Kondopoga, Karelia, Russia

Those who follow Russian affairs have probably heard of the “riots” that broke out after August 30, in Kondopoga — a small town in the Republic of Karelia with a population of about 35,000. The sparse indigenous population of Karelia was probably Finno-Ugric. Slavs began settling in the area at least as early as in the 14th century; in the 15th century, those lands were annexed by Novgorod. When the Novgorod republic fell, the area came under Moscow rule. Later on, Finns (or Karelians) fleeing Swedish occupation settled in that part of Karelia. Today, most Kondopogans identify themselfs as Russian, Karelian, or Finnish. The Kondopoga district (pop. 47,500) is one of Karelia’s major industrial centers. It produces paper, timber, facing and broken stone, electric power and food.

Using Russian online sources, including internet forumes and LiveJournal.com postings, I have tried to understand what actually happened in Kondopoga in the late August and early September of 2006.

  1. On August 30, a restaurant brawl escalated into a fight between Chechen clansmen/mafiosi and a bunch of Russians, some of whom had a criminal record. The Chechens, having a numerical advantage of 5 to 1, ended up killing two or three or four Russians.

  2. The news of the killing and the unfair fight spread around the town. Kondopogans rallied in the town square demanding that people “from the Caucasus” (such as Chechens) be deported from their town. Specifically, they wanted the town hall to remove ethnic traders from the local farmer’s market, where they had a monopoly. Several members of the so-called Movement Against Illegal Immigration flew in from Moscow to support the locals.

  3. About a hundred young men left the town square and, heated by alcohol, rushed to set fire to the restaurant where it all started, owned by a “Caucasus ethnic.” (Likely not a Chechen. A telling detail though — a few years ago, the owner’s son shot a Russian girl and walked free.) Later, the violence spread over to the outskirts, where shops and other businesses owned by ethnics (and, incidentally, locals) were smashed up and burned.

  4. Riot police (OMON) interfered (in a brutal way, as usual) and detained about 100 young men. Locals resented the fact that the police failed to protect the Russians at the onset but rushed in to save “Caucasian” property.

  5. Reportedly, all “Caucasian ethnics” left town during the rioting.

My conclusions?

  1. Ethnic tensions no doubt existed in Kondopoga as elsewhere in Russia, ethnic and class boundaries often coinciding: tightly-knit immigrant communities control retail trade and services, while most locals are hired hands at local plants. (There seems to be a conflict of mentalities and customs between the clannish “ethnics” and the atomistic Russians and Finns, but I would not go this far now.)

  2. The influence of the Chechen mafia can be inferred from this quote: “The Chechen community, at the request of the Governor of Karelia, has delivered to the police three of its members suspected of murdering two Kondopogans.” This is what the Governor himself said while in town. One would think the Chechen “diaspora” is a state within a state, agreeing to extradite its own upon no less than the Governor’s personal request.

  3. The fact that Kondopogans gathered to demand that the city authorities do something, and managed to present a list of demands, is extremely positive. Civil society and grassroot democracy are not dead yet in the Russian North. The fact that some of their demands were anti-Constitutional is less encouraging.

  4. The riot itself is deeply deplorable and will have negative consequences for grassroot democracy in Russia, having compromised it. Luckily, there have been no reports of “Caucasians” killed by the mobs.

  5. The flight of the “Caucasians” must have sent a powerful signal: violence can work, despite the costs. On the other hand, the market niches vacated by “ethnics” in Kondopoga are likely to be filled by local mini-mafias. Whether local consumers will benefit is doubtful. At least, class and ethnic boundaries will diverge then.

  6. It is not at clear if Kondopogans realize that their most dangerous enemy is bureaucracy on all levels, including the mayor’s office — without complicity from the local authorities, ethnic mafias would not have gained a foothold there. Human nature is such that tribal hatred incites humans to action more effectively than do other, less barbarian motivations.

  7. The Kremlin is going to benefit from this in more than one way. First, the riots were suppressed with enough force to send a strong message about Moscow’s ability to maintain law and order. Second, opponents of mass immigration will be condemned, once again, as the rioters’ accessories and/or ideologues. Third, the riots conveniently take attention away from the Beslan anniversary and inquiries into the ill-fated rescue. Fourth, Kondopoga provided Moscow with valuable experience of dealing with violent popular resistance. Fifth, citizens’ attempts at solving local issues locally, by pressuring local governments for instance, will be smeared as inexorably leading to violence of an ugliest kind… and so on.

  8. In two words, people in Russia will rebel when pushed to a critical point — not by economic factors, as Kondopoga is not a depressive town — but poorly organized and easily provoked, they have no chance.

As for press coverage, the “persecuted minority” factor ensures that the well-meaning, liberal Western media are picturing the riots as an unprovoked attack on defenseless immigrants. AP, for one, carried a misleading report by Mike Eckel. On the other hand, The Moscow Times published a meaningful account. The Russian TV showed signs of indecision, as if not knowing how to interpret the story, and was reserved in its reporting — as of yesterday, at least.


  1. ALEXEI:

    I compliment you on your attempt to point the finger of blame at Russian racists and the Russian authorities who govern them (and who the Russian people are responsible for). But in apparently trying to tell some sort of “even handed” account of this disaster you lose sight of the truth.

    At the outset, I’d like to observe that if the only way Russians will “rebel” is in a racist frenzy that doesn’t leave much hope for Russia at all.

    It’s rather surprising that you think you can, by reading “internet forums and LiveJournal.com postings” come up with a better, more reliable account of the events than the Associated Press, which had direct contact with various officials. I find it rather disappointing that you don’t link to any of your “sources” or make any warning to readers that you have no idea who they are are and whether they are reliable.

    I’m particularly shocked and disappointed by your statement “About a hundred young men left the town square and, heated by alcohol, rushed to set fire to the restaurant where it all started, owned by a ‘Caucasus ethnic.’ (Likely not a Chechen. A telling detail though — a few years ago, the owner’s son shot a Russian girl and walked free.)” This has all the hallmarks of Slavic Racism! When will you ignorant Slavs realize that the term “Russian” means citizen of Russia, and a dark-skinned man from Chechnya can be just as much a “Russian” as a white-skinned Slavic woman from Moscow? It’s simply outrageous, moreover, that you repeat this statement, which could well be racist propaganda, without citing to ANY source material to back it up. Frankly, I think it’s outrageous that you would accuse the AP of being misleading without having source material to back up your own claims. It’s incredibly hypocritical.

    Your “conclusion” that “the fact that Kondopogans gathered to demand that the city authorities do something, and managed to present a list of demands, is extremely positive” is simply weird. There’s nothing about this alleged “fact” in your account of the events, it only pops up in the conclusion. Even if you could document this with a source (how dare you not?), to praise the town that has just gone on a frezny of racist violence is hardly appropriate. You ought to be condemning their outrageous conduct, not seeking to rationalize and explain it. Until Russians learn to do so, this kind of outrage will only get worse.

    How would you like it if Germans, writing an account of the Battle of Stalingrad, had seen fit to include accounts of various Russian mafia figures and other criminals that their soldiers had killed, and references to the various outrages committed against Germans at various times by Russians? Would those items really be appropriate in helping deal with the obliteration of the city in an act of aggression?

    In short, your comment goes a long way to explaining why Russians are so helpless in dealing with problems like this.

  2. I am not pointing my finger at “Russian racists”, nor do I suggest that Russian authorities are directing them. I find violence deplorable and unacceptable unless in self-defense.

    I find first-hand accounts, which I can only find on Internet forums and blogs, more reliable than press reports. I am under no obligation to provide sources, as this is not a scholarly paper, nor do I have the time to link to every page I visit. Having blogged for more than three years, I expect my readers to trust my word. Do your own research and check up my facts and conclusions if you so wish.

    I used the word “Russian” where I could have used “ethnically Russian” because the intended meaning should be quite clear. But as I am but an ignorant Slav in your own words, I see no point in further arguing with an enlightened lady of high moral principles like you, whose extraordinarly polite, balanced and impersonal comments are no longer welcome on this ignorant Slav’s blog.

  3. Alexei my dear, for someone who calls for “intelligent” dialogue you have a lot to learn. You have ABOLUTELY NO IDEA WHATSOEVER whether the people who wrote in those forums were first-hand witnesses or not. You have no idea WHO THEY ARE. They are often anonymous and always totally unaccountable for their words, unlike the Associated Press. They could very easily be Russian racists seeking to spew out propaganda. I can’t believe you can repeat something about a girl being killed with NO PROOF WHATSOEVER. It’s the height of irresponsibility and it is the height of hypocrisy for you to do so while attacking others for reducing the quality of discussion.

    What’s more, you don’t mention a single specific fact in the Associated Press report which you can prove is inaccurate. It’s grossly irresponsible for you to claim they are misleading when you fail to give any specifics or proof.

  4. Dear La Russophobe,

    I think you need to spend more time on the internet so that you can understand what this medium is. It’s a medium where people publish tid bits of information, musings on topics of interest to them, and analyses and reports of varying degrees of accuracy and depth.

    The ethics of bloggers vary considerably but ethics are hard to see. What one can see is the presence or absence of a modicum of thought and attention to detail. As the very first report on this incident that I have read, I thought it informative and fair minded and, guess what? I consider it a START in any endeavor to understand it. I don’t consider it to be the dernier cri on the matter and I don’t feel obligated to swallow every factual assertion as God’s Only Truth.

    Your own blog is quite impressive and the tone you use there is a far cry from the insulting one you have used with “Russian Dilletante.”

    Why resort to such excesses and ad hominems as these:

    You lose sight of the truth.

    This has all the hallmarks of Slavic Racism!

    Shocked and disappointed.

    You ignorant Slavs.

    Simply outrageous.

    Incredibly hypocritical. (Ordinary hypocrisy OK?)

    Your “conclusion.” (It wasn’t a conclusion?)

    Simply weird.

    Alleged fact.

    How dare you?

    You have a lot to learn.


    The height of irresponsibility.

    The height of hypocrisy.

    Grossly irresponsible for you to claim?

    Perhaps we could have RD taken out and shot for wild and crazy racist blogging. After the horsewhipping, of course.

    RD’s post may prove later to be riven with inaccuracies but it is immediately apparent that your comment is ill mannered and quite beneath the thoughtful person that I think your blog shows you to be.

    Btw, what “races” were involved in this incident?

  5. Hullo, Bunny:

    Thanks for your kind comments about my blog!

    I don’t think you fully understand the context of this discussion. On Sean’s Russia blog and on this one (and for all I know elsewhere), Alexei has accused various traditional media and various bloggers of being irresponsible with facts. In this context, I find his attempt to use undocumented rumors from Russian blogs (not even blogs, forums really) to be outrageous and personally offensive. What’s more, on other blogs Alexei has made specific personal derogatory comments about me.

    Moreover, I’m extremely disturbed by the particular reference to the alleged murder of a little girl based on such breathtakingly flimsy sources. Alexei didn’t say “here’s some additional info you might want to consider” he said “here’s the truth.” I find that language just as offensive as any of the language you quote me using.

    Part of my goal in the blogosphere is to demand credible sourcing, and to demand that bloggers warn readers when the material they rely on are questionable. Alexei makes no attempt to do this here. This outrages me, and when I’m outraged, I show it. That’s just me being me; what’s more, it’s a harsh memorable sanction that will make offenders think twice before repeating their errors. They have to know somebody is watching who will hurt them if they go too far; this is for the good of the blogosphere.

    You’ll notice that to date Alexei has made no attempt to further substantiate his claim about the little girl; for all we know, he’s repeating the false claim of a Slavic racist put out for propaganda reasons, and he makes no attempt to warn his lay readers about this fact.

    I take your point about going too far with language and I shall bear it in mind. However, if you notice, nobody else has raised the unquestionably serious issue of Alexei’s sources using any tone. If someone else had, I’d have adopted a different approach.

  6. Hello, LR.

    You’re right, I don’t understand the context. I apologize for the tone of my comment. I can see why you would be testy about someone who has made derogatory comments about you. I’ll take your word for that and I mean no sarcasm by that.

    I agree about sourcing. I try to do that on my blog. I get truly weary about exchanges with friends that involve the use of unsourced assertions. Not everything needs to be sourced, but some of the current political debates — say on the issues of what was said about WMD prior to the invasion of Iraq and what existing intel told policymakers — are hopelessly confused because there is no exactitude.

    Welcome to life, Colonel.

    I asked about the races involved because “racist” is a term that is used with abandon to describe nothing but air or to shut down someone with an irritating opinion. I don’t see how “racism” or “racist” are terms that can be used to refer to Slavs, who are Caucasians, are they not? Ditto, the Chechens. Are they not Caucasians too?

    There might be ethnic or religious prejudice operating, but that is not the same thing as racism.

    I did see a report in Johnson’s Russia List (Russiablog.org. September 13, 2006: “In the Absence of Rule of Law ­ Xenophobia and Vigilantism.” By Yuri Mamchur. He mentions the Chechen owner of the restaurant having gotten away with not getting license plates for his auto for two weeks. No mention, of course, of the murder of any little girl. That town seems to be one on the edge of anarchy for a long time and the cops sound hopelessly ineffective or bought off. If Alexei got the specifics wrong (the girl) it sounds like he was accurately reporting the general phenomenon of bribery’s buying freedom from too much police scrutiny or interference.

    Thanks for clarifying the background of all of this. I think you were guilty of some hyperbole but I can understand why you would have gotten up a good head of steam. I hope Alexei can provide the source of his info.

    Best wishes.

  7. BUNNY:

    I’m glad to know about your high standards; if you ever blog anything about Russia, be sure to let me know, I may want to crosspost or link to it. There’s nothing I enjoy more than being read by intelligent tough critics.

    I’d be careful about citing Yuri Mamchur. He has extremely dubious qualifications, as you can see if you read the post about him in my sidebar under “Russophiles.” He’s often quite loose with source material himself.

    As you can see, so far no luck with Alexei providing furher support, as I feared. 🙁

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