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Passions High As Foreigners, Locals Debate 'Muscovite's Code'

Two Tajik migrant workers relax after a day's work with the Moscow skyline behind them. (file photo)
Two Tajik migrant workers relax after a day's work with the Moscow skyline behind them. (file photo)
MOSCOW -- If you're a foreigner and you really want to annoy Mikhail Solomentsev, you might want to don some of your country's traditional clothing and head out to the balcony to grill some kebabs, preferably while babbling to yourself in your native tongue.

These are just a few of the unspeakable acts that a new etiquette guide for foreigners -- penned by Solomentsev, Moscow's point man on national policy -- solemnly advises visitors against if they want to fit in with the locals. Oh, and you might think twice about slaughtering sheep in the courtyard, too.

This so-called Muscovite's Code, soon to be introduced by city authorities, includes what Solomentsev calls the "unwritten rules that residents of our city are obliged to follow." But activists like Svetlana Gannushkina from the Civic Assistance Committee say the initiative is little more than a fresh opportunity to crack down on migrants from the former Soviet republics.

"Does this mean that if the French come, we'll ban them from speaking French? No, of course not," Gannushkina says. "The law is obviously not directed against the Germans or the French. It's directed against our own former citizens. And that is simply racism. It's hard to imagine that we would ever be banned from speaking Russian in some other city elsewhere."

Meanwhile, a lawmaker in Russia's second city of St. Petersburg has now filed an official request with Governor Valentina Matviyenko to develop a parallel document for that city, highlighting the lure of such seemingly ethnocentric initiatives.

Teeming City

Moscow has seen a huge influx of migrant workers in the boom years of the past decade, with laborers traveling by the thousands from Central Asia and the Caucasus to take up low-cost jobs that Muscovites themselves were unwilling to do.

The vast majority of the city's army of dvorniki, or street sweepers, are now Central Asians. Markets are dominated by vendors from Central Asia and the Caucasus. And the hundreds of new buildings that have shot up in the city's real-estate explosion have been erected not by Russians, but by Tajiks, Ukrainians, and Moldovans, often for scant wages and under dangerous conditions.

The inflow has turned Moscow into a truly ethnically diverse city, with residents from over 100 nations. But it has also sparked open hostility toward new arrivals, who are frequently referred to as priyezhie, or "the arrived," or by the German word gastarbeiter, which means "guest worker."

Solomentsev has promised to solicit suggestions from the migrants themselves before finalizing the Muscovite's Code. But in interviews, the Moscow official has come off as less than sympathetic to his non-Russian neighbors, saying half of all crimes in Moscow are committed by visiting residents.

Uzbek migrants clear snow in Moscow.
"They've overfilled our capital," complains unemployed 60-year-old Muscovite Boris Agarkov. "They can't work as anything other than street cleaners. You can't trust them with anything else. And they stop Russian people from getting jobs."

He accuses migrants of frequently "attack[ing] Russians and beat them up for no reason."

"I've seen it myself," he adds.

Other city natives, however, are more distressed by the situation faced by the migrant community.

"You know, I'm really sorry for these people. I almost cry out of pity for these people who are forced to come here for work, to emigrate," says Galina Vesnina, a 62-year-old pensioner. "It's not their fault that we have such chaos in our country. A lot of them I don't like. But Russians -- not migrants, but local people -- behave like that as well. I'm really sorry for them."

Tense Times

Migrants are often the target of interethnic violence, with mounting xenophobia that has led to far-right nationalist attacks and the murders of dozens of foreigners each year in Moscow alone.

Qiyom, a 37-year-old roofer from Tajikistan, has lived in Moscow for three years but is hoping to return home soon. Qiyom says some locals have no problem with labor migrants. But he acknowledges that violence remains a constant threat, and mentions a Tajik friend who recently died after being attacked with a knife.

"Somebody I know personally died in just the last few days. He was about to go home," Qiyom says. "I don't know who killed him. I found him after five days in a hospital in Skhodnenskaya; he was unconscious. He was in the hospital for 17 days and then that was it."

Such attacks have, for many, cast the city's efforts to russify newcomers in a particularly sinister light. But others have welcomed the opportunity to speak openly about Moscow's changing ethnic landscape and how and if migrants should be integrated.

How many migrant workers there are in Moscow is a question no one can answer for sure. The city gave out 1.8 million foreign workers' permits in 2008. In 2010, that number dipped to 500,000 as the economic crisis hit the job market. But there may literally be hundreds of thousands more migrants living and working in the city illegally.

Gavkhar Dhurayeva, who came to Russia as a refugee from Tajikistan in the 1990s and now helps migrants, says the city proposal is a chance to start a dialogue -- "even a very sharp dialogue" -- about harmonizing relationships between diaspora groups and the local population at a time when the state has failed to regulate migration and the city's swelling population.

"Day-to-day problems with migrants come from the social tensions in the city as a whole -- the overcrowding of the metro, the roads, the hospitals," Dhurayeva says. "It's understandable that this number of migrants will cause some kind of rejection by the local population."

'Talk Right'

Many Moscow residents have made their own suggestions about the rules by which all residents should live -- ranging from sometimes esoteric details like standing on the right-hand side of the metro escalator to comments that seem more pointedly directed at foreign residents, like not throwing sunflower-seed shells on the sidewalk or heckling local women in a foreign language.

A young couple passes homeless people on the streets of Moscow.
Others suggested that men shouldn't sit on public transportation with their legs wide open, kill roosters in their homes, or jump over metro turnstiles "like goats."

In a poll of more than 2,500 people, some 30 percent of respondents said it should be forbidden to speak any language other than Russian in a public place.

That proposal in particular has raised hackles among foreign Moscow residents who argue the rainbow of languages overheard in Moscow is a large part of the city's cosmopolitan allure.

Michele Berdy, a columnist with the English-language "Moscow Times," criticized the Muscovite's Code in a recent piece, saying the proposal simply goes too far.

"It gets really ridiculous when they talk about people speaking Russian and wearing national costumes as if everyone should be wearing a rabbit-fur hat and a quilted jacket," she explains to RFE/RL. "I don't think that people are really upset if they hear people speaking English or Tajik or Korean on the street."

The debate has even reached the corridors of the Russian Orthodox Church, with Vsevolod Chaplin, the head of the church's public relations division, saying that most people should know for themselves "where to cook kebabs and what kind of clothes they should wear."

Chaplin added, however, that it is normal to expect newcomers to integrate, saying an "adequate" knowledge of Russian language and culture "should be the norm for every person living and working in Moscow."

By extension, Berdy says, the unspoken rules of good behavior that bond many societies should apply not only to foreign newcomers -- but to the locals as well.

"If you concentrate on what all of these supposedly impolite, rude foreigners do, you forget the fact that, probably, a good percentage of native Russian Muscovites do the same or even worse," Berdy says.

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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