The Economist has a good piece this week on the widespread dislike of foreigners in Russia. Things are so bad in that country that even African diplomats are wary of going about the streets of Moscow on foot, lest they be set upon by neo-nazi thugs, who are abetted by a police force that is at best indifferent to racist violence, when its members aren't actively colluding in said violence themselves. The following graph is particularly interesting:
One can understand why Russians might dislike Chechens and Caucasians, but what have Africans and the Chinese ever done to them? Compared to these two groups, Jews in Russia actually have it pretty easy, which admittedly isn't necessarily saying much, given the level of antisemitic violence and rhetoric in the country. I think the roots of Russian xenophobia are pretty much what the article suggests:
There are two types of explanation for xenophobia. One stresses recent factors, such as Soviet disintegration, and the hardships of the 1990s. The skinheads—often unemployed youths who, as Victor Shnirelman, an analyst of Russian racism, puts it, “want to feel like winners, at least in their own cities”—fit this view.
So does the new hierarchy of Russian racisms. On one hand, anti-Semitism is still alive on the streets, as well as in parliament. Two rabbis were attacked in a Moscow underpass last month by a gang shouting “kill the Yids”. Alexander Lakshin, one of the victims, says that when he went into a shop, bleeding, to get help, he was told to leave. A vote-from-home television debate after the furore over the politicians' letter was won by an anti-Semitic Communist. Yet a variety of other groups are much more distrusted than Jews (see chart). People from the Caucasus in general, and Chechnya in particular, are most reviled, reflecting the resentment caused by two Chechen wars. Significantly, dislike of all groups from Russia's southern edge (who include some Christians) is stronger than prejudice against Muslims who come from central Russian regions like Tatarstan.
But a second school of thought blames Russian racism on older social and cultural forces, going back to tsarist Russia, that re-emerged as soon as they were allowed, and had never disappeared under Soviet rule, despite the ideology of fraternal love. After all, popular insults for Caucasians—resented since Soviet times for their domination of Moscow's food markets—are certainly not new coinages. The deep roots of ethnically-based nationalism among the population at large strengthen this longer-term view. According to the Levada centre, in December some 59% of those polled sympathised with the idea of “Russia for the Russians”.
I've seen arguments made that Russian dislike of foreigners has roots going back as far as the Mongol invasions and the rise of Muscovy, and it's certainly the case that Russia had to be brutally coerced by Peter the Great to open itself up to Western influences, in the face of intense resentment from a parochial elite. Couple a deep-seated suspicion of the outside world with a yearning on the part of ordinary Russians to feel themselves part of a "great" and "feared" nation in the aftermath of the demise of their Soviet empire, and you have the ingredients for skinhead attacks on students and embassy staff actively being celebrated by "civilized" residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Frankly, the less influence this xenophobic, illiberal nation has in the wider world, the better I'll sleep at night.