13 June 2008

RFERL on Ethnic Violence in Russia

An article at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty calls attention to the ever-increasing ethnic violence in Russia. Early on, the author, Clair Bigg, repeats the common claim that post-Soviet hate crimes are the expression of a long-suppressed primordial racism:

Racism was an unspoken fact of life during the Soviet era, even as the USSR publicly celebrated the utopian harmony of its myriad ethnicities and cultures. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, once-dormant prejudices have been allowed to devolve into active racism -- particularly in Russia, where resurgent national pride and heavy labor migration from neighboring states have proven an explosive combination.
As I’ve noted before, I think this particular analysis completely fails to capture the ways in which ethnic chauvinism and racism have been reproduced in Russia over the past century. But putting this quibble aside, Bigg does then present a number of other explanations for a rising tide of violence through interviews with human rights activists and representatives from migrant groups. Foremost among the contributing causes are the actions of the government that have encouraged nationalist sentiment, such as the mass deportations of Georgians, crackdowns on foreign vendors, and the failure to actively pursue the prosecution of hate crimes. (The sidebar from SOVA's Galina Kozhevnikova is especially revelatory on the relationship between the eruption of xenophobic violence earlier this year and the crackdown on ultra-nationalist groups.)

None of this is really anything new.

But then in the last third of the article, Bigg introduces an analysis of violence that is rather novel in mainstream coverage of Russian, offering a link between migrant labor, business and government. In other words, she presents the problem of ethnic violence as intertwined with the question of labor exploitation.

First, we learn from an African student in St. Petersburg that the targets of ethnic violence seem to be shifting:
The majority [of Africans] are students, and the attitude toward us has improved. If before dark skin was the main factor, today the migrants' occupation also plays a role.
This information nicely sets up a rather more interesting observation from human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina:
"Now the main victims are people from Central Asia. Authorities allow this to happen because Central Asians are currently the chief resource for slave labor,"[Gannushkina] says. "Their vulnerability is profitable to those who exploit them, it's profitable to have workers who are frightened and broken-spirited. Authorities profit from this because they are closely connected to these structures."
It’s a sketchy but completely believable analysis. And if Russia were a country where the media weren’t quite so cowed, perhaps an expose would be on the way from some outlet. (Gratuitous dig: if The eXile ever carried this kind of reporting, I would be a bit more broken up about them being shut down.)

For now we are stuck in the dark, pondering the problems of racism, ethnic violence and democracy in Russia.


Chrisius Maximus said...

Bigg's analysis of post-Soviet racism (I hate that word when applied in non-Western contexts, but what the hell) is not an analysis. It would be akin to asserting that the racism of white people in Mississippi is caused by the primordial racism of white people in Mississippi. Moreover, the dominant ethnic hatred in Imperial Russia was religiously-based anti-Semitism, so, if one were to ascribe anything as being "primordial" to Russia, it would be that, not hatred of Tajiks, and anti-Semitism is decidedly unfashionable.

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...


Yeah, but I thought that if one ignored her analysis in the first part of the article and paid attention to the interview bits, there were some interesting parts. I would like to think that that is the merit of solid journalism: even when the reporter doesn't know the subject well, she can locate the appropriate sources to cobble together good work.

It is too bad that the next step of good journalism--to follow the leads from your informants--is unlikely to be followed in this instance.

As for using the term "racism" in the context of Soviet/Russian history and contemporary events, I do think it is a category that can be used profitably, though it is not the same thing as national chauvinism, the conflation of which is what I imagine irks you. But to imagine that race doesn't play a role in history here (as some Russians like to portray matters)... well, my research, among others, just doesn't bear that out.

Chrisius Maximus said...

Yes, it is the conflation of "racism" with national chauvinism and/or ethnic/"tribal" hatred that irritates me. "Race" is a concept with a (false) biological meaning that arose inside Europe, an entity with which Russia's relationship is tenuous. However, Russia does not exist in a cultural bubble, so there have been/are being Western ideas of race overlaid upon local ethnic hatreds. You however know much more about this subject than I, and I would love to hear what you think about it.

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

CM, It's a big question and an on-going project for me. Something I'm not sure I can get to in comments here, and certainly not while so jet-lagged and running around in New York to see old friends. I will, as always, put off a fuller answer to the interactions of race and nationalism, international intellectual developments and local practices/culture, etc. Because it's a lot and I've got an appointment with BBQ, bourbon and a high-school friend right now. Maybe I can write it up in a post reflecting on some of my archival material or some old Soviet DVDs I picked up along my way in Moscow that I've been meaning to think about more seriously.

Freegman said...

"And if Russia were a country where the media weren’t quite so cowed, perhaps an expose would be on the way from some outlet."

I'm not sure what that has to do with media being "cowed". The analysis is sketchy and deficient of any hard supporting evidence. It might sound good, but without any facts it's nothing more than propaganda, fit for the tabloids.

The issue of rising racism and xenophobia isn't being ignored, even by state funded media such as Russia Today TV (which exists, ironically, to give the anglophone world a more positive view of Russia). I don't see how you can criticize the media for not picking up every crack-pot theory and running with it (not that I'm personally dismissing his theory). The problem exists, it's factual, and so the media reports it as such. How is reporting a baseless theory going to help the problem?

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...


My argument wasn't that the general problem of ethnic violence isn't being reported, rather that the specific claim about labor exploitation and connections to the State was likely to remain unexamined, hence one couldn't prove or disprove it, as I mentioned in my reply to CM above, as well.

This is the reason, in part, for the penchant for conspiracy theories among certain Russian intelligentsia that I've observed. At least, that's my conjecture.