The Domino Effect of Violence

The riots in Moscow expose the true nature of a society splintered

News | Grigory Borodavkin | February 2011

The holiday spirit of this past December was fractured by riots in Europe and beyond. Widespread clashes between police and dissatisfied populations of Italy, Greece, England, Haiti and Russia somehow dissolved into a blur, as people couldn’t decide what to focus on between their last hectic rounds of Christmas shopping. After a first flare up, they became local stories – student riots in England, Italians demanding new elections or the general strike in Greece – with interest confined to their respective regions.

Together, though, they expose a simple, shared truth: The "civilized" world of the 21st Century is not as stable as we like to believe, and violence seems ripe to break out at the drop of a hat.

In Moscow on the night of Dec. 5, a group of football fans were walking home after a match. Drinking beer and laughing they passed a group of North Caucasians who assumed that the laugh was at their expense. An argument ensued, followed by a brawl at which point one of the Caucasians – 26-year-old Aslan Cherkessov, previously tried for assault and drug peddling – pulled out an air gun. Twelve shots were fired. Four hit 28-year-old Yegor Sviridov, an important member of FC Spartak Moscow fan club, one fatally wounding him in the head. Cherkessov and friends then fled the scene, leaving their injured opponents on the ground awaiting an ambulance.

Fifteen minutes after the fight, Cherkessov and four of his accomplices were apprehended by the police and taken into custody. Charged with premeditated murder, they were transported to a police station, where witnesses identified them as the attackers. Several hours later, however, four of the five suspects were released when a couple of black SUV’s pulled up by the police station and the representatives of the Diaspora had a chat with the officers in charge. Rumors of bribery spread like wildfire.

This was met with outrage from Yegor’s friends and other fellow supporters of Spartak Moscow. The following day about a thousand people blocked off the Leningradski Avenue in protest. And over the next three days, Russian social networks were flooded with racist attacks, calling on "true Russians to stand up against the parasitic foreigners that have been raping the motherland far too long." They chose to ignore the fact that among the Russian Sviridov’s injured friends was in fact an Armenian (and thus himself Caucasian). And anyway, Russia has always been a multi-ethnic country. A massive protest with violent undertones was scheduled for a few days later on the Manezhnaja Square.

On the morning of the Dec. 11, almost 10,000 people, mostly football fans and bikers according to observers, peacefully marched to the site of Sviridov’s murder to lay down flowers and pay their respects. After the memorial, however, a large part of the crowd moved to the Manezhnaya Square where members of various radical organizations joined them.

The square drew a huge crowd – 6,000 by some estimates and as many as 50,000 by others. Fuelled by rage and alcohol, and further provoked by radical nationalists, events quickly took a turn for the worse. Anyone who didn’t look "Russian enough" started getting assaulted, as the few police on hand were powerless to stop them.

Then the Russian riot police, the OMOH, showed up and fighting broke out. They managed to get people off the square and into a metro station, where all order unraveled: The crowd went berserk, targeting people at random. The clash resulted in 35 people hospitalized and 65 arrested. Similar but less violent protests have taken place in other Russian cities as well.

The Russian media exploded with hourly news updates, talk shows, radio spots, and footage of the carnage and sensationalist promises of more violence to come overran TV screens, prophesizing a race war.

The riot was clearly sparked by ethnic tension, right?

Not entirely. The riot erupted because people were, and still are, fed up with a number of things (corruption, poverty, absence of prospects) – race was just the trigger for the violence. The deeper problems lie in the history and economics of the young Russian Federation, a country that has existed for a mere 20 years.

The unrest was largely the work of young men between the ages of 16 and 20, a generation that grew up during the depression era of 90s Russia, when life went by that "other" Golden Rule – the one that says "he who has the gold, makes the rules." There was no law to speak of and the common man was stripped of dignity. Corruption plagued every echelon of power, and anyone could get away with anything as long as he had the proper leverage.

All this has somewhat improved over the past 10 years under Putin’s leadership and most Russians have managed to reclaim a sense of national pride, giving them something to believe in.

"The country’s citizens are only too aware that the money lining their pockets was largely minted under his (Putin’s) presidency," says the BBC in their Vladimir Putin Profile on the station’s website. "After the hungry, often desperate years of the Yeltsin era, it is a prosperity few Russians may stop to question."

But belief does not always correspond to everyday reality. Another issue is the baffling gap between the incredibly rich and the unbelievably poor in Russia as a whole, but nowhere as vividly visible as in Moscow. The city that has been voted the most expensive in the world three years in a row (2006 through 2008) has a minimum wage of €250 a month and a society obsessed with consumption. This contrast creates the classic paradigm for social frustration – high aspirations with no possibility of realization.

And it is here that the issue of race comes in. Moscow has seen a dramatic influx of immigrants ready to work for next to nothing, with nearly 7 million more coming in to the country each year. The cutthroat version of capitalism that presides in Russia allows them to do so, further exacerbating the disaffection of the less fortunate Moscovites.

All it took was one bullet, a bribe and a couple of nationalistic slogans for these contributing factors to spark violence. The riot was not about race, radicals who felt that this was their chance to wreck havoc without retribution steered it to look that way.

"The authorities are trying to fight xenophobia with punitive measures, but the only way to do it properly is to combine this with solutions to the root causes of nationalism – poverty, unemployment, and young people who have no prospects," said Alexander Brod, the director of the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights, in an Interview for The Independant. So what happened on the "Manezhka" should be perceived as a wake up call from a vast layer of low-income youth dissatisfied with a vision of Russia where they are expendable.

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