Attacks of this type are not unusual, especially in Moscow. Research by the Centre for Eastern Studies shows that ethnically-motivated violence and xenophobia are way up.
According to official data, 267 people were attacked in 2004 in racist incidents with 49 deaths. In 2006 that number rose to 552 (56 dead) and in 2007 the figure was 634 (68 dead).
Big cities like Moscow and St Petersburg are especially affected.
The main victims are people from the Caucasus and Central Asia, followed by migrants from the rest of Asia (in particular Chinese and Vietnamese).
However, the figures are thought to be much higher because many attacks are not reported if the victim does not end up in hospital.
A survey by the Levada Center, a private public opinion institute, showed that in 1995 a majority of the Russians (nearly 57 per cent) were opposed to the slogan of ‘Russia for the Russians’.
Since 2000 the trend has changed with a majority of Russians backing that idea. Less than 30 per cent were firmly opposed to it.
In 2006 the idea of Russia for Russians was particularly appealing among the 16-28 year old (53 per cent), lower-income respondents (53 per cent) and people living in small towns and villages (53 per cent). In big cities 47 per cent agreed with the idea; in Moscow, only 43 per cent did.
Another survey by Levada found that the military, police and Interior Ministry personnel are the professional group with the highest level of negative attitudes towards immigrants.
People from Russia’s closest neighbours, migrants from former Soviet republics, especially those from the Caucasus, are the most disliked even if they have Russian citizenship. As a group they are referred to as ‘Kavkaztsy’ in everyday language, or derisively called ‘blacks’, despite their diverse ethnic and national background.
At the start of the millennium less than half of the Russian population favoured restrictions on Caucasians. In 2005 more than 70 per cent of the Russian public did. In 2006, nearly one Russian in four was in favour of prohibiting access to some restaurants for members of these groups.
Why these trends? Recent national conflicts in the Caucasus are an important reason. Few in Russian have forgotten terrorism by Chechen groups.
The rise of ultranationalist movements inside the country and the ambiguities of Russia’s leadership are other factors. Leaders in the Kremlin have in fact not shied away from playing the nationalist card.
At the same time foreign migrants are increasingly present in some parts of the country. In Moscow for example one newly born child in 15 had foreign parents in 2008.
It is also estimated that every year about 4.6 million people come to Russia to work illegally; nearly 80 per cent of them from former Soviet republics countries.
Foreign migrants, who have come to Russia to flee hunger and build a future for themselves, are usually underpaid but they are no longer passively putting with intolerance.
In some regions, especially in southern Russia, ethnic Russian youth and gangs made of young people from other countries, especially from the Caucasus, have become embroiled in street fights.
In May 2007 for example a young Chechen was killed in a fight; several days later, two Russian students were killed.