Caucasian and Chechen phobias within Russian Society
By Emil Souleimanov, special to Prague Watchdog
Since ancient times the picture of an inner or outer enemy has always been nurtured in Russia. The intent was to mobilize society and divert dissatisfaction with their wretched social and economic conditions by steering them in a direction that better suited the leaders. So when the bi-polar world ceased to exist and the United States was no longer the hated “historical enemy,” a sort of ideological vacuum replaced it.
As the Russian journalist Aleksandr Minkin pointed out ten years ago in the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, “The government needs yet another enemy (an enemy is an integral part of Russian life and currently that role is given to the Chechens), as without him you cannot satisfactorily explain why 60% of the Russian people live below the poverty line. The dissatisfaction of the people represents a real force. Therefore, it is much better to direct it against the Chechens rather than toward the governors, prefects or the Kremlin who don’t pay salaries for many months and increase rents.”
Stirring up anti-Chechen feelings in Russia has been evident - by several respites and various levels of intensity - already since the early 1990s and it was conditioned mostly by domestic motives.
Obviously the picture of an enemy cannot be created from nothing. It has to be somehow rooted and linked to negative associations within the society. In this respect the already formed anti-Chechen (and, in a broader sense, anti-Caucasian) feelings arise from the controversial relationships between Russians and the Caucasian people in their daily life.
Changes in the perception of a Chechen during the Soviet era
While bias against the Caucasus and its people during the Soviet era was rather of a positive character, since the end of the 1970s and especially from the 1980s, a vigilant and distrustful attitude has become dominant. The romanticized picture of a dangerous yet freedom-loving mountain dweller untouched by civilization, which 19th century Russian literature created, was replaced in the 1950´s and 60´s by a picture of the “younger brother,” a sometimes naughty yet charming and vivacious Southerner; “a hero-lover” at Caucasian summer resorts who was both indulged and patronized.
The economically motivated migration of Caucasians to Russian cities intensified in the 1980´s. The fact that they came to a foreign (Russian) and unknown environment (city) where they were usually not warmly welcomed, made the newcomers realize that inevitably they had to rely on themselves, especially in achieving and maintaining their “place in the sun” when competing with local groups.
Thus their clannish and ethnic solidarity became even stronger and soon criminal networks based on ethnic or combined ethnic-clan principles sprang up among some of the youth Caucasian people. Crime and business activities, however, were obviously not the basic conditions for building and strengthening the antipathy of the Russian citizens. Sometimes these were determined by cultural differences as well.
It’s been proven that under specific circumstances the same identifying traits that were once seen as positive, can be viewed as negative. Thus pride sometimes turns into conceit, traditionalism into backwardness, initiative suddenly becomes arrogance, courage is seen to be aggression, an entrepreneurial spirit as greed, etc.
Differentiation based on ethnicity is strengthened by emphasizing real or alleged “differences” such as a diverse language, (visually noticeable) culture, the physical appearance of “strangers” or what is considered their temperament. Even such things as very distinctive gestures, conspicuous intonations during conversation and the natural effort of strangers to band together in a strange environment are considered as a sort of defiance and disrespect toward local citizens.
It’s sad that despite many years of co-existing with Caucasian peoples within one country, the former USSR, their traditions and culture have not been better understood. Russians have superficial and fragmented knowledge of them (as well as about the majority of other nations of the former USSR), which in the best scenario is determined by ardently perceiving the exotic Caucasian “symbolism” so typical of the Soviet period (mountains, daggers, blood feuds, jiggit, adat, shashlik, wine, etc.). And in the worse scenario by subjective stories about “bloodthirstiness,” “treachery,” and the brutality of the mountain dwellers and their advanced business skills.
The fears Russians have that Caucasians are “everywhere”, that there are “far too many of them”, “they immediately occupy the entire city”, “they usurp everything”only aids in bolstering their feelings. To a certain extent these phobias are influenced by the fact that Caucasians usually tend to fill lucrative jobs in business, government, etc. and therefore are more “visible.” In addition, they try to get their friends and relatives into new job openings to the detriment of local citizens. And in defense of their individual clan or ethnic interests, they are often even willing to use brute force.
Interestingly enough, Caucasian public opinion, unlike Russian opinion, does not denounce success and wealth, whereas in Russia there still exists a stereotype from Soviet times that no one can become wealthy through honest work. Thus to most people the “suspicious” behavior of some Caucasians simply substantiates this.
Sometimes Caucasians show off their wealth and property no matter how it was acquired just as they emphasize their own strength and masculinity. And generosity often borders on wasteful squandering. But all of this, which could be called "jiggitting" (from the Turkic expression "jiggit" meaning "bold") , they perceive as prestigious and something that is expect to increase their social position. However, some Russians regard this behavior as insulting and disrespectful of the “host country.”
According to many Russians, Caucasians make money based “on their suffering; they take advantage of their good-heartedness and end up cheating them; and want to order everyone about.” Affectations, so typical of the Caucasian culture and, essentially, quite harmless, are nevertheless misunderstood by local people. They mistakenly believe they are the targets of the “odd” behaviour (in the best case) or “aggressive”, “rude” and “disrespectful” behavior (in worse cases).
Post-Soviet ”person of Caucasian nationality“
From the beginning of the 1990´s public dissatisfaction was not directed against individual Caucasian peoples, but the mythical “person of Caucasian nationality” ("litso kavkazskoi natsionalnosti" in Russian) that, due to the collaborative efforts of the media, local governments and various nationalist groups, reached nearly demonic proportions in Russian society.
Public opinion polls show that xenophobia in Russia has taken on a distinctly anti-Caucasian dimension since the middle of the 1990´s. Xenophobia and ethnophobia represent a serious problem in present-day Russia: when asked whether non-Russian nationalities residing in Russia represented any threat to the country, 55% responded positively.
Social development in the latter half of the 1990´ s brought about a marked increase in the number of ultra-nationalist and racist organizations, with quite a few neo-fascist movements emerging. Their more frequent targets can theoretically affect everyone who does not have a distinct “Slavonic” appearance. As a rule though, the attacks are aimed at black (African) people, people from the Near East and Asia, “blacks” (i.e. Caucasians) and “the slant-eyed” (those include, among others, people from Central Asia).
Negative opinions about the Caucasian natives exist among the youth between the ages of 18 and 25 (approx. 70%), while older people (above 55 years), whose memories of earlier days are still fresh in their minds, are much more tolerant (less than 40%). It’s quite symptomatic that in a stable society this is totally the reverse where youngsters are the ones who tend not to have xenophobic reactions. Nor is it by chance that at the beginning of the 1990´s, during the time of “Great Expectations,” young people were the most tolerant group in Russian society. The crisis within the society and decline of the symbolic world was disorienting, especially for the youth who strive for distinct and appealing ideals, the absence of which forces them to choose for social aggression.
The media, either knowingly or unknowingly, were the cause for inflaming anti-Caucasian sentiments in Russian society. Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, will long be remembered for stating in front of the ruins of an apartment building on the Kashirskoye Road in Moscow, “This is Chechen terrorism” without waiting for results of the court’s verdict.
Vladimir Putin´s statement is no less famous when as Prime Minister he said that (Chechen) terrorists would be liquidated everywhere, including the toilets. Three years earlier Mikhail Barsukov, the then head of Russia's intelligence service, was more straight and uncompromising in his speech. In front of TV cameras he generalized the goings on of Chechen warlord Salman Raduyev and his companions by saying, “All Chechens are bandits, thieves and murderers.”
Similar statements by government officials, politicians and important public figures about Chechens and Caucasians as well as other nationals started to become very populist; and the media, being sensationalist, didn’t hesitate to spread it. Many simple criminal acts that are part of everyday life have been needlessly given ethnic dimension when assuming that native Caucasians are among the participants. Because this greatly increases a feeling of danger for the majority of the people, it is seen to legitimize a desire for revenge. Therefore, one cannot be surprised by the harsh behavior Caucasians encounter at work, on the street, in school, government offices, service areas, and many other places.
It is also quite puzzling that if a Caucasian is suspected of committing a crime, his nationality is always given prominence. If it’s suspected that the criminal is someone else (it doesn’t necessarily have to be a Russian, could be an Ukrainian or Tatar), his ethnic origin is rarely mentioned. But most people pay scant attention to this and continue to entertain an image of the ubiquitous "Caucasian mafia".
Yet it was Russian Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov who in 2002 stressed that out of the 21 organized criminal groups on Russian territory, only seven were based on ethnicity (and even they weren’t necessarily Caucasians).
Wide-spread feelings against Caucasians are especially found in Russian provinces where local governors successfully use the Caucasian issue as a lightning rod to divert public discontent from the activities of semi-criminal groups and critical socio-economic conditions.
The protesting moods are far more significant when ethnic (usually Caucasian) subtext turns up in news reports about criminal cases. The specific patriotism of the inhabitants sometimes goes so far that in relatively routine clashes between “Slavonic” and “Caucasian” organized criminal groups across the entire country, Russians take sides with “their boys.” Gangsters, that is, who are sometimes affiliated with a regional or gubernatorial administration.
It’s possible to simplify this by saying that in recent years the average Russian citizen associates a Caucasian with crime and illegal activities in the same way that Central Europeans do in similar cases of Russian-speaking people from former USSR countries.
A Chechen is tantamount to a terrorist?
Since the mid-90s, anti-Caucasian feelings are primarily aimed at Chechens. It is interesting that in the first half of 1999 only 8.4% of respondents felt any hatred toward Chechens.. Soon after the terrorist attacks in Russian cities (September 1999), however, the All-Russian Public Opinion Poll Center (VTsIOM) noted that 64% of Muscovites spoke in favor of forcibly evicting Chechens from the capital and 68% agreed with the statement that the relationship toward Caucasians had significantly worsened.
Moscow’s Municipal Council´s decree on “Urgent Measures To Provide Regulations for the Registration of Citizens Temporarily Residing in Moscow” (of September 13, 1999) and the Moscow city government’s decree “On the Adoption of a Provisional Order for Evicting People Who Inveterately Violate the Registration Rules Beyond the Moscow Border to Their Permanent Address” (of September 21, 1999) were legal acts justifying terror against foreigners in Moscow. Later on similar and sometimes even more resolute directives were published in many places of the Russian Federation.
Even though the expected ethnic cleansing and mass “vendettas” against people from Chechnya and the Caucasus did not happen following the September events, police stations as well as local citizens interpreted these legal acts as a green light to proceed with unprecedented discrimination and aggressive xenophobia.
Even today when emotions have cooled down, these and other similar acts along with the unchanging moods of society, are an excellent opportunity for the police and state officialls to financially exploit Chechens and Caucasians and members of other nationalities living in the Russian Federation.
A large amount of political news was added to various daily news reports. For example, government authorities purposely exaggerated the ethnic reprisals against Russians in Chechnya from 1990 to 1994, in order to intensify anti-Chechen and militant sentiments and to justify the war.
Anti-Chechen public opinion was also influenced by terrorist and diversionary attacks by Chechen militants in Russian cities (1994, 1995, 2002, 2003, 2004), Russia's insulting defeat in the first Chechen war and more frequent kidnappings of humanitarian rights workers, construction workers, engineers and journalists who had nothing to do with the war yet between wars were brutally treated in Chechnya. It is important to acknowledge that the Caucasians themselves greatly contributed to their bad reputation in Russian society as did criminals of Chechen nationality during peace time in Chechnya (1996-97).
In the post-Soviet era such words as "bandit", "terrorist", "extremist", "separatist" and others with negative connotations have become synonymous with a "Chechen" (and "Caucasian" to a certain extent, too). These semantic clichés appeared, and still appear, in television and radio broadcasts, newspaper stories and books. This, however, poses a certain danger due to their high inertia that allows so-called ethnic phobias (or regional phobias) to stay in mass consciousness even after the political reasons that initiated them have disappeared.
Emil Souleimanov, PhD, is a political scientist working at Charles University in Prague. He is a regular contributor to Prague Watchdog.