Tag Archives: police

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.

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Documents, please

Every time I walk past a police officer in St. Petersburg, I look down, up, to the side—anywhere but his face. It’s not that I’m guilty of anything, but here the militsia, as the St. Petersburg police are called, are not known for jolly attitudes and community outreach. They also do not need a reason to ask for your documents, an open request that can lead to questioning in an unfamiliar language and to the gifting of pastel-colored Ruble notes.

I’ve played out the scenario many times in my mind: An officer’s eye meets mine. Nightstick dangling from his wrist—Russian police seem to always have their nightsticks out and ready—he approaches. As I pull my photocopied passport (And here’s the technical guilt: By law, one is required to have the actual passport with him at all times) out of my wallet, he sizes up its monetary contents. He questions me. I tell him—in English—that I speak no Russian, as I’ve been advised to do. He suggests a ruble figure. I comply, replacing my passport in my now-lighter wallet, walking away, if all goes well.

Today, my imagination met reality.

As I walked into Vaselostravskaya Metro Station, a police officer, standing to the side with two others, stopped me. “Документы, пожалуйста,” documents please. As I’d practiced, I told him that I speak no Russian as I unfolded the crumpled copy of my passport. “Ah, American,” he said. And smiled. One of his partners added in a “Hello, American.” The young officer, no club in hand, gave me back my passport, and I was on my way.

Apparently, the police are not looking to bother American students, or to earn an easy several-hundred rubles.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, what the police are looking for is draft dodgers—young men trying to escape their mandatory time in Russia’s military. Spring is draft time, so the police may (they deny this, according to the St. Petersburg Times) be ratcheting up efforts to fill the military’s ranks, in part by checking the documents of young men at metro stations.

Drink, Drank, Drunk

The verb drink is irregular in both English and Russian. In class today, we learned how to conjugate it. We also got a few Russian drinking tips, tailored to an American audience:

  1. Russians drink vodka like Italians drink espresso. Be careful!
  2. Russians drink their vodka straight. And quickly. Be careful!
  3. It’s important to have a big meal before drinking a lot of vodka. Be careful!
  4. If you don’t have time to eat a big meal, at least eat a piece of buttered bread. Be careful!

Alcohol in Russia is a bit more accessible than it is in America. There is a sign at the grocery story saying that it is forbidden to buy cigarettes if you are under 18. There is no such sign for alcohol.

And Russian kids appear to enjoy the relaxed rules. Groups of teenagers, probably no older than 16, gather on sidewalks, drinking from big cans of Nevskoe Ice, smoking and killing time. Public (and underage) drinking is technically illegal, but I haven’t seen the St. Petersburg police give anyone any trouble.

Kids aren’t the only ones who drink in public, though. Grown men often walk in the streets, a cool Baltika 7 (or again, Nevskoe Ice – It’s apparently pretty popular) in hand. Sadly, I haven’t taken part in this Russian tradition—quite frankly, the Militsia, as the leather-jacketed police are called, scare me more than a bit.

But there are plenty of options for drinking beyond the street corner.

Every restaurant, pizza place, fast food joint, and coffee shop has an alcohol selection bigger than some American liquor stores. You can get a cheap shot of Ruski Standard vodka or a several thousand ruble bottle of wine with whatever food happens to be available at your chosen dining establishment.

The alcohol selection at the corner grocery store is even more mind-boggling. There’s a full aisle of hard liquor, another of wine, and another of beer. There is also a locked cabinet for the really expensive stuff, and beer fridges placed strategically throughout the store for those who get thirsty while shopping.

Gay Rights Parade Attacked, Protesters Arrested in Moscow

BBC reports:

Police in Russia have broken up a protest by gay rights activists in Moscow, staged to coincide with the final of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Some 30 campaigners had gathered near a university in defiance of a ban on their march and many were dragged away by police when they shouted slogans….

The Moscow mayor Yuri Luzkhov has described gay parades as “satanic”.

Anti-gay groups had threatened to take matters into their own hands if the police failed to stop the protest.

We watched OMON (Russian Special Forces) break up the protest and drag the protesters away on BBC, one of several English-language channels we get.

As you can tell, the attitude towards homosexuals in Russia isn’t exactly tolerant. I’ve seen a few lesbian couples on the street, but no gay couples. According to my guide book, St. Petersburg is more tolerant of homosexuality than other parts of Russia because it’s more European. I’m not really reading the Russian news here (I can’t, really), but I’ll let you know if I see anything in it about the protests.