Resurgent Racism in Russia
On Friday December 5, 2008, 18-year-old African-American Stanley Robinson of Providence, Rhode Island was waiting at a bus stop in the city of Volgograd, Russia (formerly Stalingrad). It was about six in the evening. Robinson was three months into a special in-country linguistics immersion program sponsored by the American Field Service, living with a host family and studying at a local university.
Before he knew it, with no provocation other than his skin color, Robinson had been jumped by a gang of three Russian skinheads, assaulted and stabbed twice in the chest. Barely surviving the attack, Robinson contracted pneumonia after being hospitalized at a feeble local facility and had to be air-lifted to Finland for emergency treatment. The boy's mother Tina stated after the attack: "If I had any inkling that there was any possibility of this happening, I would have tried to dissuade him [from going]."
That the incident didn't even make it into the Western press until a week after it had occurred serves to underline Mrs. Robinson's predicament. Not only are Western media well behind the curve in reporting on the epidemic of race violence in Russia, but Western political leaders are woefully deficient in responding to it. Few will be able to argue that Barack Obama, the first person of African ancestry ever elected to lead a major Western nation, should not be at the forefront of such a response. Yet, he stands mute.
Robinson's attack was by no means an aberration in Russia; in fact, by Russian standards it wasn't all that severe. Take the case of Salekh Azizov, for instance. The day after Robinson was assaulted in Volgograd, the citizen of Tajikistan was brutally assaulted and decapitated in Moscow, just after leaving his job at a food warehouse. The severed head was discovered in a dumpster four days later, and the New York Times carried the story after nearly a week had passed since the killing. It reported that a nationalist group called the Militant Organization of Russian Nationalists was openly bragging about committing the murder. The Times did not seek comment from Obama even though it documented the pattern of race violence that was emerging.
The attacks kept coming. Two days after the Times story on Azizov appeared, an 18-year-old student from Kazakhstan named Yerlan Aitymov was stabbed at a bus stop in Moscow under circumstances virtually identical to the Robinson attack, except that Azizov's injuries were fatal; he perished in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
The Moscow Bureau of Human Rights estimates there have been 110 xenophobic murders in Russia so far this year, compared to 74 last year. That's an increase in race murder of 33% in one year, and amounts to one race murder every three days like clockwork, week in and week out, with the lion's share of the killings occurring in Moscow - supposedly Russia's most advanced and prosperous metropolis. Nearly 400 others have been victimized by race-motivated violence without actually being killed. As Russia heads into a severe recession next year, its currency down 20%, its currency reserves down a third and its stock market down 70%, inflation in double digits and unemployment rising, one can only expect incidents of white-on-black racism to increase.
One particularly ominous indication of the horror that may be in Russia's future was a poll called "The Name of Russia" carried out on the state-owned "Rossiya" TV network on December 28th. Its purpose was to identify the greatest national hero in all of Russian history. Four of the twelve finalists separated themselves from the field, each garnering at least half a million votes, with the fifth-place finisher more than 60,000 votes behind them. Less than 10,000 votes separated the winner, warrior Alexander Nevsky, from poet Alexander Pushkin at the bottom of the quartet, and mass-murderer Josef Stalin edged Pushkin for third place by over 2,000 votes. Earlier in the going, Stalin had been leading; at that point, apparently afraid of what the world might say were Stalin to prevail, the organizers restructured the voting process, and he fell slightly behind. The Times of London quoted Vladimir Pribylovsky, a political analyst with the Panorama think-tank: "The vote was an absolute falsification. Stalin, Lenin and Peter I: these are the most important figures in Russian history. Thirty to 40 per cent of Russians would support Stalin."
Stalin, of course, stands accused by many of innumerable race-based pogroms, from the relocation of the Chechens to the Holodomor famine in Ukraine. Arguably, he killed more Russian citizens than Hitler's armies. But his continuing popularity is not so surprising when you understand the scope of propaganda efforts being made on his behalf. A new text setting forth guidelines for teaching history in Russian schools, prepared that the specific direction of the Kremlin, states for instance that Stalin "acted entirely rationally - as the guardian of a system, as a consistent support of reshaping the country into an industrialised state." Meanwhile, a high-ranking government scholar has gone on record predicting that the U.S. is about to collapse. In this climate, irrational nationalism and racism are only to be expected.
Those who would try to report facts that run contrary to the Kremlin's mantra take their lives in their hands. Most are familiar with the tragic story of Anna Politikovskaya, shot dead in the entryway of her apartment in Moscow to silence her fearless reporting on the Kremlin's human rights violations in Chechnya. Many are even aware of the terrifying litany of other political killings that has shadowed Vladimir Putin ever since he became the boss of the KGB.
Far fewer know the name Aleksandr Bragin, local leader of the Popular Democratic Union political party founded by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. On December 29th, Bragin published an article on the party's website detailing statistics about Russia's recent economic downturn. That same day he was arrested "by officers from the Russian Interior Ministry's department for combating terrorism and extremism." Under a relatively new statute called the Law Against Extremism, the Kremlin can treat as criminal terrorism any writing which could tend to undermine national stability, and it can deny the accused a jury trial. Kasyanov himself was forced off the presidential ballot last year under the threat of criminal prosecution, clearing the field for a landslide win by Putin's handpicked "successor."
Russian journalist Yevgeny Gontmacher was also threatened by the KGB when he wrote a newspaper column documenting the nation's economic woes. It seems this is now official policy. Russia scholar Paul Goble reports that KGB officers are now regularly visiting the moderators of critical websites and asking that they not post stories about protests occurring in the city of Vladivostock , which have angrily condemned the Kremlin's decision to restrict imports of foreign-made vehicles in order to protect the domestic industry. The Kremlin maintains an army of Internet thugs to routinely descend upon any blogging critical of the Kremlin, with threats and harassment designed to intimidate and silence. A Russian army officer was transferred to Siberia for publishing a homemade YouTube rock video lampooning the living conditions of soldiers, and opposition political leader Oleg Kozlovsky was illegally inducted into the army to stop his participation in protest marches. The examples are endless.
But the Kremlin does not limit itself to attacking and silencing the critics, however. It is also making various insidious attempts to plant propaganda stories in the Western press. Joshua Kucera of the Atlantic magazine tells of being approached with bribe offers in exchange for positive coverage by Kremlin agents. Moscow has developed its own propaganda TV network called Russia Today, and it is bombarding New York City taxicabs with incomprehensible gibberish. And then there's the strange case of Lira Tskhovrebova, who filled the pages of the Christian Science Monitor with tales of Georgian barbarism in Ossetia, only to later turn out to be a KGB plant.
And throughout all of this, the world has not heard one single word of protest issue from the mouth of Barack Obama, neither about the racism nor about the repression of civil society that might otherwise combat the racism. Surely Obama Nation must be somewhat confused to learn that the man who received the votes of 95% of the African-American electorate is totally ignoring an avalanche of lynchings in Vladimir Putin's Russia. Since George Bush looked into Putin's eyes, glimpsed his soul and pronounced him "trustworthy," and since Obama promised "change you can believe in," one would think the Obamaniacs would expect their leader to confront and challenge Putin much more decisively. Putin has been stonefaced and silent as he watches Russia's racist nightmare unfold, a silence which can only be interpreted as approval, especially since he has taken the lead in seeking to rehabilitate Stalin.
There may be reason to hope. After his initial round of mealy-mouthed comments, Obama responded favorably to stern pressure from the right in the wake of the Georgia crisis with tough criticism of Russian aggression. He told Tom Brokaw "we have to send a clear message that they have to act in ways that are not bullying their neighbors" and stated that "when it comes to Georgia and their threats against their neighboring countries, I think they've been acting in a way that's contrary to international norms."
So perhaps now it is time for the right to teach Obama another lesson, this one in the area of racial justice. It would perhaps be racist to assume that because Obama has dark skin he understands the troubles of dark people, and Obama has certainly not been helped by the shamefully weak coverage of so-called liberal newspapers like the New York Times, which rarely gives prominent coverage to racism in Russia, especially in the context of challenging politicians on the left to confront it. Likely, Obama must be educated on race issues where Russia is concerned just as he needed to be taught about Russia's imperialistic designs on places like Georgia and Ukraine. Doing so should give the right the opportunity to make sure that Obama's attitude towards Putin's neo-Soviet state is correct across the board, including the protection of the Baltics , Eastern Europe and the Ukraine from Georgia-like aggression, dealing with Russia's renewal of the nuclear arms race and stirring the pot in the Middle East.
Forcing Obama to confront racism in Russia would also serve to illustrate how the right, currently divested from power, could energize itself by establishing a new political base. It could demonstrate to African-American voters that the left does not have a monopoly on concern for racial justice, reminding them that, after all, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. And more important, it could simultaneously advance American interests in pushing back Russia's neo -Soviet aspirations and stand up for the plight of tens of thousands of dark-skinned people across Russia who, it seems, have no other champion.
Kim Zigfeld blogs on Russia at La Russophobe and writes the Russia column for Pajamas Media.