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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When Standards Collide: On Racism in Russia

To the speaker, "Jewish room" meant political department. This was the office where the newspaper's liberal, market-oriented news coverage was headquartered.

I froze and waited for the axe to fall. It did not.

About the same time, I also began to hear about nashi chorniye, our blacks, meaning people from the Caucasus. It took me a while to appreciate all the prejudices loaded into this expression. The slur refers to the darker skin-tone of people from the Caucasus, the "our" being a throwback to Soviet days when the Caucasus republics belonged to Moscow.

Russia has no exclusive rights on racist thinking. But in Russia, where decades of isolation and state propaganda limited citizens' knowledge of other races and cultures, such ignorance runs high.

For foreigners, such unveiled racism from ordinary citizens is shocking. The satisfaction of Muscovites following the expulsion and harassment of thousands of Caucasus nationals during emergency rule in October was a vivid demonstration of the pervasiveness of racism.

In this age of political correctness, what was particularly peculiar for foreigners was the openness with which it all took place. Police acknowledged that large numbers of Caucasians were being rounded up, but shrugged and said that the city was simply enforcing the law. The State Automobile Inspectorate, the GAI, published a directive specifically naming "persons of Caucasian nationality."

A Jewish friend of mine, university educated and liberal in most respects, recently emigrated to the United States. Before leaving, the fear he most often expressed to me was not finding a job or learning to speak English. He was afraid of African-Americans.

"They'll murder you for your shoes, won't they?" he asked. He was utterly earnest.

My first reaction was to get angry, but I swallowed the outrage. After all, my friend's sole impression of blacks came from news coverage of the Los Angeles riots and South African township violence. He had never known a black person. And he was my friend. I told him that if he was going to live in the United States, then he was going to have to drop, or at least conceal, his ignorance.

I reminded him that the only reason he was given refugee status in the United States was because he was a Jew in a country with a history of anti-Semitic prejudice. Bigotry was the enemy, not Russia or Russians. Yet here he stood, exercising the same kind of bigotry against African-Americans.

He nodded and promised to be more open-minded "in the interest of fitting in."

I recently learned that he failed in this task. I received a postcard from him, and, among the descriptions of his two-story apartment, orderliness on the roads and the inadequacy of public transport, he wrote the simple sentence, "There are many blacks here."

There was no second sentence on the subject. It stood alone. He might have been saying, "There are many shopping centers here," or "Everybody has a car."

Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain. Against ignorance, they pray.