Mayhem in Moscow: Biryulevo, the (under)police state and a little slice of Novocherkassk

Беспорядки в московском районе БирюлевоAs if fate were an obliging sociopath, willing to burn and beat in a helpful effort to make my recent point–that Russia is not the massively policed security state some would suggest–today has seen a tragic murder spark an anti-migrant/non-Russian fury that, in turn, has stretched Moscow’s police to the limit. This ‘police state’ has had to put the entire Moscow Main MVD Directorate (MGUMVD) an alert and also deploy Interior Troops tonight to try and damp down violence in an outlying southern suburb of the city.

Biryulevo/Biryulyovo, at the southern rim of Moscow, is hardly on anyone’s tourist itinerary, and maybe that’s the point, it’s the kind of run-down industrial, crime-ridden, low-rent periphery where migrants–both legal and illegal, both foreign and Russian Federation citizens–find lodgings, jobs, market spaces and also live cheek-by-jowl with ethnic Russians who often resent them. And, let’s be honest, while many are hard-working and honest souls doing the back-breaking market, construction and similar work no one else wants to do, and for a pittance, there is also a problem with crime, random intimidation and cultural miscommunication.

On the night of 9 October, 25-year-old Egor Sherbakov was knifed and killed, reportedly by a non-Russian, who had been hassling his girlfriend. When no arrests were forthcoming, on Saturday 10 October, a group of maybe 40 Russians protested against what they saw as police inaction. Their rhetoric acquired an increasingly nationalist, anti-migrant tone. The protests worsened on Sunday, when a mob that at peak may have been a thousand-plus strong broke into a vegetable warehouse and shopping complex where many workers hail from the Caucasus. When the police intervened, the mob turned their anger against them and Biryulevo became torn by running clashes between rioters and police, reinforced from across the city and by the OMON security force. Cars were overturned, people hurt, mayhem ensued.

Biryulevo2As of writing this, over 300 people have apparently been arrested (and as I write this, the figure continues to rise: 380 and counting), Moscow police chief Yakushin has offered a 1 M ruble ($31,000) reward for identifying the killer, and #Бирюлево becoming a short-lived Twitter trend. The clashes may be bubbling down and the cries of “Russia for the Russians! Moscow for the Muscovites!” may be silent for now (and you never hear “Crappy Low-Pay High-Risk Remont Jobs for the Russians!” as a rallying cry), but nonetheless this explosion of violence taxed the MGUMVD to the limit. Police were bussed in from around the city and emergency mobilization plan Vulkan (“Volcano”) saw the entire force put on alert.

All this for just a thousand rioters? But what about all those OMON skull-breakers with their rubber truncheons, those formidable Lavina-Uragan water cannon, those thousands upon thousands of cops? It is perhaps unsurprising that already we are getting the hints that the cops were either complacent or complicit. Moscow Helsinki Group head Lyudmila Alexeyeva has said “It is interesting” [that classic passive-aggressive “I will hint at dubious practices without actually be willing to say so outright” phrasing], “why law enforcement personnel were absent in Biryulyovo. People who gathered in Biryulyovo were really aggressive, unlike those who filled Bolotnaya Square on May 6 2012… Why do our law enforcement services deal rigorously with peaceful demonstrations and are not active enough where disturbances really occur?”

On one level, fair enough, but misguided. Whatever the rights and (evident) wrongs of Bolotnaya, that was an event that was scheduled and anticipated, and the police mobilized substantial resources to that end, just as they did for the March 2012 presidential inauguration. That takes time, preparation, resources; it’s not something you can just whistle up on spec. Police are needed elsewhere, too; other locations have to be secured; officers are off-shift, on leave, sick. There aren’t necessarily the vehicles to get them to the right place at once, they need to get outfitted for riot duty, so it goes.

Беспорядки в московском районе БирюлевоIt also reflects the role that the OMON and other forces appear to have played in Biryulyovo. Instead of sending lines and phalanxes directly into the mob, which would disperse them quicker, especially if backed with tear gas and water cannon, at the cost of greater injuries and property damage, they were largely used to try and block the mob in smaller areas (“kettling”) and hoping it would disperse or could be dealt with piecemeal. It’s hard to reach any conclusive judgment from news video and pictures, but they seem not to have been especially successful at that, but I cannot help but wonder what the critiques would be had they rolled in hard.

Is it possible there was a sense that ethnic Russians deserve to be treated with a lighter hand that “blacks”? Quite possibly. And given the way that cops were mobbed in the Matveyevsky food market back in August when they tried arresting a Dagestani rapist, this may also have, if you’ll excuse the expression, colored their views. But there is also the unavoidable truth that violence can also beget violence. As was, the police received a considerable degree of abuse for not protecting Russians from “foreigners” and it is unlikely that a good dose of o-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile (that’s CS gas to its friends) would do much for community relations.

The fact of the matter is that a police force which is qualitatively often mediocre–and I think it’s fair to say that the Russian police too often still are–needs to make up the shortfall with quantity. By my calculations, Moscow has a respectable 426 officers per 100k population, but only if one goes by the official census population of 11.5 million people in the city. It’s generally accepted that the real population is distinctly greater, although no one really knows by how much. If we accept the high-end estimate of 17 million (even though I’d guess this is too high, although I am no urban demographer), then actually the ratio is actually 288 per 100k. The real figure is no doubt something between these two extremes, but even so the ratio is going to be substantially below that of London (430/100k) or of New York (415/100k: 34,500 cops for a population of 8.3 million). Sure, central Moscow always seems full of cops (although in part this is also because many of the uniforms that look like cops aren’t, being anything from private security guards to state security), but head out to the suburbs, somewhere like Biryulevo, and the situation is very different.

Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen racist violence on Russian streets. We could look to this summer’s “Russian Raids”, or the 2010 “soccer riots” in Moscow, or Kondopoga 2006, or… you get the idea. Maybe we could just consider this part of the vicious background noise of modern Russian multiculturalism, especially given the tensions between the Russian/neo-Soviet nationalism underpinning Putin’s state-building efforts and his refusal to accept a narrowly ethnic notion of Russian statehood.

But I confess that I can’t shake off more than the obvious unease generated by inter-ethnic violence and mobs in the street. What I might think of as bunt (Pushkin: “The Russian bunt [rebellion], mindless and pitiless, will sweep everything, turn everything to dust”) appears instead to be known these days as  “narodny skhody” or “popular gatherings”; -the term echoes both the  “skhod” or “skhod grazhdan” (citizens’ gathering) in traditional local government and also the “skhodka” sit-downs between gangsters. This seems to suggest a degree of popular legitimacy and I fear it may be accurate.

I find myself thinking about Novocherkassk, 1962. By chance, piece-rate norms and thus in effect wages at the Budenny Electric Locomotive Factory had been cut and then food prices were increased. A strike became a protest, became a march on the town hall and police station. The police were unable or unwilling to disperse the swelling crowds of protesters. The army was recalcitrant. Eventually the security forces opened fire on the crowds: 29 would die, 116 arrested and the whole event hushed up until 1992. On one level, this was a minor issue; the Soviet state was easily able to squash such incidents. However, what made it significant were two points which have resonance with today’s Biryulevo bunt.

1. The police could not or would not deal with the protests. To be honest, the dividing line between won’t and can’t is often unclear, but one of the key jobs of police is to be the civil security force, the agency that can mediate between the public and the state in such a way as to resolve things without escalating to agencies that turn more quickly to kinetic solutions (if you’re not up on that particular euphemism, it means shooting people). Ironically, it should be the aim of every liberal to see a strong police force; you may not be a fan of the riot-armored “cosmonauts” but were they not there, which do you think is more likely, that the state will meekly accede to your reformist desires, or that it will unleash soldiers and security troopers?

2. Novocherkassk was nowhere special. It was just one more shabby industrial city. That was precisely why the events of 1962 scared the Soviet elite, because of a sense that if a confluence of unfortunate events could lead to protests and bloodshed there, it could happen anywhere. Likewise, with all due respect to the Biryulevo Vostochnoe raion, but that counts as nowhere special, too. There may be some specific circumstances that made it more likely to be the epicenter of such actions, but I am sure that several dozen Moscow rains alone could just as easily have exploded were the stars right (or wrong).

Biryulevo4The next few days will no doubt see statements, inquests, recriminations and rationalizations galore. (Though the MGUMVD’s own website’s newsline only has one short story to the effect that they are looking for the murderer; otherwise the big story seems to be the grand opening of a wrestling gym.) It will be interesting to see how the narrative emerges. But for me, amongst many lessons (chief of which seems to be the urgent need to address the terrible inter-communal relations within Russia) is precisely that stability and civic peace would be well served by qualitative but also quantitative development of the police force. At a time when the Kremlin seems to be wondering whether it needs two or four ocean-going aircraft carriers, I’d suggest the MVD ought to be much more of a priority.

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  1. Martyna Fox

     /  October 13, 2013

    Thanks for this timely and super interesting analysis.

    Dr. Martyna Fox, Contract ChairRussian Advanced Area StudiesForeign Service Institute, U.S. Department of State

    Date: Sun, 13 Oct 2013 20:49:55 +0000 To:

  2. Interesting insight again, Mark, and the Novocherkassk analogy is spot on.

    To me, both the overzealous crackdown on the Bolotnaya square protesters and the nervous and messy reaction now, lacking any gradualness tells how nervous and oversensitive the authorities have become in the past two years. This is despite (or exactly because of?) “Volodin’s New Deal” that seems to be the new rulebook of the authorities.

    In the longer term it will be exactly these disproportionate/inadequate reactions that will give such rioting “legitimacy” or reinforce their already existing one. During the 2006 riots in Hungary the police was similarly unprepared, which resulted first in an inadequate reaction and then another one with significant legal trespasses. Extreme nationalists drew their legitimacy from these mistakes exactly because the society’s level of trust in state institutions was sufficiently low not to accept mistakes and mismanagement as such but to be open to conspiracy theories. Add to this the nervousness of an authoritarian regime that feels insecure and the possibility of similar mishaps occurring will be much higher.

    As I mentioned in earlier blog entries, the negative changes that the Russian society has experienced in the past couple of years have reached their limit in the sense that in themselves they cannot lead to further sharp deterioration in the public mood. Right now the mood of both the elite and the majority of voters is what I called “the state of patience”. Locally, though, the mismanagement of such cases may push the situation further downhill. And we never know what case that looks isolated may bring mayhem.

    This riot, by the way, also shows how diverse the group of disgruntled Russians are. The anatomy of racial hatred in and around Moscow is quite complex, but I doubt there are many points of convergence with the demands of the affluent middle classes. Navalny is trying to find these points – with moderate success. And these are only two subgroups. What are you to do if you want to represent Biryulevo, Bolotnaya, Pikalevo and Vladivostok at the same time?

    In short, what you have described is especially dangerous considering that neither the state nor the emerging opposition seems to have the means to manage the consequences, should a similar case escalate.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  October 14, 2013

      “What are you to do if you want to represent Biryulevo, Bolotnaya, Pikalevo and Vladivostok at the same time?”

      Absolutely; that will be Navalny’s greatest challenge. I think anti-corruption would be able to cross those class and geographic boundaries, but that inevitably means picking a war with the elite. Nationalism-going-on-racism also works, and has the virtue of allowing a potential common ground with many of the elite, but as I write in it might also lock Navalny into a particular political agenda that he may not like, and that certainly those hoping for a true democratic, liberal reform in Russia wouldn’t.

      • Quite a Catch-22, yes. I am planning to blog about this soon. As I write in “With the absence of a push from below, in a traditionally, strongly top-weight system like Russia’s, the essential supporters of any future rulers are to be found in the politically connected business elite. And business leaders do not want leaders like Navalny. At least not the Navalny everyone else wants.”

        The question seems to be whether Navalny really believes he can initiate a substantial change from below at the first place.

  3. Good post. Could be a spark to a larger conflagration. I think you may have overlooked one point: corruption within the police ranks. Tough to maintain good order/justice if the police merely respond to the highest bidder. See this comment at Echo Moscow: “Полиция здесь отдыхает, ворует. Вся полиция, я говорю! Ворует! Во-ру-ет! От участкового до верха!..”

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  October 14, 2013

      Sure, corruption is a serious problem, which is why there needs also to be a qualitative improvement, but there is also a correlation between graft and numbers. To be blunt, if you can’t (or don’t dare) really enforce the law except in the case of particular egregious breaches, the temptation to take bribes is greater. It’s a basic human drive: we would, it seems, rather feel venal than powerless! But yes, without tackling corruption rather more seriously, then security and law-enforcement will continue to be partial in every sense of the word.

  1. User Generated Racism: Russia’s media and migrants - EJO - European Journalism Observatory : EJO – European Journalism Observatory

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