Markus Spiske/Unsplash

THE BELL WEEKLY: Xenophobia takes hold after Moscow terror attack

The Bell

Hello! This week we look at a rise in xenophobia after the Moscow terror attack. We also cover a state-funded patriotic video game that became a multi-million dollar flop and a new case against an ailing Soviet dissident.

Russia hit by wave of xenophobia after biggest terror attack in 20 years

Central Asian migrants are facing a new surge in xenophobia after the Crocus City Hall attack. Gunmen, identified by Russian prosecutors as Tajik citizens, opened fire on concert-goers before setting the building ablaze in the worst terror attack in the country since 2004. More than 140 people were killed, including six children. Since the attack there has been a rise in xenophobia both “from above”, via the police and administrative measures, and “from below” with violent assaults by nationalist groups and blacklisting of Tajik businesses.

  • After the main suspects in the Crocus City Hall attack were identified as citizens of Tajikistan, Russia set about a familiar “hunt” for migrants. We’ve seen this before (1,2) after high-profile crimes committed by Tajik and other Central Asian citizens. In Moscow, police carried out mass raids on migrant hostels, while with the help of the National Guard they conducted a notorious workplace “inspection” at the warehouse of one of Russia’s leading online retailers in the Moscow region. In Saint Petersburg, traffic police and riot squads stopped cars for a mass search for illegal migrants among drivers in the city. Holding cells were full of Central Asian detainees and Russian courts have been considering a surge in cases relating to migration violations. For example, in the first week after the concert hall attack, courts in Moscow heard almost 1,500 cases, up 30% on the previous week, the BBC calculated. In almost every case they ordered the defendants expelled. Most, it seems, are from Tajikistan.
  • These raids could be just the start of the “official” problems that migrants will have to face for the foreseeable future. Russia’s foreign ministry has proposed tighter controls on migration, including reducing the maximum time foreigners can stay in the country without a long-term visa to 90 days per year. If these changes are enforced, they would effectively prevent migrants from finding permanent work in Russia — at a time when the country already faces a record labor shortage. Unemployment dropped even further to a new historic low of 2.8%, according to official statistics published last week, indicating that there is little or no spare capacity in the workforce. 
  • Migrants have also faced a surge in “street” xenophobia. Some Russians refused to use services — taxis or hairdressers, for instance — operated by Tajik citizens. Other Central Asians have been threatened with physical harm and had their property destroyed. There have also been reports of some people from Central Asia being attacked with pepper spray, knives and batons. A female migrant from Tajikistan who lives in Moscow told human rights activists that she faced “sideways glances” and aggressive calls to “get out of Russia.” As a result, she is anxious about leaving her home. “It’s a panic, many people want to leave,” the Tajik authorities said in a statement about the mood in the migrant community.  
  • Russia has traditionally been one of the preferred destinations for migrants from Central Asia. The war in Ukraine and the subsequent devaluation of the ruble had already made Russia a less attractive option. And in 2023, the flow of migration into Russia fell to one of the lowest levels in recent years, even though immigration is now the only way to sustain Russia’s aging population. 
  • Even before the Moscow attack, migrants in Russia had faced restrictions on their work. In more than 10 regions of the country, they are banned from working in some or all spheres without a residence permit. Most migrants in Russia work under so-called labor patents, similar to a work permit, for which they need to undergo medical examinations, demonstrate Russian language skills, submit their fingerprints and maintain strict documentation. Many local authorities believe that banning migrant workers will enhance the quality of services and also help to reduce “interethnic tensions.”
  • Several independent opinion polls suggest that Russian society in general is quite xenophobic, despite the “friendship of nations” ideology propagated in the USSR and Vladimir Putin’s talk of Russia as a multiethnic country in harmony. A Levada Center poll from late 2021 showed that 51% of Russians said they would either not let labor migrants from Central Asia into Russia at all, or only on a temporary basis. Two-thirds said the government should limit the influx of migrants, while more than 40% of Russians said that most migrants live better than them and their families.
  • Racial hostility among Russians towards Central Asian migrants could be linked to high anxiety, socio-economic insecurity and the experience of habitual violence from the authorities, explained Lev Gukov, a leading Russian sociologist and former Levada Center head. In his view, these phenomena are “suppressed” internally and find expression in negative projections onto “others.”

Why the world should care

Russia needs immigration, if only to ease the shortage of labor and maintain the country’s population. But Russia’s authorities are doing everything to halt the influx of migrants. The consequences of this policy will be challenging from both an economic and demographic perspective. However, for the most part Russia’s xenophobic society is unlikely to care.

The state’s flagship patriotic video game flops

The much-heralded launch of a state-funded patriotic adventure video game — set in 1612 and based on resistance to Polish forces waging war against Russia — has fallen flat. Critics said the game, The Time of Troubles, was boring and failed to compete with others on the market.

  • The game is based on a historical novel by Mikhail Zagoskin, a nineteenth century writer, about the boyar Yury Miloslavsky, who first swore allegiance to the Poles but then switched sides during the conflict to join the Russian People’s Militia. Zagoskin’s novel was published in 1829 to rapturous reception. 
  • Almost 200 years later, the video game could not recreate that success. According to modern critics, it’s a flop. On a fundamental level, it’s just plain dull. Around 80% of the game time is spent moving from place to place, with a further 10% wasted on dialogue. Only some 7% involves fighting battles (based on an obsolete game engine in which players click the opposition to death with a mouse) and the remaining 3% is devoted to stealth missions. Although it does a decent job of recreating the atmosphere of the period, there is nothing interesting to explore in the virtual-historical world, critics complained. 
  • The Time of Troubles was financed by the state-run Institute for the Development of the Internet (IRI), which provides funds to create “patriotic” content. It was the first major project from developer Cyberia Nova, which previously created graphics for other companies. The Time of Troubles and other state-funded games are intended to steer Russian gamers away from imported foreign releases, said IRI head Alexey Goreslavsky. 
  • The Institute spent at least half a billion rubles (about $5.4 million) on the game’s development. That’s pretty cheap by the standards of modern video game production. For example, The Time of Troubles’ main reference point, Ghost of Tsushima, cost $60 million, while Russian studio Mundfish spent about $25 million developing its shooter Atomic Heart.

Why the world should care

Russia’s first state-funded video game didn’t work out at all. Either the job was rushed, or the studio lacked the experience to do it properly. The Time of Troubles retails for $20, but it has no prospect of commercial success. Reviews are either critical or neutral. It all begs the question: What was the point of spending millions of dollars on developing it in the first place?

Soviet dissident pursued by Putin in the Soviet Union arrested

A St. Petersburg court has detained Soviet dissident Alexander Skobov on charges of “justifying terrorism”. Skobov is a Soviet dissident who was twice committed to psychiatric hospitals for enforced treatment over his anti-communist stance. Vladimir Putin, then a young KGB officer, was involved in the cases against him in the 1970s and 1980s.

  • Alexander Skobov, 66, has been accused of publicly “justifying terrorism” over a post he made regarding the bombing of the Crimean bridge, which connects the annexed Crimean peninsula to mainland Russia. It’s not clear exactly which post as Skobov twice discussed the bridge in comments on social media. In one, he said he hoped that sooner or later the bridge would be destroyed and in the second he explained the importance of its destruction. 
  • Skobov is in poor health, his friends say. In detention, he is being deprived of the medicine he needs. If he remains under arrest, Skobov’s life expectancy can be measured in months, said human rights activist Yuly Rybakov. Skobov was visiting Rybakov at the time of his arrest. 
  • In the USSR, Skokov was regularly charged with “anti-Soviet” offenses. He was first arrested in 1978 on charges of distributing anti-Soviet pamphlets and ordered into a psychiatric hospital for two years (punitive psychiatry was commonplace in the Soviet Union, used from the 1960s to the 1980s as a major tool of state repression). He was sent back there in 1982 after daubing anti-Soviet slogans on the walls of buildings before being released in 1985. 
  • The cases involving Skobov were handled by Vladimir Putin, who at the time worked in the KGB’s notorious fifth directorate, responsible for combating “ideological sabotage.” This is not mentioned in the president’s official biography.

Why the world should care

In modern Russia, just as in the Soviet era, free speech has long been criminalized. Today’s courts, like their Soviet predecessors, are especially harsh on dissenters. The ailing Skobov, who is also a carer for his 90-year-old mother, was remanded in custody while his case is investigated.


Support The Bell!

The Bell's Newsletter

An inside look at the Russian economy and politics. Exclusively in your inbox every week.