In a room once used for baptisms, the Russian Orthodox matrons of St. Michael the Archangel Church have erected plywood walls and adorned them with icons. The sanctuary next door suffered bomb damage in Chechnya’s war and is slowly being rebuilt. But for whom?
Hardly anyone shows up anymore.
Slavic Russia absorbed dozens of non-Slavic ethnic groups as it expanded along its vast southern and eastern fringes. Among them were Chechens, who, like many others, were given nominal autonomy and retained their language and religious identity. But Moscow left no doubt that it was in charge, and it often marginalized the local population.
Now, more than a decade of war has driven most of the fair-skinned ethnic Russians out of Chechnya’s capital. In their place are the predominantly Muslim and dark-featured Chechens, who have reclaimed the city.
“You won’t find any young Russians here. None,” said Tatiana Kaverina, 48, an ethnic Russian who has stayed in Chechnya because she can’t find anyplace else to live. “Soon, there will be no Russians.”
Added Raisa Skachidubova, a retired literature teacher: “You get on a bus and you’re like a white crow among a dark flock.”
Russia’s post-Soviet population implosion is mainly the result of an alarming increase in deaths and a decline in the birthrate among ethnic Russians, who still make up about 80% of the country.
But as alcohol, cigarettes, pollution, stress, suicide and resurgent diseases contribute to Russian deaths, minority populations are growing rapidly. Many of these smaller groups, particularly Chechens and other Muslims in the Caucasus region, have the country’s highest birthrates.
Long accustomed to unquestioned dominance, ethnic Russians are being forced to confront a multiethnic future and significant problems controlling sensitive border regions. Only 12 years ago, they made up more than 60% of Grozny’s population; now they account for barely 4%.
And as their population and power diminish in the Caucasus, ethnic Russians are also deserting the most remote stretches of the far east, to be replaced in urban areas near the frontier by hundreds of thousands of immigrants from China.
U.S. experts worry that a politically weak and physically unhealthy Russia could destabilize Europe, making it harder to fight terrorism and possibly opening the gates to a regional pandemic.
Even now, said Duke University political scientist Jerry Hough, the toll from the country’s demographic crash is more serious than Stalin’s purges or the Darfur crisis in the African nation of Sudan. But there is little that U.S. and European policymakers can do except watch the crisis unfold.
“What, exactly, would [people] have the United States—or for that matter, human rights groups—actually do about Russian life expectancy?” said Thomas Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. “Send troops to Russia to slap cigarettes and vodka bottles out of the hands of young men?”
An Identity Crisis
Russia’s population evolution is in some ways similar to that of Western European countries. Italians, Spaniards and other nationalities have birthrates that are among the lowest in the world. The biggest difference is the rate at which ethnic Russians are dying, and the failure of the nation’s majority, even in comparison with countries struggling to assimilate prolific immigrant populations, to come to terms with a multiethnic future.
Today’s Russia includes seven predominantly Muslim regions. Ivan the Terrible conquered the first of them in the 16th century; the final pieces were small republics in the Caucasus with complicated names such as Ingushetia, Chechnya, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan—the very places where Moscow now is battling Islamic insurrections.
Russian identity still is primarily cultural, remaining closely linked to the Russian language and the Orthodox Church. And the overall proportion of ethnic Russians has slipped only slightly, shrinking from 83% of the population to 79.8% over the last decade.
Demographic trends suggest that the decrease is likely to continue. Although most experts are skeptical, a former U.S. government expert on Russian nationalities recently predicted that Russia would have a Muslim majority within 30 years.
In addition to its own Muslim population, Russia is home to an estimated 10 million illegal immigrant workers from the largely Muslim former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The city of Moscow has swelled to 10.4 million people, and one-fifth of them are Muslims. The Russian capital has the largest Muslim population of any city in Europe.
Along Moscow’s wide boulevards, minarets rise next to the onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches. Across the country, there are 8,000 mosques, up from 300 in 1991, when Soviet strictures on religious observance were lifted. Markets more often than not are run by immigrants from Azerbaijan. Construction sites would come to a halt if not for low-paid workers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Russian authorities have started a campaign to convince a nation historically hostile to foreign migration that its economic development, and perhaps its survival, depends on its opening its doors.
The Kremlin in July announced that it would try to attract as many as 1 million Russian-speaking immigrants from former Soviet republics by offering citizenship and other benefits, particularly to those willing to settle in underpopulated regions. The government also has proposed legalizing 1 million or more migrant workers, many of whom undoubtedly will be Muslim.
President Vladimir V. Putin, realizing that the country’s survival is at stake, has exhorted the public to embrace a multicultural society. He has stepped up prosecutions for hate crimes. Recently, he launched a bid for Russia to join the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the premier political league of Muslim nations.
“Russia must be for Russians, Tatars, Mordovians, Ossetians, Jews, Chechens, for all our peoples and for the entire Russian nation,” Vladislav Y. Surkov, the Kremlin’s top political aide, told students in February.
The response in some quarters has been violent. About 50 Asians, blacks and other minorities died in racially motivated attacks across the nation last year, including a 9-year-old African Russian girl who was stabbed in St. Petersburg in March.
In August, riots broke out in an industrial backwater town of 35,000 people near the Finnish border after a bar fight between ethnic Russians and Chechen migrants left two Russians dead.
Soon after, an estimated 2,000 Russians turned out at a rally to complain that corrupt officials in Kondopoga were “selling our town to aliens,” a reference to the estimated 200 Chechens who have a large presence in markets.
After the rally, a mob set fire to the restaurant where the fight occurred, as well as to the central produce market and several kiosks, stores and cars owned by immigrants.
Exodus in the Caucasus
Russia has applied its military and political might for more than 180 years to secure the largely Muslim border areas of the Caucasus region; wars waged by czarist troops there in the early 19th century are among the cornerstones of Russian literature. It is one of the country’s deepest ironies that despite the effort, there are few ethnic Russians left in the region and its future is again in question.
Chechnya’s demographic picture is changing, in large part because of the casualties and ethnic separation resulting from two wars. Researchers think as many as 55,000 civilians have been killed, 35,000 of them ethnic Russians.
But Chechnya’s 5,800 square miles of shell-pocked towns, looted factories and scarred villages also illustrate forces that will help determine Russia’s future.
Birthrates in the patchwork of republics of the North Caucasus are substantially higher than those in urban Slavic Russia. Whereas the old imperial capital, St. Petersburg, last year had a birthrate of 8.57 per 1,000 population, the rate in Chechnya was 25 per 1,000. In Dagestan, it was 16; in Ingushetia, 14.
The shift in Chechnya’s demographics comes amid a high infant-mortality rate caused by poverty, the collapsing healthcare system and the aftermath of the Chechen war. Overall, the ethnic Russian population has decreased by about 300,000 over the last decade, slipping from 27% of the republic’s population to less than 4%.
Migrants from the North Caucasus and neighboring Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union in Central Asia are also spreading north. They are rapidly expanding into traditionally ethnic Russian cities such as Astrakhan, Volgograd, Rostov, Stavropol, Krasnodar and beyond.
Analysts have warned that ethnic stratification along Russia’s borders could induce a breakup of the country into ethnic enclaves. Although the point is debatable, the worry clearly has been aggravated by the demographic shift. Putin has encouraged ethnic Russians to resettle in the northern Caucasus.
Alexander Zhilin, an ethnic Russian who is governor of the Astrakhan region on the Caspian Sea, said ethnic Russians there were not having children. However, his region is one of many experiencing a large influx of Chechens and Central Asians.
“The Muslim component is growing, and all the others have a decreased birthrate,” he said. “And if we don’t give birth to more children, in 50 years there will be nothing left of us.”
And there has been serious talk of relocation programs to boost the underpopulated far east, presumably as a bulwark to China.
Today, Chinese workers are tilling Russian farms, and towns such as Khabarovsk are dotted with Chinese restaurants and markets selling imported goods that are far cheaper and more popular than Russian products.
“There are Russian demographers who say, ‘Oh, it’s all right, let the Chinese populate the far east; we’ll have mixed marriages and everything will be fine,’ “ said Yelena Breyeva, an expert with the Laboratory for Problems of Demographic Development, a branch of an institute associated with the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“But recently, I’ve been hearing a different idea: If we are in such a hurry to welcome the Chinese and people of other nationalities, is this still Russia, or is it some other country?”
Any effort to build a multiethnic future would have to overcome deep suspicions from the Soviet past and the recent wars. In Chechnya, where people have suffered from both, each side accuses the other of “ethnic cleansing” and genocide.
Chechens still recall mass deportations by Stalin in 1944. An estimated 200,000 Chechens died on the way to the steppes of Kazakhstan or during the 13-year exile that followed.
Ethnic Russians say they are the ones disappearing.
“Chechnya has become, on the whole, a mono-ethnic Muslim state. Russians fled Chechnya and spread like sand all over Russia,” said Lidya Grafova, an advocate for ethnic Russians who lost their homes and relatives in Chechnya. “A majority of them today are leading a life from hand to mouth. People lost everything: housing, belongings, and the most important thing they lost was their relatives—people died, very many of them.
“The processes underway in Chechnya can be described by one and only one word: the genocide of the [Russian] people.”
Alexander Belov is leader and chief ideologist of the unabashedly racist, street-based Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI). But he’s no fringe character. In fact, his group is Russia’s fastest-growing political sensation.
Critics have long alleged that DPNI is a Kremlin creation, designed to redirect popular dissatisfaction toward ethnic scapegoats.
Still, many Russians were surprised last week when President Vladimir Putin took a page straight out of Mr. Belov’s book.
In the midst of a political standoff with the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Mr. Putin authorized a crackdown on Georgian-owned businesses, called for tougher curbs on immigration, and said non-ethnic Russians should be prevented from operating in the marketplaces.
“What Putin said is exactly what Belov has been saying; the main theme is Russia for the Russians,” says Alla Gerber, president of the Russian Holocaust Foundation, a human rights group.
Experts warn that the Kremlin is moving into a political minefield that has been primed and put on hair trigger by Belov and his rapidly-growing DPNI.
In late August, six days of rioting in the northern town of Kondopoga left at least three people dead and forced hundreds of Caucasians—dark-skinned people from the former Soviet Caucasus region—to flee.
And a survey conducted last month by the state-run VTsIOM agency found that 57 percent of Russians believe that Kondopoga-like riots could break out in their town. In a poll by the independent Levada Center last week, 52 percent said they favor declaring Russia “the Russian people’s state,” with restrictions on non-ethnic Russians.
“There is a social explosion waiting to happen in Russia, with many potential Kondopogas,” says Galina Kozhevnikova, deputy head of the Sova Center in Moscow, which monitors hate crimes. “Over and over again lately you have tensions in some town, then Belov shows up and tells people they’re being terrorized by Caucasians, and the violence begins.”
“Our authorities have been manipulating this movement, thinking they can channel peoples’ resentments against ethnic minorities instead of the powers that be,” says Ms. Kozhevnikova. “They think they can control it. But it’s too big, too dangerous to be managed.”
But Belov insists that the Kremlin has finally understood “the real situation” in the country. “The president has made the right conclusions and is taking the right steps,” he says in an interview. “Russians are the most discriminated-against group in Russia. We help them to find their voice.”
Last week Putin echoed Belov’s mantra that Russians are being “terrorized” by gangs of “criminals” from formerly Soviet Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Russia’s own southern republics.
“[We must] protect the interests of Russian manufacturers and Russia’s native population,” he said. “The indignation of citizens is right,” Putin added, lashing out at criminal gangs, some with an “ethnic hue,” that allegedly control Russia’s local farmers’ markets.
The actions of Moscow police last week underscored that point by swooping down on casinos, restaurants, and other businesses owned by ethnic Georgians (many of them Russian citizens) and shut down dozens, citing tax, sanitary, and alcohol violations.
A planeload of 132 “illegal immigrants” was dispatched to Georgia last Friday, but a second plane carrying 150 deportees was turned back by Georgian authorities on Monday.
“We really hope that these outrageous violations of human rights of individuals, based on their ethnicity, will cease,” said Georgia’s President Mikhael Saakashvili. “This is totally unacceptable in the 21st century.”
Russia’s relations with Georgia have been deteriorating since the pro-democracy “Rose Revolution” three years ago brought the West-leaning Mr. Saakashvili, pledging to bring his little country into NATO by 2009, to power.
Several prominent intellectuals with Georgian roots, such as famous detective novelist Grigory Chkhartishvili, have found themselves facing sudden tax audits and other kinds of official harassment.
“It is no longer safe to be a dark-haired person in Russia,” says Mr. Chkhartishvili, better known by his pen name, Boris Akunin. “What’s happening to Georgians today is ethnic cleansing. The Russian state is sick with the virus of xenophobia.”