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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Racism Makes for Rats




A hysteria has begun. With the fallout of the bombs that have killed more than 200 people in Moscow have come arbitrary document checks, searches of apartment buildings and, worst of all, the formation of vigilante groups to protect apartment buildings. As for the culprits in the blasts, most fingers point emphatically in the direction of Islamic terrorists.


Unfortunately, there isn't a man or woman on the streets of St. Petersburg or Moscow who could pick the face of an Islamic terrorist out of the thousands of faces from the Caucasus that they see every day. This only heightens the sense of paranoia that threatens to focus Russia's ever-present nationalism into a brutal ethnic- cleansing campaign, ridding Russia of the last Caucasian face.


People are understandably afraid in the wake of the bombings, but they don't know where to direct this fear. In any case, the government and the media - by fostering an atmosphere of dark-skin paranoia - have directed it for them. The weekly Argumenty i Fakty, one of Russia's most popular newspapers, dubbed itself in its post-bombing issue as the "People's Advisory Committee in Times of Terrorism." Under this new moniker, the paper presented a dangerous checklist of ways for citizens to take the law into their own hands for the purposes of avoiding more tragic bomb blasts. Chief among the recommendations was the formation of civilian vigilante teams, "ideally headed by neighbors who have military experience." The teams then fan out to identify everyone who lives in their building, check their r egistration documents and passports, prod police to check shops and warehouses located in residential buildings, and set up round-the-clock citizen-run guard duty.


On the surface these measures may appear sensible enough. They encourage citizens to take responsibility for their surroundings and to immediately raise the alarm over suspicious behavior.


At best, however, these measures could become intrusive tools for neighbors to spy on each other. At worst, they could devolve into the kind of snitching and purge mentality that was such a familiar feature of Russia's totalitarian past. The Russian who chose simply to ignore his dark-skinned neighbor yesterday might well call the police on him tomorrow for no reason beyond the neighbor's complexion. And for all who are familiar with the aggressiveness of the Russian police toward people with dark skin, it is safe to assume any visits won't stop at a document check.


The most troubling elements of civilian watch committees and vigilante patrols are apparent to any observers of 20th-century American terrorism. Groups like that are responsible for most U.S.-based terrorism in the last 10 years. An obvious example is the Oklahoma City bombing, which was carried out by a militia group. Groups like this comprise profoundly disaffected people who have the same kind of miliary training Argumenty i Fakty urges on its building safety monitors. Many U.S. groups of this type are also characterized by a violently racist agenda. And all of these groups purport to take into hand the kind of law-enforcement the government is too feeble or overburdened to enact.


A bunch of neighbors uniting to defend their courtyard from bombs seems an unlikely progenitor to terrorism, but if we take Argumenty i Fakty literally, we see that one of the most important elements in a watch group is that militarily trained leader. Let's say that you get a lot of these guys together and let's say they have lots of xenophobic ground to share. What do you think will happen when they start dropping in on all the dark-skinned neighbors? What if one of those otherwise peaceful and law-abiding neighbors has no registration? Will they report him or give him time to get his papers in order? Or will they take matters into their own hands? And will that mean being driven to the city limits or being beaten to a pulp?


And that would likely just be the start. The next step could be deportations and internment camps.


That may sound alarmist, but politicians in Russia were talking - to public adulation - about doing the very same thing to Russians from the Caucasus even before the bombings began. In St. Petersburg, nationalist leaders talked about buses and camps, and urged civilians to harass and drive out their racially undesirable neighbors. It's not farfetched. Again, America provides an example with the internment camps it forced Japanese residents of the country to live in during World War II. They were citizens that were ratted out by neighbors to authorities as Japanese spies and terrorists. In most cases they were simply Japanese.


In Russia, neighbors are being urged to do the same thing. For doing so, they will feel themselves to be heroes of a vague and undeclared war in the Caucasus. But by including civilians, Russia only ups the criterion of its own victory from peace in the south to an absolute cleansing of every foreigner from Russia's two major cities.


Jen Tracy is a correspondent for The St. Petersburg Times. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.