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    Friday, August 17, 2007

    The darkest side of modern Russia

    I still remember him. Tolessa was a young Ethiopian student attending Moscow's famous People's Friendship University, and one of the few I could find who would talk to a newspaper reporter about what it was like living as a foreigner - a black foreigner - in a time of rising Russian racism and xenophobia.

    It was a life of violence and fear that he told me about. He and the other African students on campus were so terrified of Russia's notorious skinheads that they were afraid to leave their dorm rooms. When they did go out into the city around them, they went in groups.

    Even at on-campus cafeteria, Tolessa was nervous and asked to sit at a table in the corner furthest from the windows. In the weeks before he and I had lunch, there had been eight arson attempts and several bomb threats directed at the dormitory where most of the African students were staying.

    "We stay on the campus and, if we want to go anywhere, we have to organize a group. Maybe in a group they won't attack us," he told me. "This group, the skinheads, they are not small in number. In fact, I sometimes feel as though they are half the population of Moscow. People tell us to leave this country, that Russia is only for the Russians."

    Russia for the Russians. It's a phrase that I hear more and more often. One of my friends - as white as the Russian snow - was punched out for speaking English in Moscow. My wife and I were physically threatened by a group of skinheads on the metro who drunkenly told us "Yankees go home."

    The fact that Canada is a separate state was lost on him, so we got off at the next station even though it was nowhere near from our destination.

    The Moscow police, Tolessa told me, were open admirers of the "Russia for the Russians" crowd. When an African student who was attacked called for help, the police would just as often join the beating as stop it. It wasn't just Africans. Anyone from the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia was liable to be targeted as chorniyy, or "black."

    For too long, the Kremlin tolerated and manipulated the ultranationalist crowd, allowing people like Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Dmitry Rogozin to spew hatred because it suited their political aims. If the West was truly worried that a Zhirinovsky or a Rogozin might come to power, it would let up in its calls for more openness and democracy and perhaps come to see someone like Vladimir Putin as a least-bad option.

    The strategy worked like a charm from a political point of view, but the monsters it created are now out of even the Kremlin's control. Take the grisly execution video that was first posted on the Russian Internet community livejournal last week.

    The killing of two men - one identified in a caption as an ethnic Tajik, the other as a Dagestani - was horrifying and disturbing. One was beheaded, the other shot, while their murderers shouted "Glory to Russia!" and displayed a Nazi flag. The video is titled "Operation of the National-Socialist Party of Russia to arrest and execute two colonists from Dagestan and Tajikistan."

    In a poorly attended press conference back in May, Alexander Brod of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights warned that, in the past two years alone, the number of skinheads in Russia had risen from 50,000 to 70,000.

    "Nowadays, they could be found in each regional center, they are emerging even in small towns and villages. In big cities, the attacks happen nearly each day and murders [are committed] weekly," he said.

    In other words, the only thing truly remarkable about the livejournal video is that the perpetrators bothered to film it.


    Anonymous said...

    No excuse for such manner. There're other points to consider for a truly fair and balanced overview.

    On racism in Russia, in parts of New York City and Long Island, Blacks can expect to be either roughed up at most or non-violently unwelcome.

    NYC is the not too distant scene of violently bigoted acts against Abner Louima (by the NYPD) and Yankel Rosenbaum (by youths).

    I recall come American bigots filming their bigoted acts.

    In Russia, mosques are being built as 90% ethnic Slovenian Slovenia has a problem building one mosque in its capital where none exist.

    Russia is a country encompassing many different ethnic groups. Some of Russia's greatest heroes are those of non-Russian background

    markmac said...

    Hi Michael - Very true about the racism in America and the rising anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe.

    But as you yourself said, pointing at problems elsewhere doesn't detract from the fact that racism and xenophobia (as well as anti-gay sentiment) has risen to a frightening level in Russia in recent years.

    It's no longer safe for a black person to ride the subway alone at night in Moscow. I couldn't make a statement that broad about the level of racism in any part of America or Western Europe.

    The Russian authorities have to get serious about this trend - fast - or I fear we'll see something truly horrible and large-scale happen.

    JTapp said...

    Interesting, and scary, insights.

    I visited Russia annually from 2001-2004 and every year saw and heard of increasingly openness of skinheads in areas outside of Moscow. Coincided with the increasing national pride I saw with all people (primarily students) living in poorer cities during that time.

    If a black man gets roughed up on a subway in the U.S., the stories and camera-phone video will be all over the Internet and will provoke public outrage. The same video might get posted in Russia but won't stoke the same public outrage. Seeing how dependent the Russian economy is becoming on immigrants from the Caucasus and elsewhere (esp. in construction, like Mexicans in America) the skinheads aren't helping Russia by their actions.

    Anonymous said...

    "It's no longer safe for a black person to ride the subway alone at night in Moscow. I couldn't make a statement that broad about the level of racism in any part of America or Western Europe."


    I can for sure. In parts of NYC, a Black man isn't safe walking in a White neighborhood by himself/herself.

    What happened to Yankel Rosenbaum (an Orthodox Jewish dressed man) can easily happen again in some NYC neighborhoods.

    Polarization is a reality in NYC and elsewhere in America.

    Regretfully, much of the negative reporting on Russia is sensationalistic hype. This view doesn't in anyway negate my opposition to bigoted behavior in Russia, the US and elsewhere.

    Russians are very much a mutt people, which explains why most of them don't have skinhead like views.

    markmac said...

    Michael - of course the wide majority of Russians don't have "skinhead views."

    my argument is that the authorities are far too tolerant of those who are.

    La Russophobe said...

    All throughout Soviet times, whenever a Russian failure was pointed out the Russians would always respond not by defending their conduct on the merits but by arguing that foreigners were worse. It was utterly lame propaganda, and the net result was that the USSR ceased to exist. Those who continue this pathetic charade are by far Russia's most malignant enemies.

    Anonymous said...

    People who lie and state half truths about Russia are no friends of it.

    Soviet "failures" included non-Russians as well. So much for the anti-Russian bigotry being expressed.

    Pekka Eskimo said...

    "Russians are very much a mutt people, which explains why most of them don't have skinhead like views."

    i don't know what do you mean with skinhead like views, but i think that majority of russians do support the idea that caucasians should go back to where they came from.

    Anonymous said...

    People of mixed background is what was meant by "mutt people".

    Overall, Russians aren't a more bigoted people when compared to some others in Europe.

    The Chemist said...

    I'm very interested in this phenomenon, and came across your post deliberately searching for a first-hand perspective. I have been trying to learn Russian (mainly for my own edification. I've been thinking of visiting Russia as a tourist and being very clearly brown, I'm interested to know how bad the situation is.

    And Averko, it's obvious to me you've never been to the US. Living in a very large racially aware metropolis in the South of the US (Atlanta) I can tell you things aren't anywhere near as bad as Russia from what I've heard first-hand from people who have lived there. I sympathize, it's your country, but don't stick your head in the sand like an ostrich, otherwise you might lose it.

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