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Russia: Did Soviet Collapse Open Door To Modern-Day Racism?

Many think Soviet leaders kept a lid on racism (RFE/RL) Russian discrimination has long had an impact on ethnic and religious minorities, even as the USSR trumpeted concepts like the "friendship of nations" and the ideal of the "New Soviet Man." But the overt racial violence seen in modern-day Russia is something new. Some argue the collapse of the Soviet Union brought long-latent racism to the surface, by opening the door to uncontrolled migration, economic collapse, and the entrenched conflict in Chechnya.

PRAGUE, June 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- "Children of different nations, we dream of living in peace; In these hard times, we go to fight for happiness; On the seas and oceans, everybody who is young; Give us your hand, in our row of friendship."

The 1956 "Hymn of the World's Democratic Youth" extolled the Soviet-era virtues of international friendship.

It couldn't contrast more sharply with the sentiments behind a 2005 political advertisement in which Dmitry Rogozin and Yury Popov of the Motherland party chastise dark-skinned men littering the ground with watermelon rinds.

Doniyor Usmonov, a native of Tajikistan who has spent most of the past 30 years in the Russian city of Volgograd, finds the changes bewildering.

Usmonov remembers feeling right at home when he moved to Russia as a student in 1974. He says his ethnic origin simply wasn't an issue in the dormitory where he lived together with Russians and other students from all over the Soviet Union.

"These questions about interethnic relations just didn't come up. We were one country. Nobody paid any attention to your religion or to your nation. We lived as friends," Usmonov says.

Now, when studies show people of non-Slavic appearance in Moscow are almost 22 times more likely to be stopped by police for document checks, Usmonov's student memories seem almost impossibly carefree.

"Then, we never worried about where our passports were because we didn't need to carry them. Today, people with our color eyes and skin can't go anywhere without documents," Usmonov says.


Josef Stalin's ruthless purges of ethnic minorities in the 1940s belie much of the Soviet myth of the "friendship of nations." Many observers in the former Soviet Union say dormant racism was prevalent among many Russians. But at the same time, the USSR did promote an enthusiastic -- if painstakingly controlled -- mixing of its many nationalities into a race-neutral "New Soviet Man," or "Homo Sovieticus."

It was an idea Moscow was fond of using to compare the USSR favorably to the capitalist West, which it portrayed as fraught with racism and prejudice.

Many people from the former Soviet republics and foreign countries first experienced Russia during the days of the USSR. Desire Defaut, a native of Cameroon who has lived in St. Petersburg since 1989, says for all its faults, Soviet-era Russia was by most accounts more tolerant toward minorities than it is today.

"I remember when we first came to study, we were treated like the couriers who would carry Russian culture back to Africa. Today, these kids that attack us, when you ask them why they do this, they say they are against foreigners because they take our jobs," Defaut says.

Ali Nassor, a journalist from Tanzania who has lived in Petersburg since 1986, says he has "lost count" of the times skinheads have attacked him on the streets.

"We have come to the point where we just don't take street assaults as being a big deal here. When it comes to murder, then of course that makes the news," Nassor says.

So what happened? How did Russia change into a place where having the wrong color skin can be dangerous -- or even fatal?

Some, like Nassor, say racism and racists have always been present in Russia, but was suppressed in Soviet times.

"In the communist times, they didn't feel free to act -- just like the liberal people, or the democratically oriented people, didn't feel free to act. Now all these camps have gone to the extremes in a way. So the fascists feel free to act under the banner of freedom," Nassor says.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has also contributed to the problem by literally opening the floodgates to uncontrolled migration. Soviet authorities maintained absolute control on people movement through residence permits and internal passports.

Now, migrants from the former Soviet republics face far fewer travel restrictions, and a much greater need to go wherever they can find work -- usually the comparatively prosperous Russia. It's a situation that has fueled massive resentment toward migrants among many Russians, many of whom are themselves struggling to make ends meet.

Chechnya Campaign

Russia's ongoing military campaign in Chechnya, and the resulting rise in terrorist acts committed by Chechen extremists, has only intensified Russian anger toward Muslims and non-Slavs.

Gurgen Saakian, a native of Armenia who has Russian citizenship, says Russian politicians today attempt to manipulate the race issue -- thereby making the problem worse.

"Today the media and the political situation have created motives to talk about this. There are certain people, who in their misfortune, repeat what politicians say. And they think that if they are living badly today, this is because of other nations," Saakian says.

But Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Globalization Studies, said these things explain only part of what is happening in Russia.

Kagarlitsky says the economic anxiety that some Russians are feeling has led to a predictable search for scapegoats.

But just as importantly, the breakup of the multinational Soviet Union has led some younger Russians to forge an identity based on chauvinism.

"This has to do with a new identity emerging in Russia. People do not feel themselves belonging to the Soviet Union anymore. They do not feel there is anything that makes you part of the same society as Tajiks or people from the southern provinces of Russia. This is the disintegration of the original Soviet identity," Kagarlitsky says.

And according to Kagarlitsky, the way many young Russians are forging their identity today is rooted in the way the older generation reacted to the break-up of the Soviet Union.

What Russia lacked after 1991 was a period of self-reflection and catharsis similar to what West Germany went through after World War II, and much of the West experienced in the 1960s.

"Russian society found itself humiliated, offended, and internationally neglected. Russians developed a kind of victim complex rather than reexamining their own share of responsibility for what happened and why and how the Soviet Union disintegrated," Kagarlitsky says.

Epidemic Of Hate

Epidemic Of Hate

Yusuf Sultonov, whose 9-year-old daughter was beaten and stabbed to death in St. Petersburg on February 9, 2004 (TASS)

EXTREMISM ASCENDANT: More than half of Russians have xenophobic views, according to a report published in August 2005. In the report, rights groups say that -- despite progress in some areas -- racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism remain rife in Russia. But what worries watchdogs most are recent moves by nationalist-patriotic movements to form paramilitary groups....(more)


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