It started as a story about a cop getting mobbed in a marketplace. On July 27, a police officers were attacked by some two dozen people at Moscow’s Matveyevsky food market as they were detaining a Dagestani man who was suspected of raping a 15-year-old girl. One of them, Anton Kudryashov, sustained a severe head injury when he was struck in the brawl.
Cops, unsurprisingly, don’t take kindly to one of their own being beaten, doubly so when by ethnic minorities, triply when the attack is—as in this case—captured on video and spread across the internet. Moscow’s police launched a massive series of raids across the city, sweeping the marketplaces for illegal migrants and those suspected of involvement in other crimes. The rape suspect and the alleged cop-beater were both detained, along with more than a thousand others.
In many ways, though, it is the subsequent fallout that has been the most telling.
First of all, the incident sparked a series of so-called “Russian Raids,” nationalist attacks against non-Russians, in and beyond Moscow. At first—depressingly, but unsurprisingly—the police largely turned a blind eye, happy to outsource vengeance and probably hoping they would burn themselves out. By day three, though, the authorities began to try to damp down the fires. In St Petersburg, twenty baseball-bat-wielding thugs were prevented for attacking a market, for example. With a VTsIOM poll showing that some two thirds of Russians believe that immigration creates crime and corruption, this will be a long-running challenge.
Secondly, the police’s campaign to “decriminalize” Moscow’s markets has unexpectedly backfired upon itself. First of all, questions began to be asked about their competence. An investigation was opened against Kudryashov’s two fellow officers, who failed to prevent the attack. However, questions began to be asked more widely about the extent to which corruption within the police force had contributed to the very “criminalization” of the markets. After all, despite a 2007 law banning foreign nationals from working in Russia’s retail markets and shops, a move meant to clamp down on the shadow economy, it is well known that they employ and are dominated by not just Russian citizens from the North Caucasus but also many legal and illegal migrants from outside the country’s borders. They manage to do so by bribery, the protection of organized crime and also creating enclaves in which the police tread lightly and assert their authority on pain of retaliation (as Officer Kudryashov discovered).
President Putin openly criticized the police at a meeting with Interior Minister Kolokoltsev, Moscow Mayor Sobyanin and representatives of the Investigations Committee (SK) and Federal Migration Service on July 31: “The efforts being made are clearly not enough: either nothing happens or progress is unacceptably slow.” When the tsar speaks, the oprichniki prick up their ears. Putin pulled no punches:
“The reasons are clear: we react and boost efforts in this area only when people inform us about it directly, telling us it is impossible to continue tolerating this level of lawlessness. Or, in this case, when a police officer has his head fractured. That is an extreme situation. This is what recently happened at one of the markets in Moscow: policemen were standing there and watching as their colleague got beaten up. Why? Are they such cowards? Perhaps, but it’s unlikely. Most likely, their inaction is earning them money from those merchants. This is obvious and well-known to everyone. The only party that doesn’t know about it is the Interior Ministry security service. It should be taking action in response. Where are the results of its efforts?”
“In order to reveal corruption links in market trading, the Investigative Committee has been instructed to carefully check the legitimacy of refusals to initiate criminal investigations into offences or idleness by law-enforcement and control agencies and local officials.”
Kolokoltsev has sacked the district police chief in question—the usual rank of scapegoat—as well as several other officers, but it remains to be seen whether this will be enough. Moscow police chief Anatoly Yakunin can’t consider himself safe until he gets some mark of favor from the Kremlin. Meanwhile, this allows the SK yet another opportunity to assert its authority over the police, and undermine the MVD’s own Internal Security Service, with which it is competing for the right to police the police. (And according to some reports, the FSB is also trying to get in on the act, too.)
Finally, though, this also has implications for Sobyanin, not least as he prepares for next month’s electoral battle with Navalny. While Kolokoltsev was forced into a terse statement of measures taken—with no support from Putin—Sobyanin used the meeting to highlight work already done (“With your support and assistance, we have shut down such odious markets as Luzhniki, Slavyansky Mir and Mitino. Just two weeks ago, we closed down the Timiryazevsky Market, …. Overall, we have closed down 30 markets in Moscow over the last two years”) and demonstrated his continuing commitment (“a few words about the Cherkizovsky Market; you gave harsh instructions regarding that market four years ago, and it was shut down. However, we received information that the activities there were still continuing. Today, at six in the morning, we carried out an operation, and indeed, this was confirmed. Counterfeit products were being produced on three underground floors; we arrested 1,200 individuals from Vietnam and other countries. In other words, this business was flourishing. Today, all this was removed from there.”). At the same time, he was able to flaunt his ability to het things done—one of his key virtues to most Muscovites—and also his artsy credentials by proposing that the Cherkizovsky Market space in eastern Moscow should become a public space with museum archives, exhibition halls and a large CSKA athletic hockey center. Putin approvingly called it “an excellent suggestion.”
An interesting take from Matvei Ganopolskii in Moskovskii Komsomolets is that the closure of the markets was actually a sign of failure, of impotence, as the authorities had been trying for years to bring order to them, but could not (and no ethnic Russians were willing to do the hard work of market trading). In this respect, it is something of a symbol of the wider failings of a system better able to ban and destroy than reform and rebuild. Overall, though, it is clear that a single and terrible incident has crystallized public fears of a police force too corrupt, timid or simply inefficient to do its job and a creeping tide of foreign immigration bringing crime and corruption in its wake, moral panics which are being mobilized and used by a range of actors, from a mayor looking for re-election to a security agency keen to expand its powers.