issue 260 - October 1994
Are you a pure Aryan?
Their economy shattered and national pride in tatters, many ordinary Russians
are seeking comfort in racist scapegoating. Olivia Ward reports from Moscow.
On the stage of the packed Moscow concert hall, angel-faced girls in white dresses sang mournful songs of a great Russian past. In the lobby at intermission the audience was also deep in nostalgia. A bookshelf spread with some of the racist bibles of the twentieth century – Protocols of the Elders of Zion, The World Jewish Conspiracy, White Power, and Adolf Hitler’s durable Mein Kampf.
‘Can you give me a discount if I take both of these?’ a blonde matron in a denim jacket wheedled, as though bargaining over potatoes. Next to her a neatly dressed young man chatted with clerks, idly turning the pages of an anti-Western communist tract.
These, to all appearances, were ordinary Russians. Some dressed in evening finery for the concert, others in business suits or nondescript day clothes. No one sported the black leathers or combat fatigues that are the radical chic of the Russian racist community.
‘I’m always close to tears when I hear beautiful music,’ apologized Alexei Matyukhin, a stocky fortyish man with thick glasses. ‘Our Russian culture has been trampled on. We’re so humiliated these days. All we can do is hope that something will survive.’
Three years ago Matyukhin celebrated what he thought would be the time of his political life – Russia’s debut as an independent democratic state. ‘I was at the White House with Yeltsin during the coup,’ Matyukhin said. ‘Now I’m another highly qualified, unemployed specialist. The country has been cheated and so have I.’
Like many people, Matyukhin rejects out-and-out racism as ‘non-Russian.’ But he believes that the West is destroying the country’s values; that the streets are overrun with criminals from the Caucasus, nicknamed ‘blacks’. As for Jews, they might be involved in ‘unsavoury dealings’ – or secretly influencing the fate of the country.
‘For years we were miserable, but we knew we were a superpower,’ says bank clerk Ivan Novikov. ‘Now we turn on the TV and see Americans and Europeans talking about us as though we’re charity cases. We don’t have a place in the world any more.’ With head-spinning speed, Russians who lived as monarchs of the well-defended Soviet castle have seen their leaders knocking on Western doors for trade deals, loans and military agreements, and waiting in line as ordinary supplicants.
Those like Matyukhin who have neither money nor pride in their country’s status look around at non-Russians with increasing suspicion. Writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn – revered as Russia’s cultural icon and spiritual guru – rails against the ‘obscenity’ of new Western influences. Meanwhile some Russian Orthodox churchmen openly attack other religions and believe they should be banned. And there is a rift in the church between its liberal wing and those who would make anti-Semitism and xenophobia an article of faith.
President Boris Yeltsin has waged intermittent war on racism and enshrined human rights in the constitution. But the roots of democracy run shallow. Although racism is officially taboo and loudmouthed extremists are sometimes prosecuted, the level of tolerance for it is high.
Few minorities escape hostile attention. Resentment against Chinese and Vietnamese is on the rise as Asian traders enter the Russian market. Africans, wooed from socialist countries with Soviet educational grants, are suspect and urged to leave; when South Africa became a non-racial democracy many Russians sympathized with the pro-apartheid movement. Westerners, once greeted with interest during the waning Soviet days, are now held responsible for the decay of Russian values, widespread poverty and even the declining health of the population.
But Jews, who have always been viewed as outsiders by Russians, bear the brunt of the strident nationalists’ resentment. The exodus of Jews to wealthier countries before the collapse of communism was seen as betrayal, even by those who were happy to see them go. The return of Russian Jews as business people earns them particular antipathy.
‘Are you a pure Aryan?’ asked a slight man with nicotine-stained teeth, as Moscow browsers looked curiously at his anti-Semitic newsletter. ‘If not I can’t sell you any of my publications.’
So entrenched is anti-Semitism among nationalists that former Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi was undermined as a suitable candidate for the 1996 election campaign on the grounds that his mother was rumoured to be Jewish.
It is paradoxical that many nationalists, including Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are angry enough to go to court over public accusations of anti-Semitism. But among their supporters they have few reservations about mingling with the most hair-raising racist propagandists.
Official racism is at a new high. The mayors of Moscow, St Petersburg and other cities have brought back an old Soviet ban on ‘foreigners’ living in their cities, and police often beat up Caucasians and other non-Russians accused of crimes. More than 400 Africans were deported from Russia after they tested positive for the HIV virus, and the State Duma is drafting a new law to force non-Russians to take AIDS tests. Refugees are increasingly unwelcome and some have been pressured to sign agreements to move to the most barren and polluted parts of the country.
Racism in the rubble
The climate of racial intolerance isn’t surprising or even new in a country that used to call all foreigners nemtsy or mutes. Throughout the centuries non-Russians were stared at, envied, ridiculed and isolated in ghettos as though infected with dangerous diseases.
‘Cultural’ explanations abound. ‘You must understand that we’re very insecure these days’, says 20-year-o1d Katerina Kuminova, a student at Moscow University. ‘Russian culture flourished for millennia but we were always up against people who wanted to destroy it. After 70 years of being locked behind the Iron Curtain we weren’t prepared for all these powerful new influences. We’re trying to rediscover our cultural identity and we don’t know how to cope.’
But Russia’s drawn-out economic crisis provides one answer. As the floorboards fell out of the economy, scattering old certainties along with the hopes and dreams of average Russians, racism was thick in the rubble.
‘Comfortable people don’t go around looking for somebody to hate,’ says Tancred Golenpolsky of Moscow’s Jewish Gazette. ‘Whenever people are hungry or miserable or insecure they blame it on a scapegoat.’
In the December election Zhirinovsky won most of the party votes in the lower house of Parliament with promises of a new Orthodox Slavic paradise. Denying that he is a racist, he rails at ‘foreign influences’ and calls for ‘pure Russians’ to unite against imported filth. Contrary to the hopes of liberals, Russia’s first independent parliamentary election moved ultra-nationalism into the mainstream. Some blame government apathy for the popularity of extremism.
But others say that a racist backlash was bound to happen, and marvel that it hasn’t been more violent. They point out that Lenin’s plan for a Soviet Union of free and equal minorities was a fairytale at best and a nightmare at worst.
After the USSR was formed in 1924, Stalin played a deadly game with hundreds of ethnic groups as pawns. Purges and pogroms massacred millions as people were shifted from one end of the vast empire to another. Homes and possessions were stripped from one group and given to another. Enclaves of minorities were locked into territories of their enemies. Where no hatred existed, the secret police fomented it. By the l980s the Soviet Union was a highly centralized federation dominated by Russians and dependent on them.
Now, with only the rags of its old superpower mantle wrapped around it, Russia is in culture shock. Some see the ‘McDonaldization’ of culture as part of a ‘Zionist Conspiracy’ to undermine Russia, in spite of the fact that only 1.5 million Jews remain in the country. Muslims are similarly mistrusted. Some Azerbaijanis, Tajiks, Chechens and other Muslim people of the Caucasus are linked with the mafiya. When Ruslan Khasbulatov attempted to seize power last year, he was caricatured in some liberal publications as a turbaned ayatollah. Since the war in Bosnia, anti-Muslim feelings have run even higher and nationalists call for armed support for the Serbs.
But nationalism isn’t just a Russian disease. Last year more than 600,000 Russians and others fled the newly independent republics of Central Asia because of discrimination, humiliation and sometimes violence. The Government expects an influx of three million people by the end of this year.
Landing in the middle of an economic crisis, at a time when many Russians are squeezed into substandard flats, the newcomers are often unwelcome – especially if their skins are dark.
‘Nobody was prepared for the break-up of the Soviet Union,’ says chess champion Anatoly Karpov, who heads the Federation of Peace and Conciliation, an organization that aids displaced people. ‘You have situations where a Turkman was born in Ukraine and married to a Ukrainian, and is now working in Moldova. In Russia today there are many people who don’t know what their identity or nationality is.’
And there are others who will use their own Russian identity to scapegoat them.
Olivia Ward is the Moscow bureau chief of the Toronto Star.