Xenophobia: Past and Present
No. 1 2006 January/March

The wave of media reports about the growing number of attacks
against foreigners by the “politically motivated” Russian
neo-Nazis, skinheads, anti-immigrant activists and other riff-raff
have failed to stir up a public discussion about their causes.
Predictable exclamations such as “Enough!” or “Nazism is
advancing!” are of little use here. The regional authorities make
half-hearted attempts to justify themselves by pretending that the
problem does not exist, while the federal authorities keep silent,
knowing how closely this problem is connected with the general
state of affairs with federalism, the war in Chechnya, the
situation in the Caucasus, and their failing immigration policy.
Expert opinion is less and less represented in the media, as the
educated public is becoming desensitized to the problem of growing
social aggression. The media (to be more exact, a very small part
of it since intolerance and hatred affect all media organizations)
focuses only on extreme manifestations of radical nationalism or

Meanwhile, the general level of ethnic hatred in Russia is two
to three times higher than in the majority of other European
countries (excluding of course the zones of recent ethnic wars and
ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia). But this has not always
been so.


In the late 1980s, shortly before the breakup of the Soviet
Union, the general level of ethnophobia in Russia was appreciably
lower than in the majority of other Soviet republics, especially
those that were going through national consolidation (as shown by
first countrywide polls conducted by the Yuri Levada Center, before
2003 the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion on
Social and Economic Questions, or VTsIOM). In 1989, about 20
percent of the Soviet population showed signs of xenophobia, with 6
to 12 percent displaying aggressive ethnophobia. Amid the general
expectation of change, the illusion that the country would soon
become a “normal, civilized state,” and the realization that after
decades of being enmeshed in the Cold War and confrontation with
the rest of the world, the Soviet Union had ended up in a
historical deadlock, the overwhelming majority of the population
(53 percent of Russians) believed (with good reason, it seems) that
the country’s problems were of its own making, and not caused by
“foes.” A considerable proportion of respondents were completely
indifferent to the problem of interethnic relations since they did
not come up against immigrants in their daily lives (mostly
relevant to residents in rural areas, elderly and poorly educated
people). Only 13 percent of the respondents identified the
“country’s foes” – for example, the United States, the CIA, the
West, Jews, Muslims, the mafia, Communists, Nazis and separatists –
or other especially antipathetic ethnic groups and nationalities.
Until 1994, the index of ethnic hatred and latent hostility toward
foreigners in Russia was substantially lower than, e.g., in Poland,
Hungary, the Czech Republic (in the latter country, xenophobia was
directed mainly against Gypsies), East Germany or even Austria,
which featured traditionally high levels of anti-Semitism and
strong anti-immigration sentiments. However, whereas the success of
reforms and subsequent social changes in the East European
countries caused a reduction in xenophobia, their failure in Russia
produced the opposite effect.

Between 1989 and 1992, there was still a considerable level of
resistance to all forms of ethnic aggression and violence, as well
as ethnic discrimination. In 1990, more than one-half of Russia’s
population condemned any manifestations of hatred, ethnocentric
claims by ethnic-republic elites, pejorative attitudes toward
specific ethnic groups, and so forth. The officially enforced
“Soviet” rather than “ethnic” or “native” identity, which
proclaimed the equality of all ethnic groups in the Soviet Union,
was still very strong.

The collapse of the socialist camp and the subsequent
disintegration of the Soviet Union undermined that self-identity
and introduced more primitive (archaic) perceptions and mechanisms
of ethnic solidarity based on separation and alienation. Amid the
mounting crisis of chaotic instability, the focus on ethnic
affiliation was gradually becoming a routine expression of social
and group barriers, collective privileges, rights and claims. That
was not a uniquely Russian phenomenon: the “peaceful”
disintegration of totalitarian systems everywhere was accompanied
by a growth in nationalism and ethnic solidarity as a natural
substitution for the collapse of (Communist) ideology. It was
another matter that nationalism in the East European countries was
tinged by a strong orientation toward the West, together with
efforts to institute a political system that would prevent
state-sanctioned terror and violence.

Russia took a different path. The state of frustration and shock
from the ongoing changes, the feeling of insecurity and fear of the
future aroused a wave of ideological neo-traditionalism (nostalgia
for the empire, super-power status, law and order, national pride,
the glorious past, etc.) and conservative, reactionary nationalism.
That nationalism manifested itself in the rise of anti-Western
sentiments and isolationism, on the one hand, and widespread,
diffusive xenophobia and hatred of strangers, on the other. These
attitudes were triggered by a primitive solidarity in opposition to
strangers both inside and outside the country.

Whereas in 1991 almost 60 percent of Russians agreed that the
country should “follow the Western path,” by 1994, 42 percent of
the country’s population believed that “other countries have always
treated Russia with hostility,” with the latter proportion rising
to 66 percent by the early 2000s. The same two-thirds of the
population saw the influence of Western culture on Russian life as
utterly negative. In February 1994, 56 percent of respondents
believed that reforms and privatization programs would make Russia
politically and economically dependent on the West (the opposite
view was held by 44 percent of respondents). Those respondents,
whose financial and social status had, by their own admission,
declined, reported the greatest fears and concerns.

The rise in reported levels of isolationism and anti-Western
sentiments was matched by a commensurate rise in xenophobia. In
June 1990, a relatively high proportion of respondents (27 percent)
said they did not object to refugees moving into areas where they
lived, while 34 percent had no opinion on the matter. However, 30
percent were highly negative toward the idea. At that time, a
refugee’s ethnic background was not a problem since the absolute
majority of the country’s population identified themselves as
Soviet citizens, not citizens of the republic where they lived (the
exception was the Baltic republics). The majority of respondents
(52 percent) said ethnicity did not matter.

In 1993, about one-third of the respondents were convinced that
non-Russians were to blame for all of Russia’s social woes. The
view that non-natives had “inordinate influence in Russia” was
shared already by 54 percent (vs. 41 percent who did not share that
view); interestingly, there were basically no variations within the
different socio-demographic groups. By the mid-1990s, the
proportion of people who held such a view rose to almost 75
percent. Meanwhile, the pattern of migration had also changed.

The visible part of migration at the end of the Soviet era was
generally viewed as a flow of refugees or displaced persons who had
fallen victim to inter-ethnic clashes, conflicts, pogroms or
violence (mainly in Central Asia or the Caucasus). Or this flow of
migrants was seen as intolerance on the part of the indigenous
population that had sensed the weakness of the ruling authorities.
Thus, the majority of Russians at that time believed that the state
should provide assistance to refugees coming from ethnic conflict

As economic growth began in Russia, the flow of economic
migrants increased considerably. By that time, emerging labor and
housing markets opened opportunities for entirely new forms of
professional activity and therefore employment, such as private
enterprise, retail trade, services, small-scale production, etc.
Residents had few if any advantages over immigrants in entering new
economic spheres. Meanwhile, immigrants demonstrated stronger
motivation. Unlike the local population, they had no hope of
obtaining guaranteed social security benefits. (Experience of all
modern countries shows that first-generation immigrants display far
greater initiative, fitness for work and ambition to get on than
the locals, striving not just to fit into the local community but
also to show that they have achieved success and accepted all of
its basic values.) In many instances, cultural and traditional
factors played an important part: the sense of adventure,
enterprise, survivability, the lack of professional hierarchy, the
irrelevance of traditional forms of state paternalism, and so
forth. In such a situation, immigrants quickly filled vacancies in
the service sector, retail trade, construction sector, and public
utilities, while emerging as a significant social factor. They also
worked in small- and medium-sized businesses. At the same time,
they became convenient targets, scapegoats, especially among that
part of the population that had failed to adjust to the new
environment (at different periods of the crisis, this number
accounted for between one-third and one-half of Russia’s total
urban population).

By late 1995 (according to an October 1995 poll, N=2,400),
almost one-half of respondents (47 percent) believed that
immigration had become a “major problem” in Russian society, 26
percent said it was an “insignificant problem,” while 17 percent
saw it as a non-issue. By the end of Putin’s first term in office,
however, the majority of Russians shared the view that “there are
too many immigrants around.” This conclusion was borne out by a
recent poll (November 2005). Answers to the question, “What is your
attitude toward immigrants from the North Caucasus, Central Asia or
other southern countries who live in your city/region?” were broken
down as follows: “respect’”(2 percent), “sympathy”(3 percent)
“irritation” (20 percent), “dislike” (21 percent), “fear” (6
percent), and “indifference” (50 percent); (only 2 percent of
respondents said they “did not know”). Overall, 47 percent of the
population had a negative attitude toward immigrants (as compared
to 5 percent of those with a positive attitude).


Although ethnic prejudices have remained basically the same
during the last 15 years, the intensity of certain phobias and
aggressive attitudes with regard to foreigners has been changing
under the impact of external or internal developments. The most
disliked ethnic groups, according to statistics, are Chechens
(since the outbreak of the first war in Chechnya) and Gypsies; the
runners-up are immigrants from other North Caucasian and
Trans-Caucasian republics (the level of latent antipathy toward
representatives of these ethnic groups is 40 to 45 percent, going
up to 50 to 55 percent with regard to Chechens, especially in the
past several years), whereas antipathy toward such ethnic groups as
Tajiks, Uzbeks, Jews, Estonians, or Tatars does not exceed 15 to 20
percent, declining to a mere 6 to 7 percent in relation to
Moldovans, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. Under the impact of
high-profile media campaigns and aggressive rhetoric by some
influential populist politicians, the level of dislike toward
certain ethnic groups can increase substantially (for example, in
relation to people from the Baltic region during the celebration of
the 60th Anniversary of V-Day or toward Ukrainians in the wake of
the Orange Revolution), but these antipathies are as a general rule
short-lived, with xenophobia returning to its “normal” level once
such “hate campaigns” are over.

There are good reasons to say that ethnic phobias and
anti-immigrant attitudes are a response to real or perceived
threats in a situation where the local population has what it sees
as limited survival resources and opportunities to defend its
positions or interests. The sense of danger or anxiety increases
not only due to immigrants but also because of the inefficiency of
the ruling authorities, the sense of insecurity and the general
distrust of the establishment and social institutions. This is a
reaction by a closed, insecure society to the development and
differentiation of the social structure. Such attempts at
conservative self-defense arise from fundamental perceptions about
the natural hierarchic structure of society, specifically its
division into ethnic groups that have unequal social and political
rights. It is not difficult to see that the general drift of public
sentiments in this case will be the demand for the ruling
authorities to tighten immigration policy even further (see Table

Table 1.  How Should Russia’s Immigration
Policy Be Constructed? (%)

Answers July 2002 August 2004 August 2005
Limit migration 45 54 59
Do not limit migration, but use it
for the benefit of Russia
44 38 36
Undecided 11 7 5







2002 and 2004, N=1,600; 2005, N= 1,881

The xenophobic mood prevails not among the marginalized fringe
elements, but “ordinary people” (according to their level of
education, income, values and political views): above all, skilled
workers and technical specialists, as well as general workers
without training qualifications. Businessmen are by far the most
tolerant toward immigrants, while police, blue-collar workers, and
pensioners make up the most intolerant group. However, the
differences between various groups of respondents are on the whole
insignificant. Strange enough, it is in fact the immigrants’
assimilation, integration into the life of local communities that
provokes the most irritation, especially within those social groups
that do not directly compete or have any contacts with immigrants
in the first place. Military and police officers are most concerned
that immigrants “are taking away jobs” from the locals; pensioners,
that they “live off natives;” company executives and housewives,
that “they corrupt police;” unemployed people, that “there are too
many of them around;” college and university students simply
dislike immigrants because they are “impudent,” and so on and so
forth. Xenophobia among those with a higher social status, who have
to observe the proprieties and maintain respectability, surfaces as
irritation, whereas among people with a low social or financial
status it comes through as fear and the demand of social guarantees
for themselves and greater restrictions for the immigrants.
Just over one-third of respondents (November 2002, N=1,600) believe
that no one should be banned from doing business in Russia (35
percent), the only qualification being that this should not extend
to “civil servants or elected officials” (36 percent). Some 14
percent, however, said that people from the Caucasus should be
forbidden to do business in Russia; 10 percent said such
restrictions should apply to Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, and
other immigrants from Asian countries, while just as many said that
the rule should be extended to all non-citizens. Furthermore, a
certain proportion of respondents demanded that private enterprise
be denied to all Muslims (4 percent), Jews (3 percent), and
citizens of Western countries (about 3 percent). There is a similar
pattern with regard to immigrants’ access to civil service: 27
percent of respondents believe there should be no restrictions for
people who would like to enter civil service (45 percent took
exception to people with a criminal record). At the same time, some
respondents believe that civil service should be off limits to
people from the Caucasus (15 percent), Muslims (10 percent), Jews
(8 percent), businessmen (6 percent), and non-Orthodox (5 percent).
Thus, almost one-half of respondents (45 percent) consider it
necessary to limit access to positions of power for “strangers” –
ethnic or social. Between 43 and 47 percent categorically object to
any immigrant presence in Russia.

The level of antipathy and hostility toward immigrants is
predicated on the social value of status or property in question.
All of this shows that the underlying motive is not so much
competition for financial or social benefits, jobs, etc. as
symbolic resources and status.

The proportion of those sharing the “Russia for Russians” idea
(see Table 2) began to increase slowly with the outbreak of a new
war in Chechnya and the general drift toward Russian
traditionalism, as marked by Putin’s advent, coupled with a
weakening immunity to immorality and chauvinism. General antipathy
to “strangers” in Russia is visibly growing, contingent on the
perceived threat to traditional values such as the family, the
home, etc. While there are some group differences over the prospect
of cohabitation with “non-natives,” on the issue of marriage to
non-Russians all such differences disappear: the level of antipathy
and hostility in various social groups reaches the maximum. In this
case, ethnic barriers turn into racial barriers.

Table 2.  What Do You Think About the “Russia for
Russians” Idea? (%)

Answers 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
Support it; the idea is long overdue 15 13 15 16 16 16 16 19
It makes sense –
within reasonable limits
31 30 34 42 38 37 38 39
Total number of approvals 46 43 49 58 54 53 54 58
Reject it:
This is sheer Nazism 32 30 27 20 26 24 25 23
This does not bother me 10 14 12 11 9 11 12 9
I have never thought
about this
7 7 6 6 8 7 5 7
Undecided 5 6 6 5 3 5 4 3










*  *  *
Xenophobia is symptomatic of a stagnating society that lacks moral
guidelines and hopes for the future. This is why xenophobia is
impervious to doubt and criticism. Any head-on attempts to
“enlighten the dark, prejudiced masses” are utterly ineffective.
Therefore, today, the task should be not to eliminate the
xenophobic mood but to reduce it to some socially acceptable,
manageable forms.