Tag Archives: Medvedev

Racism in Russia

As I was hanging out by the Gulf of Finland recently, a Russian acquaintance engaged me in a conversation about U.S. politics.

“Do you think Obama can solve the U.S. economic crisis,” he asked.

“I think he’s working hard on it – I think he has a good chance,” I responded.

“But,” the Russian persisted, “Obama is black.”

This exchange wasn’t the first time I’ve heard Russians question Obama’s competence based on his ethnicity (though I have relatively few conversations with Russians, in part due to my limited Russian skills).

More broadly, it fits into a pattern of racist attitudes held by some (but certainly not all) Russians towards people who are not white Europeans.

The media has overlooked this attitude, even as newspapers and TV stations have reported on Obama’s efforts to improve relations with Russia as he visits Moscow.

But for those harmed by Russian racism, this pernicious social fact cannot be overlooked.

Visibly foreign students, particularly Africans and Asians, sometimes face harassment and even violence in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities, as documented by the BBC in several 2006 articles.

A lot of the violence is perpetrated by Neo-Nazis, such as the ones described in this TIME article. But the attitude goes beyond the skinheads.

There are also the subtle looks at minorities, the passing comments made about people from “the south” (Largely Muslims from Russia’s southern regions and the bordering former Soviet republics), the police harassment (see this article, for example), the recoiling of subway passengers from dark-skinned people, the racist chants targeting black players at Zenit football matches — all of which make Russia an unfriendly place for those who are not white.

One of our Russian teachers, a middle-aged woman, began class by asking each of her students what we had done the week before.

After we finished describing the museums we had visited, she said, “It’s great that you get out. The Chinese students never go anywhere. Only to the store.”

The same teacher also told us about the “problem” Russia has. People from “the south,” she said, are moving into St. Petersburg and other major cities and giving birth to many children. She worried that these people (who are strong and able to produce lots of kids because they don’t drink, as she put it), will soon outnumber white Russians.

So what the heck are you doing over there?

It’s been a while since I last wrote about what I’ve been doing in Russia. And those posts were only about gross potato chips and an interesting police encounter—nothing too exciting. So it looks like I owe you a post about what I’ve been up to for the past week).

Saturday,I went to a Zenit soccer (football) game in Petrovski Stadium. Zenit, St. Petersburg’s team, beat Kuban Kransodar 2-0 in an exciting match on a day with perfect soccer-watching weather. Sunny and warm.

To get into Petrovski Stadium, you have to pass through three police checkpoints. At the first, they search your bags. At the second, they search you. And at the third, bunches of police officers, dogs leashed, check you over again to be really, really sure that you’re not dangerous. While this didn’t dim the mood too much for the rowdy crowd, it’s definitely a reminder that you’re in Russia.

Zenit is not as good as the team has been in years past, but that didn’t stop the crowd from cheering and waving massive flags. And it also didn’t stop the mildly intoxicated, shirtless, middle-aged Russian man sitting next to us from yelling thing that I’d rather not print in this blog. I’ll give you a hint though—some of them involved the mothers of the opposing team.

It was on the way back from this game that I got stopped by the Russian police officer, as I wrote about earlier.

Most of the week since has been filled with homework, making food, sleeping, and the other regularities of daily life in any place. Homework, in particular, took up a lot of time this week. We read a 4-page Chekhov story, At the Dacha, which took hours of dictionary-fueled deciphering.

Once I figured it all out, I got a good laugh out of the story (No, I won’t tell you why. Go read it.). But looking up every word in every sentence tends to drain the love out of reading.

We’ve also been delving into every Russian student’s favorite subject: verbs of motion. Russia has different verbs for going long and short distances, by boat, or by plane, which also vary if you’re leading, driving, carrying, or taking an object by vehicle. And then, each multi-directional verb also has a unidirectional partner (you use one verb if you’re making a round-trip, a related one if you’re going one way). If that’s not enough there are a bevy of prefixes that can be affixed to any of these verbs, adding meanings such as entering, going to a large number of different places, or going a short distance back from a specific location.

We’ve been practicing by using these verbs, mostly jokingly, to describe our trips around the city. “We went by foot to the metro. We crossed to the correct platform. We entered the train. We took the train three stations… and went to a Duran Duran concert.”

The Duran Duran concert is no joke though.

Some genius party planner decided that the best way to celebrate the start of the International Economic Forum—a high-level (think Putin and Medvedev) conference being held in St. Petersburg on business innovation and the Russian and global economic crises—is to throw a giant, beer company-sponsored, free concert in the center of St. Petersburg, right next to the Hermitage art museum.

And what better band to bring a bunch of politicians (there was, of course, a VIP section) and economists to than the English rockers Duran Duran? I mean, there’s nothing an economist loves more than an 80’s flashback.

Unfortunately, Duran Duran was greeted by cold and rainy weather. So while the band tried to get the umbrella-toting crowd dancing (yes, we went), they must’ve felt like a bunch of American economists (or Russian central bankers) cutting interest rates to try to get the economy movin’ (or in Russia’s case, because runaway inflation is easing).

That’s the last financial crisis joke. I swear.

We only stayed for a few songs at the Thursday night concert—basically, long enough to say that we had, indeed, been to a Duran Duran show in St. Petersburg. We even got to hear the smash hit “Hungry Like the Wolf.”

In touch with the ground
I’m on the hunt, I’m after you
Smell like I sound, I’m lost in a crowd
And I’m hungry like the wolf.

And no, I have no frickin’ idea what “smell like I sound” means either.

Russia tries to control interpretations of its past

For the Soviet Union, history was always a touchy subject. The state derived its legitimacy, at least in part, from a historical narrative that portrayed the Bolshevik revolutionaries as embodying the aspirations of the vast majority of Russians—not as a minority imposing their will through violence.

The Soviet Union couldn’t even stomach criticism that avoided the state’s founding myths. Soviet historian Roy Medvedev was harassed and expelled from the Communist party in the late 1960’s for writing a book critical of Stalin, for instance. There was one acceptable version of history—the one that suited the interests of the state.

And now, it seems the Russian government is working to shape the past once again. The St. Petersburg Times reports Russian President Dmitri Medvedev is creating a committee charged with “collecting and analyzing information about attempts to diminish Russia’s prestige by falsifying history.”

The initiative may simply be a piece in formulating a broader, more coherent national approach to Soviet-era history, particularly the Stalin era (sort of a curriculum standardization). Or it may be a political move, with little real effect. Of course, it could also have real consequences for the study of history in Russia.

Analysts quoted by the St. Petersburg Times seemed to have differing opinions. One believes that the committee may open more archives to researchers, making it beneficial in the long run. Another analyst, however, said the committee might lead to, “defense of the historical myth about Russia in the interests of the country’s rulers.”

Among Russians, memories of the Communist era are mixed.

While the horror of Stalin’s reign is acknowledged, there are still mixed feelings towards him here. Stalin embarked on massive purges and collectivized agriculture, killing millions, but also pursued large-scale industrialization and defeated the Nazis.

The text at the Museum of the Political History of Russia in St. Petersburg—a glimpse into how the state wishes to present its past—is quite critical of Stalin and his purges. But it does not mention some of the most undeniably evil portions of his reign. The Holodomor famine that occurred in the early 1930s in Ukraine, killing millions, is absent. Stalin’s aggressive collectivization of agriculture led to the famine, and Ukrainians consider the famine to be a genocide committed against their people. Russia rejects this claim.

In a related development, Russia’s parliament is likely to pass a bill that would criminalize criticism of the actions of the Red Army during World War II, the St. Petersburg Times reported. Penalties for such criticism, which is often made in former Soviet republics, could reach five years in prison. Foreigners who accuse the Red Army of atrocities (See: Katyn Massacre and Soviet War Crimes) could be punished upon entering Russia.

For a slightly different view of Medvedev’s committee, let’s turn to Pravda, the newspaper of Russia’s communist party. In a translated article headlined Russia will never let anyone falsify history of Second World War, Pravda celebrates the government’s effort to combat portrayals of Soviet soldiers as looters and rapists.

“As a matter of fact, we find ourselves in the situation when we must defend the historic truth and even prove the facts that seemed to be absolutely obvious not so long ago. It can be very hard and even disgusting at times, but we must do it. We must not turn a blind eye on the terrible truth of the war. We will never let anyone cast doubt on the deeds of our nation,” Medvedev said, according to the paper.

Neither Pravda nor the St. Petersburg Times made it clear exactly which “correct” version of history the government will promote.