20 years under Putin: a timeline

The “migrant issue” is being presented as one of the main pressure points in Russian society. Author and human rights activist Alexander Podrabinek discusses the ten most popular myths about migrants—and debunks nine of them.



When I wrote that the migrant issue in Russia was mostly artificial and exaggerated, many readers came down on me with angry accusations. The problem obviously exists, and it troubles them, but they cannot understand its real nature, let alone intelligibly describe it. In general, the “migrant issue” is considered an absolute given, but for some reason, protectors of national purity cannot explain what the essence of the problem is.

Here are the ten most popular explanations of why there is a “migrant issue”:

Many migrants enter the country without complying with border formalities—hence they are illegal immigrants.
Migrants considerably increase the overall crime rate.
Going out in the evening can be dangerous because of migrants.
Migrants are all Muslims, and Islam is an aggressive religion.
Their kids go to public schools but do not speak Russian.
Migrants are taking our jobs.
Migrants do not pay taxes, and yet get free health care in our hospitals and medical centers.
Migrants are their employers’ slaves.
Migrants live in insanitary conditions.
Migrants are unpleasant strangers. There are so many of them already that it is not “them” among “us” anymore, but “us” among “them.”

There is only one reasonable explanation among these. The rest are either based on myths or conjured out of thin air. Let me illustrate.

The first statement: “Migrants enter the country without complying with border formalities—hence they are illegal immigrants.”
Even if this is a problem, it only concerns border patrols. Will anyone claim that a migrant with a residence permit is fundamentally different from a migrant without such a permit? Do nationalists treat legal migrants well? Do those participating in pogroms and killings ask migrants about their legal status? These questions are rhetorical, since migrants are being persecuted and killed for reasons of race and nationality. Their illegal status only provides others an excuse for aggressive behavior.

Law-abiding citizens’ disfavor and nationalists’ hatred are mostly aimed at migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus, that is, from former Soviet republics. However, not only people from South Caucasus are considered migrants, but also Russian citizens living in North Caucasus, including Chechens, Ingushes, Ossetians, Dagestanis, and many other nationalities. Those who stage pogroms do not care about geopolitical subtleties. They do not care which country “a person from the Caucasus” is a citizen of. They are all strangers with no exceptions.

It is noteworthy that Russia has a visa-free travel policy with all the countries of South Caucasus and former Soviet Central Asia except for Georgia and Turkmenistan. Migrants from these countries, including Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, by definition cannot be illegal immigrants. They enter Russia legally using their domestic passports.

The second statement: “Migrants considerably increase the overall crime rate.”
This myth is akin to the belief popular with the early-twentieth-century Black Hundreds that Jewish people used the blood of Christian babies for their rituals. The judgment about the crime rate among migrants is based on intense media coverage of criminal cases in which the accused are foreigners. Other cases do not get the same level of media attention. One can, for instance, compare the recent murder of Yegor Shcherbakov, which has received substantial media attention, with the murder of an Uzbek national in Moscow, who was murdered after Shcherbakov and whose body was found near a railroad embankment. The latter incident did not provoke any public reaction; only a few media outlets even mentioned it in their news reports. Because of this disparity in media treatment, society is getting the impression that migrants come to Moscow to kill Russians. However, according to forensic statistics from Russia’s Supreme Court Justice Department, in 2012, foreigners accounted for just 3.8 percent of all convicts, with about one fourth of all their crimes consisting in forging documents necessary for residing in Russia.

The third statement: “Going out in the evening can be dangerous because of migrants.”
Although ethnic crime does exist, it is in no way different from “our own,” native crime. Ethnicity is only one of many motives for criminal elements to form organized groups. Streets are dangerous due to crime, and not to its ethnic nature. Russian crime is no better than any other, and there is no less of it in our streets than there is the “imported” kind.

The judgment about the crime rate among migrants is based on intense media coverage of criminal cases in which the accused are foreigners. Other cases do not get the same level of media attention.

The fourth statement: “Migrants are all Muslims, and Islam is an aggressive religion.”
They are obviously not all Muslims (for instance, the Armenians, the Georgians, the Chinese and the Vietnamese); many are not even religious. As for Islam, there is no point in starting doctrinal disputes. It is, however, obvious that the problem is not in the religious teaching itself but in its followers. Those who like to accuse Islam of religious aggressiveness should remember that in the name of Christianity, Catholics embarked on crusades to destroy “infidels” abroad, and used the Inquisition to do the same in their own countries. Orthodox Christians eradicated paganism with fire and sword and later burned Old Believers at the stake and subjected them to mass executions. The point is not that Christianity is a cruel and aggressive religion, but that it can be used by people for different ends. It is the same with Islam.

The fifth statement: “Their kids go to public schools but do not speak Russian.”
Children of migrants do have difficulties assimilating, but these problems are not bigger than the adaptation problems experienced by disabled children or children belonging to national or religious minorities. According to numerous reports by pediatric psychologists and teachers, children of migrants are often more motivated to study than their peers, and they successfully absorb the Russian language, culture, and communication rules, especially if they enter their new environment when they are preschoolers.

The sixth statement: “Migrants are taking our jobs.”
Disputes about jobs come down to the question of whether Russians are willing to accept low-paying, low-prestige jobs. This is, however, just empty talk. The market economy permits and encourages employers to look for the employee who is willing to work for less. An employer acts in the interest of business and not his nationalistic preferences. If the labor market and the law allow him to hire someone for lower wages, it would be strange to expect him to choose otherwise. By using various means to control employment relations, the law can either limit or encourage business activity. Migrants, however, are not to blame for this.

The seventh statement: “Migrants do not pay taxes, and yet get free health care in our hospitals and medical centers.”
This accusation is absurd, since in Russia, the employer fulfills the role of fiscal agent. He is supposed to withhold taxes from wages and transfer this money to the budget. It is not migrants’ fault if the employer chooses not to do that. Nor it is their fault if the employer commits a crime by choosing not to legalize the migrants that he is hiring. Also, accusations of evading taxes are ridiculous coming from people living in a country where, according to some estimates, shadow labor accounts for 47 percent of all labor activity and nearly the majority of all hired workers get paid in cash under the table.

The eighth statement: “Migrants are their employers’ slaves.”
If migrants were really slaves, accusing them of anything would be completely pointless. It would be akin to blaming a convict for being incarcerated instead of being free. That said, in reality, migrants are not slaves, since they are not deprived of freedom and right of choice. They choose hard work with no rights because the situations in their own countries are even worse. In the same manner, Russians who emigrate to the West often find themselves in situations that are far from ideal. Disregard for migrants’ labor rights is on the heads of their employers, society, and the law, but it is not the fault of migrants.

The ninth statement: “Migrants live in insanitary conditions.”
Let us not evaluate the accusation of poverty and unsuitable living conditions in terms of morality. So-called “rubber apartments,” in which hundreds of migrants are registered, are the talk of the town. From a legal point of view, such a practice is not forbidden. Compulsory registration at place of residence is a questionable institution. Also, the Russian Constitutional Court long ago recognized as illegal the registration procedure in Moscow, including occupant space requirements. The time is passing when twenty to thirty migrants lived in one apartment. Nowadays, most of them lease normal apartments or live in residential facilities where conditions are not ideal, but this is their personal choice. Blaming migrants for the fact that their life in our country is hard is strange to say the least.

The tenth statement: “Migrants are unpleasant strangers. There are so many of them already that it is not ‘them’ among ‘us’ anymore, but ‘us’ among ‘them.’”
This is the only reasonable explanation of those aforementioned. It is at least sincere and understandable. Every man to his own feelings, even if these feelings are petty and rotten. Some people do not like an unfamiliar eye shape and skin color, others disapprove of loud voice and manner. Some people do not like Muslims, or black people, or Jewish people; others do not like intellectuals, or poor people, or rich people, and so on, to the most stupid infinity. There is nothing one can say to such people. There is no right and wrong here. They will simply insist on not liking other people. Love cannot be forced.

The only thing one can say to this is that modern society is not built on love but on tolerance, not on preferences but on the equality of people before the law. Unfortunately, Russia is very intolerant. Decades of totalitarianism and centuries of servility have largely contributed to this attitude. Politicians should, of course, base their assessments on the existing situation and not on the ideal one. This is why the inflow of migrants should be regulated in a way that would allow them to assimilate without causing public outrage. In turn, Russian society should exercise tolerance and compassion toward those in need, which of course does not exclude condemning lawlessness, both in the streets and within the government.