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Police Brutality & Police Reform in Russia and the CIS - Book Reviews (5)

V. Voronkov, B. Gladarev, L. Sagitova, Militsiia i etnicheskie migranty: praktiki vzaimodeistviia [Police and ethnic migrants: practices of interaction]

St-Petersburg, Alateia, 2011, 640 pages
Amandine Regamey
Bibliographical reference

V. Voronkov, B. Gladarev, L. Sagitova, Militsiia i etnicheskie migranty: praktiki vzaimodeistviia [Police and ethnic migrants: practices of interaction], St-Petersburg, Alateia, 2011, 640 pages

Full text is grateful to Samuel Robertshaw who edited this review

1There are several ways to read the collective monograph Police and ethnic migrants, practices of interaction, published in 2011. Written by a collective of sociologists from Kazan (Institute for Social Research and Citizen Initiative) and St Petersburg (Centre for Independent Social Research), the book is based on fieldwork conducted in these two cities from 2006 to 2008. The book will be of great interest for those who study migration, as it gives a very precise description of Russian migration policy and its changes, in a context of rising xenophobia, as well as several insights into migrant strategies and the life of migrants in Russia. As a work on the sociology of the police, it can be seen as a landmark within the literature on the Russian case.

2As Boris Gladarev reminds in the first chapter, studies about the police in Russia have so far been carried out either by the Ministry of the Interior (MVD) itself or by different NGOs examining the police from the perspective of human rights. The main trends of research and analysis focus on: the history of the police; corruption; police interaction with specific groups; representation in the media; public attitudes towards the police; and most recently, police reform. A lot has been already written about the persistence of Soviet-style methods in the work of Russian police resulting in repressive and punishing practices (especially towards vulnerable groups such as young people, migrants, the poor) and “legal nihilism”. This results in the use of violence and the fabrication of cases, with the law seen by the police as an instrument to fulfil their goals rather than an absolute standard to be respected in all their work. However, a comprehensive professional sociology of the police is still missing from the literature, and this book is a successful attempt to address this gap, at least in part.

3The study focuses on the public security police, or MOB (militsiia obshchestvennoi bezopasnosti), which includes in particular uchastkovye (local policemen) and PPS (patrulno-postovia sluzhba, street patrols). Unlike the criminal police, MOB policemen have to wear uniform, and they are in direct and permanent contact with the citizens, either on the street or in police precincts. The St Petersburg research team did not have the authorisation to observe police at work, so they relied predominantly on interviews with serving and former officers as well as rank and file policemen. However, the Kazan team conducted observation in local police departments, and went on patrol with policemen. It may be difficult for a non-specialist to judge the extent of what has been left “outside” the scope of the study (for example the Kazan team did not observe raids against migrants) and there remains a risk of judging the work of the public security police based on only limited evidence. Moreover, it is not clear how the public security police, when dealing with migrants, interact with the Federal Migration Service (FMS) which is also part of the MVD. Despite these shortcomings, this study remains of great interest in understanding how the Russian police operate.

4Direct observations and excerpts from field journals (see in particular Chapter III by Olga Maksimova) provide a vivid picture not only of day-to-day police work, but also of relations within the police. Reflections about the practice of “participant observation” in the police (see chapter XI by the same author) are also inspiring. In this regard, the book can be read as a handbook for sociologists, giving practical advice and including discussion of the use of different tools in sociology (e.g. the use of criminal statistics or public opinion polls in the Introduction and Chapter I). The authors stress on several occasions the situation of dependency of the police, especially from an economic point of view. Not only are the police subordinated to the national political agenda and priorities, but they also depend on regional and local authorities for funding. The OPOPs (obshestvennye punkty okhrany pravoporiadka – public police stations) visited by the Kazan team were often dependent on sponsorship from local business. This can lead to policemen practicing “petty bribery” (melkie podbory), which is not considered as a form of corruption (for example asking citizens to bring a ream of paper if they want a document to be issued). Cases were also reported when policemen had to buy their handcuffs or where stazhery (interns) borrowed uniforms so as to look more plausible. Low salaries and hard conditions of work (such as an unlimited workday), help to explain why the police is manned mainly by people from the countryside or other neighbouring republics, as is the case in Kazan. Those serving in the PPS in particular saw it only as a step in their wider career development.

5The work of Russian public security police is evaluated according to a system of indicators (palochnaia sistema) that has been roundly criticized by both researchers and policemen themselves. Indeed, the evaluation of police work is based on the relation between registered crimes and disclosed crimes. Here lies an inherent contradiction, as policemen are asked on the one hand to prevent crimes and, on the other hand, to disclose numerous crimes. The book points to the problem it creates for rank and file policemen, who are treated harshly by their superiors if they do not implement plans and risk being deprived of bonuses and additional salary. Attitude and working strategies are therefore determined by this accounting system: from ignoring orders to adopting a strategy of hiding (not registering the crimes that they know will never be solved) or even consciously infringing the rules (harassing passers-by so as to find any kind of breach to the law).

6The major part of the book is dedicated more specifically to police interaction with ethnic migrants. It explores three levels of interactions: the micro level (between a migrant and a policemen); the meso-level (between groups of migrants organized by diaspora or place of work and policemen); and the macro-level. Although the authors devote space to discussing methodological issues, their definition and use of the notion of “ethnic migrants” needs to be considered. In the book ethnic migrants are defined as non-Russian citizens (coming from Central Asia and the Caucasus), Russian citizens of foreign origin (e.g. Azerbaijan and Georgia) and “southern” ethnic minorities of Russia such as Chechens or Greeks. Grouping all these migrants and Russian citizens together is justified by police practices which cast them all as “strangers” who are targeted because they are physically different. The authors note that sociologists and policemen can have different views on who can be seen as “ethnically different”, and stress that the definition of ethnic difference depends on the subjective judgement of the observer. But though the authors see identity as a construct and are aware of the risk of “essentializing” the differences, they repeatedly use the notion of “phenotype”, which gives a false appearance of scientificity to these physical differences. I would therefore argue that the use of terms such as “visual minorities” (vizualnye menshistva - used in the book on p. 238), may have been better suited to their purpose.

7The notion of “institutional racism” has already been used in Russian language publications to describe an “ethnically discriminating approach” (etnicheski izbiratelnyj podkhod) which governs the way the police targets individuals. This research clearly shows that migrants are targeted not only because of their physical appearance, but also because of their clothes, walking style and general behaviour. Thus, the hypothesis that suggested migrants from Central Asia could use their resemblance to Tatars to avoid controls, was not confirmed. The authors list the different situations when interaction between migrants and the police takes place: during raids on their place of residence or work, or during identity checks on the street. Raids are usually a way to prove to the government or political authorities that something is being done: local policemen (uchastkovye) usually know where migrants live and work, and have no problems in getting warrants if there is an order from above to detain migrants. On the street, police resort to different pretexts to arrest migrants: accusations of using false documents; arguing that the migrant looks like a wanted criminal (orientirovka). According to the authors, the fact that the police use violence during these interactions has been recognized even by the MVD, although the institution sees this merely as exceeding authority (prevyshenie polnomochii) rather than as a criminal act. For the authors, policemen may resort to violence if they do not get what they want (money), or if the person they have detained starts to behave in what they see as an “unacceptable” way (talks about his rights or speaks “disrespectfully”). Violence is also used in police precincts as a means of securing a confession.

8The authors also reflect on explanations of racism in the police (see Chapter IX by Gladarev and Chapter VI by Khozhdaeva). They point first to the role of public discourse and the media and socially dominant ethno-stereotypes, that may be actualized through the personal and professional experience of policemen. In Tatarstan, for example, they clearly distinguish among ethnic minorities: those who are close (“svoi”, mainly people from neighbouring regions); and “strangers” (“chuzhie”, mainly people from Caucasus and Central Asia. Media coverage of migration and nationalist attacks hint at a more generally “tolerant” atmosphere towards migrants in Tatarstan (see Chapter VII by Sagitova & Khozhdaeva). Though migrants in Kazan feel vulnerable, they stress that the population has a more tolerant stance, maybe due to the fact that the language and/or the religion of migrants from Central Asia and Azerbaijan are ‘close’ to those of the Tatar population. Moreover, the official discourse of “harmonious cohabitation” between different nationalities in Tatarstan may also have an influence. While in St Petersburg the majority of policemen are Slavs, the multinational composition of society in Tatarstan is also reflected in the composition of the police (either people from the country or from neighbouring Republics) and Tatar nationalism does not find widespread support among policemen.

9I would suggest that the difference noted between Tatarstan and St Petersburg can also be linked with the conditions of observation. Sociologists working in Kazan witnessed neither police aggression against migrants nor bribery and extortion which may have led to an underestimation of the extent of these practices: police certainly behaved differently in the presence of the researchers who also did not take part in police raids. By contrast, in St Petersburg interviewees who mentioned these practices may have overstated their frequency: incidents of normal interaction with the police are not remembered, whilst memories of problematic ones (extortions, violence) are somewhat amplified. In fact, the use of the term “racism” (which suggests personal opinions or attitude) to describe police attitudes does not seem as relevant as the notion of “discrimination”, which describes mainly discriminatory practices. Indeed, the authors stress several times that police discriminatory practices are due not to personal dispositions or opinions, but to political orders on the one hand and economic incentives on the other.

10Policemen may have nothing personal against migrants and some local police even stress that migrants are “quiet” and do not create as many problems as drunkards or drug users. As one of the interviewees (a police lieutenant) says: “Frankly, I don’t have anything against migrants, but if there is an operation to fight against them, against illegal migrants, I arrest them. I have to arrest them. Otherwise, I will be punished, I will simply not get my money, if I won’t catch and record them” (p 431). Campaigns launched by political authorities against specific groups provide the police with a signal from above that their rights are no longer guaranteed. Moreover, it creates a closed circle of culpability: as policemen are given the order to look closely at one group, there are statistically more infractions discovered in this group; these statistics, in turn, “prove” that the targeting of this group was justified. However, the main reason for using discriminatory practices appears to be economic. Migrants become a target for policemen who try to compensate for their low salaries by bribery on the street or by systematic extortion (for the right to trade on a market for example). The authors argue that ethnic migrants are not the only group to be targeted, and that other socially non-protected groups (such as young people) can become victim of illegal practices or police violence. Ethnic origin, though, plays the role of “additional mark” (dopolnitelnyi marker), and ethnic migrants are more “convenient” to target: “with them, it’s really easy. It’s written on their face, where they come from” (interview with a former police lieutenant, p 182).

11Several parts of the book are also dedicated to the strategy migrants adopt towards the police (see in particular Chapter V by Tsinman & Gladarev and Chapter VI by Khozhdaeva). Although following a primary strategy to avoid contact with police, migrants seek an understanding (common language) with the police through different strategies (for example they look for a protector within the police or to establish good relations with uchastkovye by giving small presents or services). They also point at the misunderstandings that can arise, when a migrant sees as an “exchange of services” what is seen by the policemen as a “tribute”. The authors note that the strategy may be different depending on the status of the person, and especially if the ethnic migrant has Russian citizenship. Although ethnic migrants who have a Russian passport usually chose to comply silently with police demands, some may adopt a more active position, talk about their rights, complain or go to court. Generally though, migrant workers who came for a short time have neither time nor money to go to courts, do not know the law and do not believe in the efficiency of law and juridical actions. The parts of the book dedicated to interactions between migrants and police are very well documented and explored in depth, with precise cases used to support the argument. The gender aspect of these interactions, though, could have been addressed more specifically – the kind of behaviour expected from a man or a woman migrant is certainly different and police reaction towards them may be different also.

12In conclusion, the authors bring forward an interesting hypothesis: the interactions between police and migrants are defined as contacts between two marginalised groups, which lead to “redistribution of resources” on the street. Migrants are marginalised from an economic and legal point of view, but interestingly the authors argue that policemen can also be described this way: low salaries, contempt on the part of the population, difficult conditions of work, housing problems, loss of status and social guarantees. Though it may appear controversial from a human rights perspective, this idea seems convincing from a sociological point of view. Nevertheless, the comparison cannot be taken too far without underlining one essential difference between these “marginal” groups: as state agents, the police hold and exercise the “legitimate” or at least the “legal” monopoly on violence conferred by the state.

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Electronic reference

Amandine Regamey, V. Voronkov, B. Gladarev, L. Sagitova, Militsiia i etnicheskie migranty: praktiki vzaimodeistviia [Police and ethnic migrants: practices of interaction] The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 13 | 2012, Online since 17 July 2012, connection on 02 March 2024. URL:; DOI:

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Amandine Regamey

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