Jewish refugees from strife-ridden areas in the Caucasus have been harassed by local police at an outdoor market here where many of them work as vendors.
Forty Jews from the Caucasus who work as vendors were beaten two weeks ago by police and dragged off on foot across Moscow to a police station.
Although the refugees were later released without being charged, the incident highlighted both the existence of the market and the general vulnerability of refugees from the Caucasus.
People whose appearance testifies to their Azerbaijani, Chechen or Georgian roots can be stopped and searched by a police officer on the street.
Hundreds of Jews from the Caucasus have found a refuge in the Russian capital, where they earn their living as vendors.
The outdoor market in the Moscow district of Izmaylovo is run by a group of these Jews, most of whom came for the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan or from the Russian region of Chechnya, where Russian troops were dispatched some 10 months ago to prevent local forces from creating a breakaway republic.
Commonly known as Mountain Jews, these refugees have been fleeing from the Caucasus since the late 1980s, when ethnic conflicts in the region broke out after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“After the clashes in the Caucasus evolved into the armed conflicts, no room was left for us in the region. Naturally, the Jews were not willing to give preference to any of the parties in these conflicts,” says Yomtov Shamailov, chairman of the Moscow Sephardi congregation.
The market became known to Moscow’s Jews only after it was closed on Yom Kippur – the only example of publicly expressed Jewish observance in the city.
The police raid on the market was organized under the pretext of a routine passport check.
The vendors said that besides being beaten, they were searched and robbed at the police station.
They also said police had no grounds to take them in when they could have easily checked their papers at the market.
The Moscow police chief refused to comment on the incident, saying that his subordinates “occasionally have to be engaged in dirty work.”
The situation of the Mountain Jews here has worsened this year because of war in Chechnya. Authorities here are afraid of possible outbreaks of Chechen terrorism in Moscow.
At the same time, being Jewish may be more advantageous than not.
Semyon, a 39-year-old Jewish refugee from the Chechen capital of Grozny who did not want his last name to be used, said that whenever he is stopped by police he makes a point of displaying as quickly as possible the word “Jew,” which is marked in his passport.
Old Soviet passports that indicate the bearer’s ethnic origin are still valid in Russia.
“Police here are convinced that Jews from the Caucasus have no links to the Chechen Mafia and terrorists, so when I show I’m Jewish I won’t be searched or harassed,” he said. “They believe we have lots of money, so a few dollars will always help.”
“It distresses me to think that my three young sons will never see the graves of four generations of our family that lie in the Jewish cemetery in Grozny,” he said.
“After the war broke out, the cemetery was sown with mines.”