Xenophobia: Past and Present

7 february 2006

Lev Gudkov

Resume: The disintegration of the Soviet Union undermined the traditional self-identity and introduced primitive (archaic) perceptions and mechanisms of ethnic solidarity based on separation and alienation.

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 Nazism.

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 areas.

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 1).

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.

Last updated 7 february 2006, 19:27

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