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Migrants and the Russian Nation

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This week’s Russia! Magazine column, “Migrants and Russia’s Split National Identity,”

When asked about migrant workers in a recent interview with Moskovskii novosti, Sergey Sobyanin stated, “Moscow is a Russian (rossiiskii) city and it should remain that way. It’s not Chinese, not Tajik and not Uzbek.” For Sobyanin, it was better for labor migrants, with their poor command of Russian and “totally different culture” to go back to “their countries.” A permanent place in Moscow was only reserved for “Russian speakers, whose culture is compatible with our traditions.” Sobyanin then followed his musings on Moscow’s cultural particularity with assertions of its multiculturalism. “Russia is a multiethnic country, a mixture of all its nationalities and traditions. Separating some out and contrasting them to other cultures is very dangerous, simply explosive, particularly for our city.”

At first glance, Sobyanin’s contradictory statements ring xenophobic and even racist. But his claim that Moscow is a Russian, yet multiethnic city can easily get lost in translation. Sobyanin specifically referred to Moscow as rossiiskii, that is, a city for the multiethnic citizens of the Russian Federation, not specifically a city for ethnic Russians (russkii). The important difference between rossiiskii and russkii gets conflated when rendered in English because both translate as Russian. Yet, Sobyanin’s civic gestures are not without ethnic slippages. Placing “Russian speakers” as consonant with “our traditions” and migrants’ “totally different culture” as their antithesis points to the primacy of Russian ethnicity (russkii) as the norm in Russia’s multiethnic community. The migrant, who has the potential to become Russian (rossiiskii) through cultural mimicry, is perpetually relegated to a state of almost the same, but not quite.

Russians’ attitudes toward the migrant reveal the inherent tension in their bifurcated national identity. On the one hand Russian is an ethnic-biological category which vis-a-vis the Central Asian and Caucasian migrant is becoming increasingly racialized. On the other hand, Russian is a civic category rooted in Imperial and Soviet efforts to unify a multiethnic and multicultural society in a common political community. The contradiction lies in that the more the ethnic is given primacy and privilege, the civic is rendered hollow. Given the fragility of Russia’s national identity, it’s no surprise that the increasing flows of migrants produce anxieties and foreboding.

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