The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
Hate graffiti in Simferopol says "Tatars Out of Crimea!" with a swastika.

Racism and Anti-Semitism Ceasing to Be ‘Indecent’ in Putin’s Russia

Staunton, May 21 – In 1920, Siberian writer Anton Sorokin made fun of the White Russian regime there with a story entitled “33 Scandals for Kolchak.” The scandals he identified were invented, but Cityboom, Moscow’s online newspaper has now posted six all-too-real “scandals of the year” in Russia showing “how racism and anti-Semitism have ceased to be indecent” there.

The online paper this week published what it said were “the most scandalous” outbursts in this area in recent times and then asked Viktor Shnirelman, a senior scholar at the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, and Aleksandr Verkhovsky, the head of the SOVA human rights analytic center, for their comments.

The first of these scandals cited by the online paper arose with the suggestion by Sergey Aksyonov, acting head of the Russian occupation regime in Crimea, that “a proposal had come in that once the US is united with Russia, Obama should be sent to the Moscow zoo” where he could “sit among the apes.” After criticism, Aksyonov later took this down from his site.

Shnirelman said that the West had “gradually and with difficulty” moved away from racism because the young generation felt a sense of shame about its ancestors “who were racist” and even “experiences a sense of guilt.” That, he said, “is one of the reasons why Obama was chosen” as president. But in Russia, he said, “the situation is exactly the opposite.”

The second “scandal” was a tweet by Duma deputy and Olympic champion Irina Rodnina last September containing a doctored and racist photograph of Barack and Michelle Obama. Initially, she defended her actions by saying “Freedom of speech is freedom of speech.” But later she blamed the whole thing on a hacker and apologized for “insufficiently clearly” expressing her views.

Verkhovsky said that it is clear that “it seemed to Rodnina that [the picture she tweeted]” as “a joke at the edge of political correctness.” She wouldn’t have published it otherwise, and this shows a disturbing trend in the understanding in Russia today “of what is very bad and what is not.” He suggested that this issue now is “how far can this go.”

The third scandal reported by Cityboom was that St. Petersburg deputy Vitaly Milonov’s March 27 description of Crimean Tatars as “swine” and “grandchildren of Hitlerites.” Verkhovsky said one could hardly take Milonov seriously but that the problem was “not in Ukraine but in the change of political habits” in Russia.

Shnrelman suggested in this connection that “there are certain political figures to whom everything is permitted because they have special relations with the authorities or fulfill a specific function” on their behalf.

The fourth scandal was a sign at a May Day demonstration of the KPRF stating that Darwin’s theory had been shown to be false by the fact that “a black ape is trying to rule the world.” Verhovsky pointed out that “the KPRF has always been a xenophobic party and that among its activists are many people with openly racist views.”

The content of such signs, he continued, reflects “a reaction to the events in Ukraine.” But that isn’t the real issue. That is racism because “the author could have written that Obama is an evil criminal but he wrote what he wrote.” Shnirelman added that “at almost every communist meeting … Nazi and racist literature is being sold.” Unfortunately, that isn’t something new.

The fifth case involved a statement by Nikolay Levichev, a Duma deputy who was running for mayor of Moscow in August 2013. As a political advertisement, he published what purported to be a crossword puzzle in which the answers to some of the lines were given as “nigger” and “kike.”

Verkhovsky pointed out that “earlier such things simply were not possible” but now they are. He said he “suspects” that some bureaucrats and politicians hope to gain support by using “openly racist slogans.” Shnirelman noted that Levichev’s comments were only the most extreme in a race where “absolutely all candidates spoke against immigrants.”

Such things, of course, are “electoral games and it is not required that the candidate himself believe in his own xenophobic slogans,” the ethnographer said. But the view that such slogans are useful and the willingness of candidates to use them raises some disturbing questions about where Russians now are.

And the sixth scandal of this kind involved Evelniya Zakamskaya, who is a host on Russia-24 television. On February 23 of this year, she said that the Jews “by their own hands” are doing things that open the way to “a second holocaust.”

Verkhovsky said he was shocked not only because such things could not be said earlier but because her bosses “did not react in any way.” That is “very strange because even in Soviet times such things were considered absolutely impermissible.” And it is worrisome because, he argued, it is easy to provoke xenophobia but far harder to eliminate it.

“Social order is to a large extent maintained by the fact that people restrain their negative emotions [because] they understand that one should not do such things.” And he concludes, “If such brakes [on acting upon ugly attitudes] begin to weaken, then it is possible to expect unfortunate consequences.”