“Their Brains Are Like a Wrecking Ball”

October 14, 2013

Just as angry anti-migrant mobs raged in the provincial town of Pugachev and in St. Petersburg last summer, on Sunday night rioters rampaged in the drab industrial district of Biryulyovo in Moscow surrounding one of the largest vegetable warehouses in Europe. Two separate incidents led to arrests of some 450 people, 23 were wounded including several police, and the crisis is not over [the latest report suggest that the police have now also rounded up more than one thousand employees of the warehouse – Ed.]. Local residents — and evidently some nationalist organizers from outside – combined to express outrage over the murder of a Russian man, Yegor Shcherbakov, stabbed to death while walking with his girlfriend near the market. Authorities closed down the depot, where the suspect, believed to be a shawarma seller from the Caucasus, was said to be hiding.

The videos from Biryulyovo following the murder at a shopping center are shocking – young leather-jacketed thugs with masks, joined by seemingly ordinary every-day shoppers seething with hate, can be seen overturning vans, breaking windows, setting off sprinklers, and storming a warehouse. An old woman with a cane limps over shattered glass and a young boy carries his even-younger brother out of the ruins of a store; a small son tugs at his dazed father, his head bleeding, away from the violence. The OMON – the special riot troops of the Interior Ministry – are present, but seem not to act with the same alacrity they did on Bolotnaya Square and other venues where the opposition marched earlier this year, suffering a number of arrests. In a video shot by Grani TV correspondent Dmitry Zykov, we see OMON nearby but apparently at first failing to stop crowds from crashing windows, overturning garbage bins and breaking into stores, and ultimately bursting through the iron gates of the large warehouse yard.

Thousands of people can be seen in the videos pouring through the streets, chanting “Russia for Russians, Moscow for Muscovites” and “Close the Warehouse!” – which they see as a “hotbed of crime”.

Eventually, overnight the OMON restored order, as Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reported, arriving with numerous buses and detaining hundreds of mainly young men in the crowd, many of whom resisted strenuously and continued to chant nationalist slogans as women jeered at police and told them to arrest the murderer instead. As of this writing, Moscow police released most of the 380 detained after “prophylactic discussions” and had opened at least 70 cases on administrative charges of “hooliganism” or vandalism, vesti.ru reported.

While their compatriots were showing up on TV and Youtube spreading mayhem, Russians on social media or caught by journalists on TV expressed a mixture of cynicism, resignation and alarm. Instantly the word “pogrom” (a word based on the root of the Russian word for “thunder” or “destroy” with many terrible historical associations of persecution of Jews and other minorities) was used to describe the riots. A photo of the suspect in the murder soon appeared on Twitter, taken from a store video camera, and the victims’ profile photo on Vkontakte was reprinted. The press filled with the wrenching story of how Shcherbakov was walking along with his girlfriend when a chance altercation rapidly escalated to a deadly outcome. The story happened in a part of town where tensions were already high due to the perception that a large number of migrant laborers working at the depot were responsible for crimes made worse by policemen taking bribes to look the other way.

Long-time provocateur and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, of the ill-named Liberal Democratic Party, exploited the occasion of unrest to call for ridding Russia of all migrant laborers, and disturbingly, at least some in a new generation of nationalists were denouncing him as out of date and too soft.

“The bottles are flying, the OMON are running,” a Russian tweeted laconically as Russian TV showed riot police deluged by angry demonstrators. “If you’re going to Biryulyovo, be sure to wear flowers in your hair,” smirked another. Here was yet another murder of a Russian said to involve a non-Russian – the many incidents of the reverse scenario seldom draw any attention – with crowds gathering in revenge as police both under-reacted and over-reacted, yet people seemed to shrug that this was “inevitable” because it was “Russian nature.”

Within hours of the mob rampage, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-sponsored RT.com, herself of Caucasian heritage, posted a widely-seen pronouncement on Facebook and Twitter that the opposition leaders, particularly Alexei Navalny, were to blame for the unrest because of the repeated anti-Putin demonstrations they had been staging all year on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow:

In 2011 I explained to two famous liberals that this Bolotnaya of theirs was not a game of pick-up-sticks, that this would all end in ethnic pogroms, that is, only nationalism is the singular, really massively popular idea in the country, and that’s why their Navalny, being a pragmatic, was flirting with the nationalists. Then one famous liberal said to me that this was a lie and Putin propaganda and the other said that if it were true, it was horrible. Now one doesn’t think this is a lie. And the other doesn’t think this is horrible. #Biryulyovo.

On Facebook, many of her followers responded with frank skepticism; one person pointed out that the Manezh riots of 2010 happened long before the series of protests on Bolotnaya challenging Putin which began in 2011. Tikhon Dzyadko, a popular reporter on Ekho Moskvy and TV Rain asked Simonyan directly on Twitter: “What does Bolotnaya have to do with Biryulyovo?”

Navalny was nowhere near the riots and had made no statement to provoke them, but his re-tweeting of people making comments like “I’m for the Russians,” or “Russia only understands a brutal tsar” and his sharp response to Simonyan likely fanned flames: “The truth is that pogroms occur because the people of Russia are tired of paying stupid, lying television anchors who eat beavers” — a reference to a whimsical tweet of Simonyan’s earlier this year about stewing a beaver with juniper berries which became a meme (although in Russian, without the crude sexual suggestion as in English).

Then Navalny added an even more provocative tweet referencing Simonyan’s employment on state-run media, “Tell somebody in Biryulyovo that he is paying out of his wages for the ‘journalist’ ‘simonyan’ buying beaver filet at the market. There’ll be a pogrom right away.”

To further build his case that the authorities were merely using the pogroms as an excuse to vilify the opposition, Navalny also retweeted the outcry of Ernst Makarenko, head of the Novo-Peredelkino Municipal District, an official whose profile contains the term “Orthodoxy” “Professionalism” and “Patriotism”: “How long will @navalny go on without punishment? Once again he is insulting the President and calling for disorders! Time to bring him to court!”

A number of Twitter commenters noted how the Russian Orthodox Church became involved, calling for the murderer to be swiftly — and demonstratively — brought to justice. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a Russian Orthodox Church spokesperson, told Interfax that it wasn’t the first case of its kind and that “people’s outrage could be understood.” While he noted that he hoped the outrage would be kept within legal bounds, he fanned the fires with his own pronouncement:

“To find this criminal means to show that we have a state. Not to find him means to show that neither the state nor the law in the country are working. And Muscovites today have clearly spoken of this. The blood of the murdered man cries to heaven and to the human conscience. People are right to expect that the criminal will bear punishment. And in this case, as in other similar cases, when the murder is accompanied by extreme cynicism, and a challenge to moral norms and the norms of culture, the punishment should be particularly brutal, irreversible and demonstrative,” said the clergyman.

In the amateur videos of the riots, there seem to be almost as many hands holding cell phones and iPads used as cameras as there are holding bottles and rocks. We’ve heard of Twitter revolutions. Is this a Twitter pogrom or the attempt to use Twitter to assign blame for a pogrom? While the hard-core street nationalists don’t seem to be visibly inciting riots on Twitter, the hipster online nationalists in the Facebook group sardonically titled “Sputnik and Pogrom” (i.e. the two words the Russians have brought to world language) was baldly crying, “Let’s get it started” and leader Yegor Prosvirnin (@Nomina_Obscura) posted a video clip of the Biryulyovo riot set to the tune of the role-playing video game Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, “Age of Oppression” with lyrics about “taking back our land.”

How could thousands of people erupt in such hatred in a district where – as many opposition members are smugly pointing out now – 91% of the people didn’t vote, and of those who did, 64% voted for Sobyanin?

Xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiments had indeed crept into the recent mayoral elections in September. The Just Russia candidate Nikolai Levishchev published newspapers with word games containing derogatory terms for Jews and blacks; Sergei Mitrokhin matter-of-factly pledged to increase penalties for employees of migrants and be sparing in issuing building permits for mosques – and churches; Navalny archly said he would permit gay parades but ban the Lezgvinka, the traditional dance of the Caucasus. Many intellectuals were worried about Navalny, who has been cross-examined repeatedly by the media about incidents in his past such as joining the Russian Marches – whose leader was seen agitating the crowd in Biryulyovo — and has fought off claims that he used ethnic slurs about colleagues. The purpose of all this seemed to be to allow nominally democratic elections, but only with a crowded field, and with a media advantage, so that the incumbent, and Putin favorite, Sobyanin could win and obliquely point to all the others and show that he was a force for tolerance and civic peace by contrast. So far, Sobyanin has only pledged to see justice for the murderer and has not come to speak to crowds as some have asked; some opposition members such as Vladimir Milov have called for his resignation.

The videos tell a somewhat more complicated story than mere ethnic incitement. The videos also serve as a stark illustration of how easy it is for a few well-organized national movement leaders and their soccer fan-club thugs to descend on a crowd of worried people, and to get ordinary Russians to join them: well-dressed young men and women, as well as grandmothers who have come downstairs in their house gowns and slippers, and war veteran pensioners who ought to remember what the original Nazism was like. Together they all lunge toward a store, crying “Russians, forward!” and “This is our home!” as they turned against cowering migrant laborers.

The “people’s assembly,” as the nationalists want to call what others see as mobs, seem to be made up partly of nationalist touts and their young followers with both big and petty ideas, and partly of local residents with various grievances related to the overall climate of crime and corruption. In one video published by Lenta.ru, women cry out to a local district board leader, who was attempting to calm the crowd, that people are tired of the prostitutes hanging around the depot and don’t want their children to see people screwing in the bushes.

In what is surely one of the more awkward moments captured by Russian citizen journalism, the board leader struggles to bring a very reluctant policeman up to face the angry crowd. He introduces him as the policeman in charge of “public liaison” – but the cop – who looks like he wishes he could slink away – corrects him that he is actually the deputy in charge of public order. Liaison – order – very different jobs. The local politician tries to get the crowd to make a task force and join him in working things out with the authorities, but is met with scorn. “You don’t even know who your elected officials are,” one man rebuked the crowd. “But we didn’t elect them,” the people cried back. The growing pains of Russian democracy? Or ordinary fascism?

Oksana Chelysheva, a human rights activist who has worked on the issues of torture and harassment of Chechens and is now forced to live abroad, noted on Facebook that if the murderer of Shcherbakov had been named “Vanya Petrov” (a common Russian name) then no riots would have occurred and Biryulyovo would have stayed asleep as it had through other ethnic and political crises in Russia.

The civic protest of the Bolotniki – the defendants in a current show trial of those who were arrested for demonstrating on Bolotnaya Square in May 2012 – are now being merged in the public mind with the pogroms, she said, and any form of public assembly would be seen as a problem. Journalists covering the riots were beaten by police, not nationalists, and the girlfriend of the murder victim said neither she nor his relatives were behind the calls for mob revenge, but the media didn’t seem to be covering this.

Other Russian intellectuals fear that calls from both officials and the opposition to “solve the migrants’ problem” has created a climate making it too easy for this to happen, and other stressed neighborhoods to ignite. Muscovites are also anxiously awaiting two events this week that could exacerbate tensions: the Muslim holiday of Kurban-bayram, which has prompted police to shut off streets around mosques to make way for many more worshipers expected than last year, and a soccer game between Russia and Azerbaijan, where angry losers could start fights.

Blogger Julia Kazakova believes that the authorities have promoted the idea of nationalism and the notion that “foreigners” are to blame for problems in order to channel public discontent over other economic and political issues in a certain direction – “a channel that won’t threaten the government itself” so that people do not think of where the real fault is.

Kazakova says that while the authorities play on xenophobic feelings, the opposition has also indulged in the same kind of rhetoric:

Xenophobia, unfortunately, is peculiar to too many people. And this illness is aggravated with the relevant rhetoric and PR…Pedaling xenophobic sentiments for many has become a means of getting votes, ratings, and recruiting supporters and admirers. The easiest way to up your rating is to say simple things and point at an obvious enemy. And you don’t have to try particularly hard – half the work is already done by the existing government.

Russian novelist Viktor Yerofeyev wrote recently in a New York Times op-ed piece titled “Russia’s Search For Itself” of what he sees as a “divided consciousness” and a loss of traditional values especially among the young of the post-Communist Putin generation:

They surround themselves with an aura of global suspiciousness, but at the same they are surprisingly convinced of their suspicions.

They do not like America, and are convinced that America wants to take away Russia’s sovereignty. At the same time, they are prepared to emigrate to America on a moment’s notice. They are convinced that Navalny is a secret agent of the Kremlin, but if told that in this case they are also agents of the Kremlin, they get angry. Europe for them is rotten and decadent, but they yearn to get a residence at least in Bulgaria.

In the morning they dislike the authorities; at noon they dislike the opposition, and then it all gets mixed up. Their brains are like a wrecking ball.