Multi-Ethnic, But Narrow Minded

Russia is a country that has rarely thought about questions of race, but today a thinly veiled racism pervades the streets of Moscow. True, as a multinational empire (until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991), Russia had hundreds of different ethnic groups within its considerable borders, including Slavs, Muslims and Turkish peoples. During their reign, the Bolsheviks addressed the concerns of such a multi-ethnic state, trying various methods to stay atop their empire. At one point, they used a divide-and-conquer approach that led them to create 10,000 different governmental subdivisions within the USSR in order to accommodate--and separate--each ethnic group.

The problems of the Russian empire, however, were more those of ethnicity than of race. And if members of the former empire sometimes engaged in "Great Russian chauvinism," it usually had more to do with the fact that they stood at the center of the empire with other ethnicities under their Great Russian thumb. Now, however, faced seriously with a racially heterogeneous (rather than multinational) society for the first time, Russians in Moscow have taken to a form of racism subtly different from that which exists in America.

While only a small number of people of African descent live in Moscow, there is a more significant minority whom the native Russians call derisively chernie liudi, or "black people." These "black people" come from the former Soviet republics in the Southern Caucasus: Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. A combination of warfare and economic disaster in these former republics since the dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1991, along with the loosening of living restrictions in post-Soviet Moscow, have led to a large influx of Caucasians into Moscow. Moscow has not been very welcoming.

In America, I am on the whiter side of the spectrum, and until I came to Russia, I never thought that anyone might consider me to be black. However, because my slightly dark features resemble those of a Caucasian (a euphemistic phrase for "black person"), I have been stopped by the police in Moscow six times within four months to have my passport checked. I have also regularly seen darker-complexioned men who do not have the luxury of an American passport being carted off to the local police post while their whiter brethren scurry on their way.

The more established, more Russian Moscow resident will tell you that there is good reason to be skeptical of these "black people" from the South. First, they were responsible for a good deal of terrorist activity in response to the Chechnya war waged by Boris Yeltsin's government a few years ago (Chechnya is an autonomous region in the Caucasus). Also, many of them are members of the New Russian mafia, bringing violence to the streets of Moscow. Finally, Georgia is a military society, violent and capricious--its citizens are very hospitable if you are on their side; otherwise, they are dangerous.

In a recent survey taken by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Muscovites rank "the presence of too many Caucasians" as the number one problem that Moscow faces today.

Needless to say, all of these reasons are fatuous, and the survey is simply disturbing. How can an American respond to this sort of racism coming from the mouths of people whom I otherwise respect? Hardly anyone has heard of political correctness in Moscow, and if they have, they scoff at it. Those crazy Americans making things complicated for themselves, they say. Russian society is keenly aware of its uniqueness as a nation, and it looks for commonality among people of other societies as well. Consequently, stereotypes can go a long way towards what is considered truth in Russia.

Also, this lack of interest in being sensitive to other races means that even if Russians admit that there is some unjust discrimination towards Caucasians by the police, they shrug it off as a fact of life. After all, haven't Russians had their own hardships? If Caucasians must deal with racism, that is their lot. Why bother about a little thing like racism?

Even if one does not want to go so far as to indict the majority of Russians as racist, there is certainly a degree of "racialism" that abounds here, as far as one can claim a difference between the two.

By racialism, I mean a recognition of differences in race that are not necessarily mean-spirited. I laugh when my host mother tells me as we watch the news that she always remembers Kofi Annan's name because he is black like "coffee." But then a bright young Russian student asks me, "Why are there so many niggers on MTV?" And then I talk to a man from Africa who tells me that if he doesn't make it back to his apartment before dark, he waits until the morning so that the kids who sit outside his apartment will not harass or beat him.

This kind of descent from racialism to racism reveals the thin line between the two and begs the question of what to do in a society that is becoming more heterogeneous, yet still has the mindset of living in a multinational empire where differences in ethnicity were strongly pronounced and a Great Russian dictatorial hand kept everything in place.

Russia is wary of listening to America's views on tolerance and even when I am trying to explain the difference between "Afro-American" and "nigger," Russians sometimes make me feel as though I am a cultural imperialist. In this non-American society, it is incredibly difficult--and most of the time, futile--to explain why one must not use the "n-word." In Russian, the normal word for someone who is black is very similar, and the term "black person" is considered pejorative. To suggest that they use the term "Afro-American" elicits eye-rolling and cackles of laughter. But it stings my American ears when my Russian friend responds, "What's the difference? A nigger is a nigger." What this phrase means to him may be different from what it means to me, but ultimately it is just as dangerous.

Marshall I. Lewy '99 is a Crimson editor in Leverett House. He is spending the summer in Russia doing thesis research.

Recommended Articles