Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#15 - JRL 7179
Sunday Herald (Australia)
May 11, 2003
Sars: Russia turns on Asians
Chinese and Vietnamese migrants are treated with hostility as the killer virus rekindles old enmities.
Rob Parsons reports from Moscow

He stands at the inter section of Moscow's Trade Union Street and Dmitrii Ulyanova, overlooking a leafy suburb on the southern edges of the city. It's an unlikely setting for one of the great icons of the 1960s -- a hero in Asia and an idol for Western campus youth. But Ho Chi Minh's statue has become a monument to an age fading fast in the fickle memory of Muscovites.

For several years, I lived just around the corner, just beyond his line of vision. In those days, he gazed directly at a Chinese restaurant just across the street, an evil-smelling establishment reputed to be the worst eatery in Moscow -- no small achievement. But it has gone, replaced by some tawdry tribute to the glitzy world now worshipped by the Russian elite. Uncle Ho, though, still stands, his glassy stare oblivious to the changes .

He would be amazed by how many of his compatriots there are around him. There have never been so many Asians living in Russia. By some estimates there are half-a- million Vietnamese in Moscow alone, and roughly as many Chinese. What bothers the government, is that vast numbers of them aren't registered. They come with tour groups, or on short-term visas and never leave.

Russians view them with an undisguised suspicion that borders on downright hostility. For one thing, they don't mix. The Chinese and Vietnamese run their own businesses, import their own food and medicines and bring in their own doctors. It helps minimise contact with the authorities.

But they are also an essential part of modern Russian life. According to the Moscow authorities, 13 of the city markets are exclusively Chinese or Vietnamese affairs. Their main business is trade in cheap clothes and goods. They manufacture what the Russians don't, and make a killing at the huge bottom-end of the Russian market.

It's a long ride from Beijing to Moscow -- five-and-a-half days and 8000 kilometres -- before the train finally draws into Moscow's extraordinary Yaroslavl station, a riot of art-deco architecture in the heart of the city. At 2.19pm local time, the Chinese traders pour out of the carriages loaded with the huge, checked carrier-bags that are their hallmark.

Today, more than ever, they face an uncertain welcome. Russia's latent hostility to Asian migration is bubbling over, released by fears of the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars).

In one Siberian city, the local mayor has threatened to deport the entire Asian population to a clearing in the forest. Let them live there and do some useful work on the land, he said, to not so much as a squeak of protest.

At the city market in Novosibirsk, Chinese traders are being made to wear face-masks, regardless of whether there is any evidence that they're infected, and in the mining region of Kemerovo, 60 Chinese citizens have been told to go home, allegedly because their papers are not in order. In the same area, 140,000 Chinese citizens have been ordered to report for medical examination.

In Moscow, the city mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, never one to miss a chance to court popularity, has warned that if even one Asian trader is found to have the disease, he'll close down all their markets.

Has he paused to wonder though what this will mean for ordinary Russians deprived of an outlet for cheap products?

The mood carries right to the top. At federal level, the minister of health has asked that Chinese diplomats coming to Russia be put into quarantine for ten days before assuming their duties. The Russian foreign ministry is still considering the request.

Of course, Russia has genuine grounds for concern. It has a massive and porous 4000-kilometre border with China and uncontrolled immigration is a real problem. Add to that the general degradation of the health service and public hygiene since the collapse of the Soviet Union and one can understand the alarm .

Restricting movement across the Chinese border is an understandable reaction. Making sure hospitals are ready to cope with the worst is sound common sense and even disinfecting public transport helps convince the public that precautions are being taken against the disease.

But the suspicion lingers that however wise these measures, the underlying motivation is a xenophobic distrust of the Chinese. It is an atavistic fear that has its origins in the invasions by Genghis Khan's Mongol horde. Now fear is giving way to panic. Russia is in rapid demographic decline and the worst-hit part of the country is in the east, adjacent to China. The villages of Siberia are emptying as fast as the Chinese population is growing. Russians, who understand very well that nature abhors a vacuum, suspect that sooner or later the bridgehead represented by the Chinese traders will become bigger and more permanent.

For all the measures taken by the authorities, the traders continue to pour off the trains and planes. Go to Moscow's Izmailovsky market any day of the week and you will find the cafes and stalls echoing to the excited chatter of Chinese. But for Sergei, a taxi driver, who used to wait on the train arriving from Beijing, it has all become too much. He is terrified of catching Sars. He has heard that the infected can pass on the disease just by looking at you. That is why he is wearing his sunglasses all the time.

Top   Next