Visitors to Russia in the Soviet era recall how foreigners and visible ethnic minorities were seen as representatives of partners in the struggle against western colonialism and dominance and were revered. Many people who studied, lived or took refuge in cities such as Moscow or St. Petersburg talk of the kindness and respect they were shown. Some of the same people now see Russia as a less tolerant place, with a growing reputation for hostility to outsiders.
The reality lies somewhere in between. It is not often appreciated that alongside the large multi-ethnic cities that reflect its geo-global positioning, the Russian Federation has high levels of internal ethnic diversity.
During Soviet times the internal mobility of urban residents between the republics was encouraged. People finishing university could get an appointment to work at a factory thousands of miles away from their homes. But, because of the Cold War, external travel and migration from the outside was restricted.
Modern Russia is defined in its constitution as a multinational state. It is host to almost 200 nationalities and ethnic groups, including indigenous peoples, national republics and millions of migrants from neighbouring countries. Around 20 per cent of its population, or more than 30 million people, can be defined as being from an ethnic minority background.
This includes citizens of the Federation, who constitute a majority in their own republics – such as Tatarstan, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia – but are a minority of the overall population. They may not easily fit the western definition of ethnic minority but have a more complex conceptualisation than the one accepted in the West. Tatars form the largest group in Russia under this description of ‘ethnic minority’.
While these ethnic groups do not face significant levels of discrimination in their own republics, they are frequently targets of xenophobic attacks in other regions of Russia. Attacks are most common in large cities, in particular the Moscow and St. Petersburg regions where, because of uneven economic development and other factors, there are high levels of internal migration.
There are also people from the former Soviet republics (which are now independent countries), such as Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians or Ukrainians, who can also be classified as having ethnic and national minority status. Due to their long presence in Russia they are in the majority well integrated and do not face significant levels of discrimination in most spheres of social life. But they are often the targets of xenophobic abuse and hate crimes when Russia is involved in increased tensions and military conflicts in their home region.
Labour migrants from the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union have become a crucial part of the urban workforce in recent decades. Their numbers amount to several million people from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian republics. They are among the most discriminated in Russia, from police profiling, educational under-achievement to housing discrimination.
Arriving in a big city like Moscow or St. Petersburg, your taxi driver is likely to be of Central Asian descent. You may notice similar people working on the streets or in the upscale restaurants of Georgian or Uzbek cuisine, as chefs, waiters and cleaners.
One of the very few areas where Central Asian labour migrants engage outside of their work are cafes of their national cuisine on the outskirts of cities. If you find one, give it a visit, they are more genuine than the posh versions in the centre and the food is delicious.
Also popular are public football grounds where Central Asians relax, play football and interact with neighbours.
Russia’s migration legislation is very strict. While the need to attract labour migrants is high, they face significant obstacles and are extremely vulnerable when in Russia. Even having passed the necessary exams and paid fees for the work ‘patent’, migrants often become targets of ethnic profiling by police on the streets and are susceptible to extortion. Any police or administrative case, even jaywalking, can get them deported immediately.
Some Central Asian community leaders have urged labour migrants not to come to the World Cup host cities in this period or leave the cities for two months if their registration or other documents are not in order. Labour migrants were also warned of more strict and frequent police controls on the streets, which may disproportionately impact Central Asian migrant workers
Along with people from Central Asia and the North Caucasus, those most vulnerable to exclusion and hate crimes are new visible migrants, including peoples from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Since government focus is on managing the internal diversity of the republics, little attention is paid to the integration, inclusion and welfare of other ethnic minorities arriving from outside of the country.
It is also worth noting that, as in the rest of Europe, the Roma population face centuries old levels of social exclusion and marginalisation, with particular issues around access to education.
The history of the 600,000 strong Jewish population in Russia is in some respects similar to the general history of the Jewish community in Central and Eastern Europe.
An interesting peculiarity is the ‘Jewish Autonomous Oblast’, a region in the far east of Russia created in 1928 by the Soviet Union to provide an autonomous quasi-state for the Jewish population, but due to many circumstances including the severe climate, the current percentage of the Jewish population in this part of the Russian Federation is close to 0.2%.
Russia and the Soviet Union has had many prominent Jewish personalities in science, art and sport, but stereotypes about the Jewish community remain commonplace in Russia and are often reproduced in the media and by public figures.
The vast majority of Russian citizens consider themselves Russian Orthodox Christians, although most are not regular churchgoers. Muslims form the country’s largest religious minority with a population of up to 25 million. The majority live in the Volga-Urals region and the North Caucasus, although Moscow, St. Petersburg, and parts of Siberia also Yakutia have sizable Muslim populations.
The Buddhist Association of Russia have estimated there were between 1.5 and 2 million Buddhists. Protestants make up the second largest group of Christians with more than 2 million followers.
The Catholic Church estimates that there are 600,000 Catholics, most of whom are not ethnic Russians.
Big cities will cater for religious minorities with specific needs so it will not be difficult to find mosques and synagogues. Russian food is more interesting than you might think. Ethnic food shops and restaurants are common and many visitors come away from the country with a taste for the Georgian and Uzbek cuisine they have tried. You will not find it difficult to obtain Kosher food in shops and there will be grocers selling Halal food.
An online HalalGuide (also available as an app) is a project run by enthusiasts to provide assistance to Muslim communities. It contains Halal food and prayer times and information, including on many cities in Russia.