ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – It was intended as a friendly guide to Russia for labor migrants from Central Asia, but instead it turned into an insult. The brochure with practical advice on how to deal with border guards, police and other authorities was illustrated with depictions of migrant workers as paint brushes, brooms and other tools of low-skilled work.
The anger exploded this week. The government of Tajikistan formally urged Russian authorities to remove the book from circulation, and representatives of the Uzbek community voiced their outrage.
Activists see the book, published in Russia's second largest city, as a reflection of the discrimination against the growing number of impoverished, mostly Muslim, migrants in Russia who are working construction, cleaning offices, sweeping the streets and collecting the garbage.
"It's xenophobia pure and clear," said Lev Ponomaryov, a veteran Russian human rights defender. "They show residents of St. Petersburg as humans and depict migrants as construction tools."
Even though "A Labor Migrant's Handbook" was promoted on a city government website, authorities denied any connection to the publication when outrage erupted after bloggers discovered it and publicized it online last week. A non-government organization that published 10,000 copies of the book in the Russian, Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik languages insisted it just wanted to provide useful information about everyday life in Russia.
"We didn't mean to insult anyone with this brochure — on the contrary, we aimed to help labor migrants learn about their rights and avoid getting into trouble in this city," said Gleb Panfilov, deputy head of the Look into the Future group that published the book.
Panfilov said his group had people from the ex-Soviet nations of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan look at the proofs prior to publication and received no complaints. He said he couldn't understand the public outrage now, many months after its release.
But in a country where dark-complexioned migrants are commonly victims of hate crimes and frequently live in miserable conditions, others are not surprised by the anger.
Alimzhan Khaidarov, the leader of the Uzbek community in St. Petersburg, said he was offended by the brochure. "They compared us, representatives of the ancient Uzbek culture, with construction tools. And not only us, but also representatives of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan," Khaidarov told The Associated Press.
He said rights groups representing migrants from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan will consider filing a lawsuit against the publisher.
On Monday, the Tajik government denounced the brochure as insulting and asked Russian authorities to stop its distribution, according to the Interfax news agency.
More than 1 million of the impoverished ex-Soviet nation's 7-million population live and work in Russia, and money they sent home totaled around $3 billion in 2011, equivalent to around half of the mountainous nation's gross domestic product. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan also have been major exporters of labor to Russia.
Uzbek activist, Suratbek Abdurakhimov, called the publication an ethical mistake. "They should have consulted with representatives of the diasporas before the publication and found a more appropriate way to give the information," he said. He added that he was against giving the issue too much publicity to avoid fueling xenophobic sentiments among local residents.
"Local people are already to a certain extent irritated with migrants. Why irritate them more?," he asked.
Though hate attacks in Russia peaked in 2008, when 115 people were killed and nearly 500 wounded, according to Sova, an independent watchdog, the numbers are still high. A police crackdown on neo-Nazi groups helped stem the tide, but Sova said 20 people were killed and at least 130 others were wounded in racially motivated crimes last year.
The labor migrants often suffer from horrific labor conditions, a complete lack of social protection and medical care.
"The government has done nothing to protect their rights," Ponomaryov said. "There has been nothing but words."
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.