Putin’s liberal foes reject Black Lives Matter
Racial reckoning is bypassing Russia, where liberal elites have long ignored discrimination within their own borders
- Text by Karina Orlova
Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. have sparked a reckoning with systemic racism and discrimination around the world, from Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal people to anti-Islamophobia and anti-colonial movements in Western Europe.
Remarkably, Russia is a glaring exception to this wave of self-scrutiny.
On television and online, there has been a near total absence of public conversation around endemic and pervasive discrimination against minorities. This silence is especially conspicuous among Russia’s most prominent political liberals — people who many in the West hope will one day replace Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime and who are no strangers to state oppression and police violence. They have responded to the Black Lives Matters protests in the United States with ridicule and rancor, a reflection of the unchecked racism pervasive within Russia’s chattering classes.
Among Russia’s intelligentia, public figures have expressed disdain for the protests, concern over property damage, anger against Black people, and have seemed to welcome a harsh police crackdown. At best, a lot of liberal Russians have sounded like far-right American commentators who have attacked George Floyd’s character and accused the Black Lives Matter movement of hypocrisy, over-reaction, and insincerity. At worst, their op-eds and public posts have been overtly racist and have cheered-on police aggression.
Russians have decades of experience of police brutality, but they have shown very little solidarity with scenes of violence unleashed against those demonstrating for civil liberty and social justice. Americans, of course, have emphatically not resolved their widespread and systemic racism. However, Russians have never even tried to significantly address the deeply ingrained racism towards ethnic and religious minorities in their own country. The consequence is currently on display on Russian TV and Russian social media: a ferocious hostility to a mass movement against police violence and for social equity.
Citing racist posts on Instagram, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung has reported that the carmaker Audi has fired Ksenia Sobchak, its high-profile advertising ambassador in Russia. A 2018 Russian presidential candidate (and rumored to the goddaughter of Vladimir Putin), Sobchak is one of the most famous people in Russia. She all but shed tears over the broken windows of a Hermès boutique in New York. Sobchak attended the Moscow street protests of 2011-2012 and was a vocal part of the opposition. Now, however, she has responded to the BLM protests by announcing that she resents affirmative action as a “quota” system that takes university admissions from “talented white guys” in favor of black recipients.
Sobchak has also cited successful African-Americans such as Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey as evidence that there is no systemic racism in the U.S., adding that lazy, unsuccessful people, who go to protests “would always find someone to blame” for their misery.
To be sure, the country’s liberals are not monolithic, and on social media many Russians have expressed their disgust with the racism coming from some of the country’s leading commentariat — who are not representative of the full breadth of Russia’s opinion writers. Furthermore, Russian people are not expected to be experts on the complicated relationships in American society. American history is taught at Russian schools only in passing, and Russians, with a mature media and entertainment industry, don’t consume a lot of English-language media.
But what Russians do know very well is state-sanctioned rights abuses, including the dispersing of peaceful protests. In Russia, it’s the political opposition and liberals who suffer from that most often, precisely because the Russian government publicly targets and discriminates against them — condemning them as second-class citizens and “the enemy of the state.”
While so far at least, very few Russian liberals have spoken up against police brutality and racism, an exception has been the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny.
Navalny has fully supported “the acts of civil disobedience” by Americans standing up against rights violations — noting, however, that police abuse in the U.S. is “a million times lighter” than what the police do in Russia. But Navalny also has a documented history of using racist epithets against Muslims and other minorities in Russia and has associated with Russian ethno-nationalists.
Russia is a country where racial difference routinely matters more than liberal ideals. Russian authorities often mete out abuse to people from Central Asia and the Caucasus, and Russians frequently discriminate against people who look like they come from those regions. In Russia, where intolerance against the “other” is almost never rebuked by people in authority, the Black Lives Matter movement has catalyzed little in the way of self-reflection.
Instead, in Russia’s leading independent newspaper, prominent journalist Yulia Latynina mocked the New York protests as a supposed “rebellion against the system” and that they are a pretext for robbing TVs and Gucci products. While the economist and a frequent commentator on English-language media Vladislav Inozemtsev wrote that George Floyd’s past somehow helps to justify his murder and reproached those “who condemn racism” while omitting his old arrest record. Inozemtsev, who resides in Maryland, denounced rioting and looting and claimed that protests aimed to assert “the supremacy of ethnic minorities over the majority.”
Well-known writer and satirist Viktor Shenderovich declared the grievances of the Black Lives Matter movement unimportant when compared to the Holocaust. “Black people are not being burned in chambers,” said Shenderovich, who is a frequent visitor to the United States. He has gone on to announce that if there is racism in the U.S., it is not systemic.
Putin’s response, meanwhile, has been to tout the Soviet Union’s history of support for Black people. During the Cold War the Kremlin capitalized on America’s treatment of its Black citizens to highlight U.S. hypocrisy on civil liberties. But Putin, who has long felt a deep unease over any street-level protest, has also characterized the Black Lives Matter movement as an expression of “radical nationalism and extremism.”
Some prominent Russians have dissented from the liberal anti-BLM orthodoxy, and have searched for explanations. For example, Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the University of Chicago, has said it is that Russians are ignorant of the realities of structural racism in the United States.
But parochialism alone does not explain liberal Russians’ vehement reaction to America’s racial reckoning. Race is central to understanding how Russians understand themselves. Ethnic Russians make up about 80% of the population, yet almost 200 ethnicities live in a country that places little value on tolerance, pluralism, and other democratic niceties, a country where even the liberal elite is horrified by a global movement for racial equity and justice.
Russian liberals’ condemnation of the Black Lives Matter movement is especially tragic because the movement offers a vision of how to reorder a society centered on universal values of equality and anti-racism. For a country whose aggression toward its neighbors is often grounded in intolerance toward ethnic, racial, and religious difference, the BLM movement is a door into an alternative reality, a glimpse of how to build a country that will not harass the rest of the world, for once.
Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images. Graphic by Anastasia Gviniashvili
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