MOSCOW -- When a taxi driver refused to give a ride to a Congolese student in the Russian city of Bryansk this week, a video of their exchange quickly went viral. The student, who recorded it, asked the driver if he was racist. "Of course," came the reply.
Within hours, the ride-hailing service Yandex Taxi announced that it had ceased working with the driver, and would not tolerate racism and rudeness from its employees and contractors. The move quickly garnered praise, with many Russians taking to social media to condemn the driver's discriminatory actions.
But an equally vocal chorus emerged denouncing his dismissal as excessive and discriminatory to ethnic Russians. Twitter became home to hundreds of posts defending the driver's alleged right to refuse customers, often casting the decision to dismiss him as an example of imported political correctness that does not fit with Russian values.
"Why is @Yandextaxi suppressing the rights of Russian drivers and denying them the right to choose clients?" one Twitter user asked about the company, a joint venture with U.S. tech group Uber that employs freelance drivers using private vehicles.
"Has a Russian in his own country no longer any right to ban someone from sitting in their car?" another Twitter user asked.
Some asked how the company could fire a freelancer during an economic recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic, or tried to excuse the driver's actions by citing examples of alleged bad behavior by Central Asian drivers working for Yandex Taxi. Other posts made little effort to conceal their racist undertone. An online petition -- apparently since removed -- was launched to reinstate the driver.
The debate comes following the violent death of George Floyd, a black American who died in late May after a white policeman in Minnesota pinned him down with a knee to the neck during an arrest, prompting mass protests against social injustice and police brutality across the United States and other countries -- and an ideological clash in Russia between at least two outspoken camps.
"A culture war like the one that has been waged in the United States for 30 years or more, between 'conservatives’ and ‘liberals,' has unfolded for real in Russia," journalist and commentator Konstantin Eggert wrote in a June 9 column in the online media outlet Snob.
Posts in defense of the Bryansk driver frequently cited the demonstrations in the United States -- which have often been marred by violence, looting, and face-offs between protesters and police -- as a cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive "progressiveness."
The debate also mirrored those that erupted in recent weeks after prominent public figures in Russia weighed in on the discord in the United States with social-media posts that have been criticized as tone deaf and racist.
On June 2, Russian socialite and TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak posted a photo on Instagram in which she poses with a black man in what appears to be traditional African dress. "I'm categorically against racism, police brutality, and other forms of discrimination," she writes. She goes on to describe looters in U.S. cities as people who were "unable to succeed by the rules of the capitalist world."
Two days later, prominent columnist Oleg Kashin tweeted an image depicting a black man surrounded by Nike shoeboxes and Louis Vuitton bags with the caption "Martin Looter King." It was immediately slammed as racist by many, but Kashin later defended it in an interview with a Russian radio station.
Like many defenders of the Bryansk driver who refused a ride to the Congolese student, he warned of the supposed dangers of Western progressiveness.
"We've spoken about whether what is happening in the West threatens Russia, too. Indeed, it's tempting to imagine that our Afrorussians (in our case that means first and foremost Central Asians, and maybe Caucasians) are smashing the windows of GUM," he said, evoking hypothetical scenes of looting by members of Russia's largest migrant population at the historic GUM shopping mall adjacent to Red Square.
That the protests against social injustice in the United States have ignited a debate over racism in Russia is not surprising, according to Ivan Kurilla, a historian of Russian-American relations at the European University in St. Petersburg. The United States is the "significant other" for Russians, he wrote recently in a column for Meduza, an independent news outlet.
"In discussions of the United States, [Russians] can avoid censoring themselves, and these debates over U.S. protests paint a complicated image of Russian society," he said. "We have examples of racism, divisions into left and right, and support for the police -- expressed far more openly than those same people are willing to speak about affairs in their own country."
"Tolerance" and "liberalism" are terms routinely mocked by conservative media outlets in Russia, and by right-wing commentators who argue that they have driven many Western countries to abandon certain "traditional values" that are core to their identities.
And, against the backdrop of an upcoming nationwide vote in Russia on constitutional changes that are set to shift the country further in a conservative direction – among others by enshrining marriage as a union between a man and woman only or listing piety as a key element of Russian identity -- some commentators see the angry reactions in Russia to protests in the United States or efforts to punish racist behavior in Bryansk as motivated by a conscious rejection by a vocal part of society of liberal values espoused in the West.
"Whatever is rejected by the West, it seems, is good for Russia," political analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov wrote in an opinion column about the Bryansk incident. "So it follows that if the trend in the West is to not be racist, in Russia, it's often better to gain a reputation as a racist than to be suspected of tolerance."