Tag Archives: Russia

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.

Understanding today’s Russia

With President Obama in Moscow, America’s attention has been focused anew on its former cold war adversary. But nearly two decades after the fall of Communism, Russia remains an enigma to many Americans.

In an excellent example of explanatory journalism, Clifford J. Levy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, offers a simple six-step guide to “decoding Russia.”

Mr. Levy’s broad ideas about modern Russia are quite perceptive and accurate (no earth-shattering revelations), and should be read by every American who wants to gain a better understanding of the new Russia.

They reflect a strong understanding of what makes Russia tick – an understanding no doubt fed by Mr. Levy’s command of Russian and his efforts to reach out to Russian readers and sources.

Through all of Mr. Levy’s points runs a common thread – to understand Russia today, one needs to have an accurate understanding of Russia’s past. As I’ve written about before, this includes an appreciation for the massive toll of World War II – the Great Patriotic War – on Russia, and Russia’s perception that it bore the brunt of the conflict.

Beyond World War II, it’s important to acknowledge that Russians have a mixed view of their past – and that for many, the Soviet system had favorable aspects, while the current capitalist system has its pluses and minuses as well.

For more on what you need to know to understand Russia, including a brief overview of Russia’s take on former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (TIME Magazine’s 2007 Person of the Year), check out Mr. Levy’s piece.

Have your own questions about Russia? Leave them in the comments or send me an email, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

On Independence Days

Happy July 4!

I hope you are all enjoying fireworks, barbecues, and all the other trappings of Independence Day in America.

A concert in Palace Square for Russia Day.

A concert in Palace Square for Russia Day.

Russia has it’s own independence day, of sorts, on June 12.

The problem is that Russia has never really received independence from another entity (Unless you want to go back to the Mongol hordes). It’s always been Russia, in one form or another.

That’s why June 12 is known as “Day of adoption of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Russian Federation” or Russia Day – День России for short.

It marks the day in 1990 when Russia declared itself separate (or independent, if you’d like) from the Soviet Union (one of the key steps in dissolving the USSR).

Most Russians don’t really know what to make of the holiday, but they do get the day off of work to attend free concerts thrown by the state (Like the one we went to in St. Petersburg on Palace Square, featuring old Soviet, err, Russian, stars) or to go to their countryside dachas.

A Russian perspective on the Iranian Election

In an opinion piece in the St. Peteresburg Times, Yulia Latynina, a political commentator for a Moscow radio station, takes on the recent election and turmoil in Iran.

In the election results and ensuing protests, she sees not grass roots activism, not fraud and the response of an outraged people, but simply the pitfalls of democracy in a poor country. Latynina draws parallels between post-Soviet Russia and Iran, arguing that poor voters tend to elect bad leaders:

The Iranian vote demonstrates a simple truth that even Aristotle and Plato understood but that is frequently forgotten by fans of democracy today — namely that democracy is one of the worst forms of government if the majority of voters are impoverished…

All observers of democracy — from Thucydides to Machiavelli — have made note of one simple fact: If the voters do not own property, democracy does not differ from dictatorship and will inevitably end in tyranny.

Click here to read the full piece.

Photos: Scenes around Vologda

A small town about 130km north of Vologda.

A small town about 130km north of Vologda.

Click here for more photos from the area around Vologda.

Russian prison spokesman: allegedly-tortured inmate beat himself

A Russian journalist says Zubayr Zubayrayev, imprisoned in Volgograd, was tortured because he is Chechen.

But Russian authorities say the man admitted in a videotape to beating himself, and a Russian court has fined the journalist 200,000 rubles (about $6,500) and ordered that she retract her articles, The Moscow Times reports.

The journalist, Yelena Maglevannaya, refused, and has fled to Finland, where she is currently seeking asylum.

According to The Moscow Times, Maglevannaya also received death threats after her stories about Zubayrayev were published.

She is far from the only journalist to be threatened for her work in Russia.

The Moscow Times noted:

More than 15 Russian journalists covering political issues have requested asylum abroad since Vladimir Putin assumed power nine years ago, said Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

“They can’t stand the working conditions [in Russia],” Panfilov said.

But the ones who have fled abroad are perhaps the luckiest.

Sixteen Russian journalists have been killed due to their reporting in Russia since 1999, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Fifteen of the murders remain unsolved, CPJ said, including those of Forbes editor Paul Klebnikov, an American, and Novaya Gazeta reporter and author Anna Politkovskaya, who reported from Chechnya and wrote critically on the current state of affairs in Russia.

Why dodge the Russian draft?

After yesterday’s post on police checking ID to find draft-dodgers, I want to add a bit of context as to why young men try so hard to stay out of the Russian military.

In a word, it comes down to hazing. I’m no expert on hazing in the Russian armed forces, but here is what I do know:

  • In 2004, at least 44 (Government figure), and as many as 3,000 (human rights group estimate) Russian draftees were killed in hazing incidents or commited suicide as a result of hazing. (Source: Pravda)
  • In the same year, Human Rights Watch released a report on hazing in the Russian military, and called on the government to do more to stop it. HRW estimated that hazing caused the “deaths of dozens of conscripts every year, and serious—and often permanent—damage to the physical and mental health of thousands others. Hundreds of conscripts commit or attempt suicide each year, and thousands run away from their units.”
  • In 2006, Private Andrei Sychyov was beaten so badly that his legs and genitals had to be amputated. His case was one of the few to be publicly discussed in Russia, because the doctors treating him leaked information to the media. (Sources: Radio Free Europe, NPR)
  • After Sychyov’s case became public, news outlets discovered another case at least as disturbing.
  • The St. Petersburg Times reported on the humiliation, beating, extortion and other trials Russian conscripts face following the Sychyov case. Despite the testimony of a hazed soldier, Russia’s Defense Minister dismissed continuing concerns about hazing.

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.

City Tour

We saw the old KGB headquarters in St. Petersburg today; or rather, we saw the FSB building. It’s called большой дом, The Big House, and from the windows you can see Siberia, our guide joked.

Speaking of law enforcement and such, we also passed by the Peter and Paul Fortress, a low hexagonal island defense against the Swedes that was never used in war. Instead, it held political prisoners to 1917. Only one person, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, has ever escaped from the island, and he did it by getting transferred to a hospital.

Perhaps the coolest thing we glimpsed from the bus during our driving tour of the city was the cruiser Aurora. The Aurora, which survived the Russo-Japanese war, fired a blank at the Winter Palace at the start of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and has therefore been immortalized for its role, however small, in bringing down the provisional government and carrying Lenin to power.

The ship has become a tourist trap of the highest degree. As we drove by, I noticed the row of stalls beside it hawking t-shirts and souvenirs to tourists. People posed for pictures sitting on the deck gun that fired the famous shot. The ship serves as a museum of Communist propaganda; across the river, however, stands the massive St. Petersburg Bank.

As we drove, we saw a few other interesting sites, like the St. Petersburg Mosque, built in the early 1900s, and a whole bunch of statues. The variety of statues here is pretty impressive, but it’s hard to keep them all straight (other than the Lenin statue in front of the Palace of Soviets. He’s pretty distinictive. I really want to take my picture in front of Lenin, but we’ve only driven by so far; we haven’t stopped.). Particularly impressive was The Bronze Horseman – a huge statue of Peter the Great on horseback.

Five Things Russians Like

Based on walking around St. Petersburg for two days (read: not on all that much), I bring you five things that Russians apparently find stylish.

  1. Mullets
  2. Punk Rock, especially Iron Maiden
  3. American NBA teams that are doing well
  4. Tight clothes
  5. Black (Shoes, pant, shirts, etc)