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Russia’s New Vigilantes
“Inspection!” someone shouts. The dark-skinned waitresses and cleaning ladies instantly jump to their feet and rush out the back door of the restaurant with horror in their eyes.
The chef hurriedly pushes some of his illegal immigrant employees under the table in his office — and even into the kitchen fridge. When the inspector arrives, he orders a cheesecake (gratis, of course). As he eats, he assures anyone who’s listening that he can smell immigrants like “rats,” so he’s sure to hunt them down. This is a scene from Kukhnia (The Kitchen), a popular Russian TV series based on life behind the scenes of a Moscow restaurant staffed largely by illegal workers.
The show may be fiction, but it accurately captures the rise of a new Russian chauvinism — what the Kremlin’s ideologists call the beginning of “the long-awaited patriotic revival.” Muscovites commuting to work one day last November were surprised to see a few round-faced Cossacks in dark blue uniforms and tall sheepskin hats patrolling a railway station in downtown Moscow. But their appearance didn’t provoke outrage; just the opposite, in fact. Most Muscovites began lamenting that there probably weren’t enough Cossacks around for the thousands of illegal immigrants in the city.
Moscow’s booming economy has created an insatiable market for cheap labor. The result has been a flood of immigrants from other republics of the old USSR, especially from Ukraine and the economically-stagnant Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Though the authorities claim to oppose the influx, they’ve done nothing to alter the nearly irresistible logic behind immigration. In 2011 the Russian government reduced the quota for immigrant workers by 163,000, to 1.2 million — but this month the authorities reported that over three million foreigners actually live and work in Russia illegally.
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