a Mordvin, an Ossetian. All [of the] more than 300 national and ethnic groups of Russia simply cannot be enumerated.”

But in reality, the persecution of migrants — the majority of whom come to Russia from Central Asian countries — is a top-down operation.

Russia’s Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov reported to Putin on March 26, without evidence, that the number of crimes committed by migrants in Russia had jumped 75 percent in 2023.

This statement, which starkly contradicts figures provided by the Russian interior ministry, is illustrative of a campaign against migrants launched by law enforcement following the Crocus attack. According to yearly statistics from the interior ministry, the number of foreigners who committed crimes fell by 9 percent in 2023, while the number of foreign criminals from ex-Soviet CIS countries decreased by 7 percent.

The Russian government did not respond to a request for comment about the crackdown and the criminal statistics.

Attacks and harassment

“We can’t say anything about mass sentiment because it’s not measured that quickly,” Alexander Verkhovsky, head of the Sova Research Center, which monitors nationalism and xenophobia in Russia, told POLITICO. “But the authorities think that the terrorist attack [will] stir up xenophobic sentiments and, accordingly, they want to show the people that they care about their feelings, and for this purpose, they need to do something about migrants.”

This has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, Verkhovsky added, with the state offensive against migrants since the terror attack having itself sparked hatred and discrimination against all non-Slavic people in Russia, including non-European indigenous peoples.

According to first-hand reports from Russia, people have been attacked and harassed.

In one instance, a Russian man assaulted a person who appeared to be Central Asian in the Moscow district of Belyaevo before a woman named Ekaterina (who asked that her name be changed for security reasons) intervened, she told POLITICO.

Ekaterina recounted that the person had been driving and had stopped at a traffic light when a Russian man kicked his car door. After the driver wound down his window, the Russian man pepper-sprayed him in the face, leading to a fight. The Russian man, who was dressed in nationalist attire — bomber jacket and Doc Martens boots — only left after Ekaterina threatened to call police.

‘Anxiety and fear prevail’

The hatred has increased stress and anxiety among non-Slavic communities in Russia.

“Anxiety and fear prevail. People lack understanding of what to do now and whether this is now a real threat or maybe this wave will pass,” said Marina Obmolova, a psychologist and the director of a charity for abused non-white women.

The foundation runs a hotline for people in need of psychological support. “In the first days of shock [after the Crocus attack] there were indeed more appeals than usual, and they were related not only to requests for psychological help but also for consultations with a lawyer on what the risks are and whether people should leave Russia,” she said.

Verkhovsky, the xenophobia researcher, said that “cosmetic measures or individual criminal cases [against migrants] that are prominently pursued might be tangible options [for Russian authorities].”

The fact such measures are even being discussed is a worrying development for Russia’s most vulnerable populations, he added.

Denis Leven is hosted at POLITICO under the EU-funded EU4FreeMedia residency program.