Russia, Racism & Resentment

by Z*

This long, exciting holiday before the inaugural feels quite bittersweet to me. Seeing the progress the U.S. has made towards justice, equality and peace, it evokes a feeling of happiness, of course, but also jealousy. I see the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday on the eve of the inauguration of the first black president in the United States as epochal. For the republics of the former Soviet Union in Central Asia, the idea of justice and equality is unattainable as Russia continues setting a bad example for the rest of the region.

Coincidentally, on the day when Americans come together to celebrate MLK, the Russian pro-Kremlin youth movement, the Young Guard (“Molodaya Gvardiya”) held another round of anti-immigration demonstrations in five big cities. Last year, I wrote about their demands for the government to get tough on immigration. This time, the organizers demonstrated at a train station in Moscow. Arriving passengers from a Moscow-bound train from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan were met with placards reading, “An illegal is a thief,” “Want to work? Pay taxes,” “Work legally?” and other anti-immigrant sentiments.

One of my immediate thoughts was the obvious: “just how many of those passengers are coming to work illegally?” But clearly, generalization is becoming a trademark of Russian xenophobia: all non-Slavic creatures are stealing jobs from the good citizens of Russia.

Another passing thought: knowing local temperament, it is hard to imagine the protestors would offer migrants a chance "to work legally or go back to their country.” At least verbally, it was probably ugly. Very few probably watched their language.

I have earlier expressed my fear that attacks on foreigners are going to increase, and so the figures of nine attacks and five murders already in the first ten days of 2009 do not strike me as surprising. Last December, Russia’s neighbor Kazakhstan was shocked by the killing in Moscow of a first-year college student from that Central Asian country. Even before an investigation, the stabbing was immediately branded as a hate crime. This is a warning example of the wide range of negative ramifications of Russian xenophobia: any crime that involves non-Russians is bound to be considered a hate crime. And the problem is, Moscow alone can boast at least twenty-one ethnic groups, aside from the thousands of tourists from all over the world. Also, Russia is just not a safe place overall, so the odds of a non-Slavic falling victim to such crimes are extremely high.

Another unpleasant consequence of Russian leaders’ neglect for the pressing issue of racism is worsening relations with their neighbors such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Perhaps in the foreseeable future the immature politicians of Kazakhstan are not going to condemn the situation in Russia or take other official steps in addressing the anti-immigrant fervor. But one has to remember about the Russians living in Kazakhstan; Russians who make up at least 30 percent of the population.

The ethnic tensions can swing both ways. In one case last year, a stabbing of a Russian couple took place in eastern Kazakhstan. The perpetrators left a note that said that Russians should be thrown out of the country. The regional government made sure that the seemingly unprecedented case was never discussed in the Kazakh media.

So what the Young Guard sees as fighting for a good cause (tightening immigration policies) in reality further exacerbates and geographically expands xenophobia. It’s ironic because for years Russians used the language of regional friendship (camradeship) and brotherhood to promote the image of united Soviet republics. But in reality the various ethnic groups that made up the Soviet Union never liked each other and still don't. These new incidents, disguised behind immigration protests, show the feelings are only getting worse.

*Z is from a country that made up the Soviet Union, and her writing on cultural and political matters could have a backlash when she returns home from the U.S., so she writes under a pseudonym.

(The graphic was created with the Despair, Inc. parody generator.)

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