Murder in Moscow

Russia’s rapid economic decline is triggering a violent backlash—including gruesome killings by a group modeled on Hitler’s Third Reich.

Sergey Ponomarev / AP

Recently, workers removing garbage from a refuse bin behind a nondescript gray apartment building on Moscow’s western fringe made a horrific discovery: a plastic bag with a head in it. It took the police some time to link the head with the victim’s body, which turned up some twelve miles away, with six stab wounds. But the identity of the murderers and their motive is no mystery: they were quick to claim credit in emails sent to human rights organizations, and they attached photographic evidence of the execution style beheading.

The ambitious mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, is one of the few figures in Russian politics who has challenged Putin and survived.

The murderers call themselves “The Militant Group of Russian Nationalists” and borrow their imagery straight from Hitler’s Third Reich. Their agenda is simple enough: ridding the country of non-ethnic Russians, who count for more than 20 percent of the population, not taking resident foreigners into account. The photos revealed that the victim, Salekh Azizov, was one of two captives. A police probe concluded that he had been attacked by a gang of about ten youths firing pellet guns as he walked home with one of his fellow workers from a warehouse; the colleague freed himself and escaped, but Azizov was not so fortunate.

The brutal decapitation offers a glimpse into one of the grimmer aspects of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which until the recent financial crisis was awash in petro dollars but is now in severe decline. Prosperity created a situation familiar to Americans and Northern Europeans: some jobs became too menial for Russians. That includes low-paying construction jobs, housecleaning and apartment building maintenance, sanitation work—and even in the Moscow transit system. Zhana Zayonchkovskaya, the preeminent Russian scholar on labor migration, told me in a Moscow interview that between 80-90 percent of the transit system’s workforce are now “labor migrants.” “Russians don’t want these jobs,” she said. More than three million “labor migrants” now live and work in Russia, the great bulk of them from three Central Asian nations where times are hard: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

In the surreally warm December of 2008, however, Moscovite anxiety has been rising too. With the sudden, dramatic collapse in oil prices that started in the late summer, Russians recognize they are in for a rough ride. Economic fear is being fully exploited on Russia’s political stage, and not just by fringe groups like those involved in the gory decapitation.

Vladimir Putin has turned the reins of the presidency to a handpicked successor, Dmitri Medvedev, but he has stayed on as prime minister, and the focus of politics in Russia has moved to that office. While it is fashionable in the West to portray Putin as a monochrome relic of the KGB, intent on reviving an old style of autocratic rule and perhaps even a cold war, that perspective is simplistic. “On the migration issue, Putin is a liberal reformer,” says Zayonchkovskaya. “He humanized the system serving the needs of Russian entrepreneurs for cheap labor, and by legalizing the immigrants, he improved their lot and provided them at least a measure of protection against exploitation. His approach was a success.”

Zayonchkovskaya’s analysis was echoed in interviews with human rights groups, a labor union and officials at the Tajik embassy. All had plenty of concerns about the treatment of Tajiks in an increasingly menacing environment, and all were quick to see Putin as a natural ally in efforts to cope with a xenophobic backlash. But Human Rights Watch’s Rachel Denber, who has directed a soon-to-be-released study of the Russian labor migration issue, zeroed in on the most serious complaint. “Even in the best of economic times, migrant laborers in the construction sector were subjected to unconscionable exploitation--cheated on wages on a massive scale, unprotected from abusive and unsafe labor conditions. They had nowhere to go for redress.”

But the politically attuned Putin recognizes his exposure on the issue. He has pulled back, halving the quota he previously introduced for migrants. Putin’s domestic political adversaries see an opening. In a scene remarkably reminiscent of domestic U.S. politics, reactionary forces are moving to portray Putin as a figure whose laxity on immigration issues has flooded the country with cheap labor from states on Russia’s Muslim southern periphery. As employment fears rise, so does the charge that these immigrants are taking jobs from able-bodied Russians.

The ambitious mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, is carefully positioning himself as a critic of the Putin record on labor migration. Luzhkov is one of the few figures in Russian politics who has challenged Putin and survived. In the waning days of the Yeltsin presidency, he was widely thought to be leading an effort to succeed him—though Putin quickly crushed his aspirations. But as the mayor of Russia’s center of commerce and politics, Luzhkov has a sturdy platform. (Indeed, Yeltsin himself rose to the presidency from the Moscow city hall.) Luzhkov has now put forward an initiative designed to drive millions of immigrants into an illegal twilight zone by imposing stiff new registration requirements, many of which reflect xenophobic concerns that the immigrants are a source of disease and criminality.

In this season of murder and dread, the New Year and Orthodox Christmas are descending upon Moscow. By tradition, it is a time to remember the neediest. It’s been the warmest December that Muscovites have ever experienced. Broadcasts on government controlled media outlets blame “the Americans” for the strange weather as well as the onset of economic hard times. And the sentiment against “the Americans” can be heard commonly on the street. But “the Americans” are a distant scapegoat.

This year, it seems, the winds of persecution and hatred, the dangers in periods of economic and political despair, are blowing hard.

Scott Horton is a law professor and writer on legal and national security affairs for Harper's Magazine and The American Lawyer, among other publications.