Even by the standards of Moscow's xenophobic thugs it was a horrific attack: A group of skinheads gunned down Tajik migrant Salokhiddin Azizov on a Moscow region street, cut off his head and emailed a picture of the gruesome trophy to rights groups.
This week, Azizov was buried in his mountain village — a funeral in which mourners' grief mixed with rage. "They ... cursed Moscow," Azizov's uncle, Rakhmatsho, told The Associated Press on Thursday by telephone.
Like millions of others from impoverished former Soviet republics, the 20-year-old Azizov, who was killed Dec. 5, fled poverty for a low-paying job in Moscow's once-booming economy. Now, experts say, the rapidly spreading economic crisis — Russia's worst in a decade — has triggered a spike in hate attacks against non-Slavic migrants with Asian or Middle-Eastern features.
More than 100 foreigners have been killed in apparent hate attacks this year, four times more than in 2004, according to the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights.
"There is a direct link between the crisis and the surge in violence," said Gavkhar Jurayeva, who runs a Moscow human rights center working with Central Asian labor migrants.
Azizov's killers, who are still at large, warned of more violence unless the Kremlin expels what they called the "black occupiers."
The pain is traveling across Russia's 11 time zones, but the crisis has landed with particular ferocity on the 10 million migrants working in hundreds of Russian towns and cities. They've made this country the world's biggest destination for labor migrants after the United States.
Migrants work in construction and agriculture, sweep streets and collect garbage, baby-sit or serve food in urban centers, oil-rich Siberian regions or the alcoholism-plagued countryside. They have suffered a surge in physical and verbal abuse, delayed or unpaid salaries and layoffs.
"I move through Moscow like a hunted beast," said Kyrgyz migrant Ovazbek Imonaliyev, 23, who hides his face with distinct Asian features in a hooded black coat.
The hostility to foreigners appears increasingly to come with the blessing of the state.
The youth wing of United Russia, the country's dominant political party, rallied in Moscow recently to demand expulsion of "illegals" and ban their return.
"We can't talk about being politically correct in this situation," criminologist Mikhail Vinogradov was quoted as telling the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta on Nov. 21. "We have to protect our citizens first."
'A crowd of barbarians'
Meanwhile, activists say, the state-controlled media portray migrants as criminals in order to divert anger over the financial crisis away from authorities to foreigners.
"Migrants are seen as a crowd of barbarians who, once deprived of jobs and wages, will turn into a horde of rapists and killers," said Geidar Jemal, a Moscow-based Muslim scholar.
Skinheads have prowled Russia's urban centers for years, spraying walls with ultranationalist slogans and beating up dark-skinned foreigners. But the violence has picked up alarmingly as the economic bust threatens the jobs of millions of Russians.
With oil prices below $40 a barrel, Russia's energy-powered economy is sputtering.
Big industrial companies are shedding jobs, trimming production and slashing work hours. Construction has halted on building projects across the country. Unemployment jumped by 400,000 from October to November to 5 million nationwide, while industrial production plummeted by 10.8 percent over the same period.
Until recent months, Moscow suffered a labor shortage. Now there are almost 21,000 unemployed in the city, according to government statistics, and 1,200 workers lost their jobs in Russia's once-roaring capital in the second week of December alone.
The attacks and the dwindling work have been driving migrant workers back home — and the exodus of frustrated and jobless people brings the prospect of turmoil across much of the former Soviet Union, especially in Central Asia where most of the migrants come from.
Remittances — the money migrants send home to their families — are critical to the economies of many former Soviet nations, and they are drying up as workers leave.
An army of 'guest workers'
About 1.5 million of Tajikistan's population of 7 million work in Russia, and their remittances amount to about two-fifths of the country's GDP, the World Bank said. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Georgia also rely heavily on citizens who work abroad.
Moldova, Europe's poorest country, depends on remittances from the 2 million Moldovans working in Russia for almost 40 percent of its GDP. Deputy prime minister Igor Dodon told the Interfax news agency that half a million labor migrants from Moldova will return before the year's end.
Almost a quarter of Moscow's 2 million-strong army of "guest workers" have left, city lawmaker Mikhail Solomentsev said. Anelik, one of Russia's largest money-transfer agents, reported a 30 percent decrease in remittances from Russia this fall compared to the same period in 2007.
To the relatives of beheaded migrant Azizov, the grim reality of life in rural Tajikistan leaves them no choice but to seek work elsewhere.
Jamshed Azizov, who he was shot twice by the same gang that killed his brother, plans to return to Russia once he recovers, relatives said.
"There are no jobs to be found in our village," his uncle Rakhmatsho said.