Russia as a mirror of American racism

The curious case of the Russian grassroots movement that borrows racist and alt-right language from America to advocate for the rights of white anti-Putin protesters.

Credit: Evgeniy IsaevRussian military forces deployed to stop anti-government protests in Moscow on July 27, 2019.

As a Black woman who is an historian of the Soviet Union and Russia, the Black Lives Matter movement has put me in an interesting position. The ongoing demonstrations taking place across the United States illuminate the depths of the physical, spiritual, and emotional violence that African Americans and ethnic minorities experience. The Trump administration’s response is callous and includes the use federal power to violate the protestors’ first amendment rights. In Russia, meanwhile, while responses to the protests have ranged from empathy to victim-blaming, one hashtag caught my attention: it is called “Russian Lives Matter.”

Despite its name, RLM does not seek solidarity with BLM. The Russian version calls out police violence committed against anti-government protestors. To be clear: police also target ethnic minorities, such as migrants from Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan, but RLM advocates specifically for ethnic (i.e., white) Russian citizens. The largely overlooked element in the Russian Lives Matter movement is its “borrowing” of American racist and alt-right language.

While a Twitter search for the hashtag Russian Lives Matter brings up a few responses in support of the demonstrations in America, many more regurgitate the Kremlin’s messaging, which mirrors the right-wing American response—i.e., that protestors are criminals and looters, and that the demonstrations are contrary to the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. The latter is a popular argument in both the United States and Russia, with the right using it to dismiss the validity of the contemporary struggle for civil rights—not realizing that Dr. King was murdered for his perceived radicalism.

In the United States, the right describes Black Lives Matter protests as riots, planned violence, and “poison.” This language is meant to portray the movement as anything but what it is—i.e., one that demands accountability and reform of the public institutions that maintain the racist status quo.

Many Russians deny that racism exists in their country. Alina Polyanskikh, a Russian television presenter who is Black, described her experiences with overt racism, and with those who deny its existence, in a recent blog post. When Afro-Russian blogger Maria Tunkara posted on her social media accounts about her experiences with racism, she was threatened and even investigated by the prosecutor in St. Petersburg. Popular Russian memes about the American protests compare African Americans to apes and call them thugs; the vilest make fun of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of American police.

My first reaction to these images was disgust, then sadness. They reminded me of my first experience with racism in Eastern Europe, when in spring 2011, I spent a couple of weeks in Varna, Bulgaria, volunteering at an orphanage for Roma children. On one of our first visits, the children (a range of elementary-aged kids) encircled me and called me a “n—-r” and “monkey” to the tune of “Ring Around the Rosie.” I was mortified and deeply hurt; seeing my reaction, one of the kids ran off to tell the orphanage director, who made the other children apologize. I did not understand how children in Bulgaria knew the racist slurs that whites had directed against me when I was growing up in southeast Texas in the 1990s and early 2000s. Now, almost ten years after my experience at the orphanage in Bulgaria, I see the people who inhabit the corners of the Russian-language internet using the same slurs.

American ideas of racism and the racist undercurrent of conservative populism have a transnational impact that is now felt in Russia. As Natalia Antonova wrote in the early months of the Trump administration, many American racists see Russia as a “white man’s paradise” where there is no political correctness, no vocal ethnic minority demanding rights, and no legal protections for the LGBTQ community. An exploration of the connections between American and Russian white supremacist groups provides further insight into this phenomenon.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Hatewatch initiative has documented the close relationship between white supremacist groups in Russia and the United States. In 2018, members of League of the South, an Alabama-based white supremacist group, launched a Russian-language version of their organization’s website. Michael Hill, the League’s leader, said that Russians and American white supremacists have in common “real, organic factors such as shared blood, culture, and religion.” This idea of a shared culture or blood is a dog whistle for a shared white race.

The SPLC also examined the “strange alliance” between Russian Orthodox monarchists and radical white Evangelicals in the annual meeting of the World Congress of Families (WCF). The WCF is an ultra-conservative religious group; its goals include promoting anti-LGBTQ legislation. Participants in the group include far-right and nationalist groups across the United States, Europe, and Eastern Europe, all committed to white supremacism. In this case, Russia reflects American racist ideology.

Claims of a shared culture and religion notwithstanding, the image of a “white paradise” is belied by the numbers that illustrate its ethnic diversity. Russia is home to hundreds of ethnic minorities that speak over 100 languages. It has not seen the mass protests against racism that spread across Western Europe since the murder of George Floyd, but Afro-Russians, Africans, and Central Asians who live in Russia have spoken out and led discussions about their experiences of racism and prejudice.

These discussions can complicate our understandings of how racism assimilates into the relatively unique context of Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space. Russia does not have a history of institutionalized racism against people of color (POC) like those of the United States and the former imperial states of Europe. This is not to erase the treatment of Jews, and people from the Caucasus and Central Asia who had long been targets of institutional racism and oppression in the Russian empire. In fact, the Soviet Union did not track race in its censuses. People were classified by their nationality; thus, their race was not even a possibility of official identification. This fact lends itself to current understandings of racism and prejudice in Russia.

In contemporary Russia, POC are called racial slurs, denied housing, violently beaten, and sometimes killed. Acquaintances from Russia and Ukraine have posited that these documented cases of racism are manifestations of xenophobia—i.e., that POC are not trusted or are not treated as equals because they are outsiders. But this logic illustrates the greater issue. It shows that people who have dark skin, even if they were born in Russia or are permanent residents, are still excluded from the dominant concept of who is Russian.

There is a Janus-like dichotomy when it comes to Western media portrayals of Russia. Some American conservatives see Russia as a paradise for white heterosexuals, while some American liberals see Russia as an authoritarian regime plotting to destroy U.S. democracy. From my own relatively unique position, I see in Russia a mirror of the United States.

The language and logic of racism in Russia, particularly toward Black people, is not an organic development. Throughout the Soviet period, African American and African people visited, studied, and lived in a country with relatively few incidents of race-based violence (although one African student was murdered in 1963). Even the use of racist language was different. Central Asians were called “chornyi” (black) as a slur, but Blacks were called “negr” (similar to “negro,” but without the negative connotations the word carried in the U.S..)

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian lexicon of racism has absorbed elements from America. If Americans and Russians can take away any lessons from this development, it is that anti-racist forces in both countries need to engage with one another and build alliances. Because the forces of white supremacy certainly have.

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania. In her research she focuses on Black experience, race, ethnicity, and nationality policy in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet space. Her writing has been published by Foreign Policy, the Kennan Institute’s Russia File, The Moscow Times, and Contingent Magazine.  

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