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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Racism in Russia and the World

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As international delegates are gathered for the United Nations sponsored conference on racism in South Africa, it is worth asking what place racism has in Russian society.

Russians do not see themselves as racist and intolerant. On the contrary, they tend to have a vaguely inclusive notion of their own ethnic identity. "Scratch a Russian, find a Tatar" as the saying goes. The heritage of 70 years of Soviet socialism, when state propaganda insisted that the Soviet people were a happy family of nations, also played its part in blurring racial categories in the minds of Russians. It is still Russian state policy, for example, to give Russian citizenship to any former citizen of the USSR, irrespective of ethnicity or place of birth.

But in the West, Russia is typically seen as a deeply racist society and one that has grown more racist since 1991 ? as evidenced by incidents of anti-Semitism, public support for the war in Chechnya and widespread hostility towards "persons of Caucasian nationality." Public opinion surveys do reveal explicit hostility towards some ethnic groups (blacks, Arabs, Gypsies and Caucasians). Although Russians tend to express tolerance towards Jews in such polls, there is some evidence that such questions do not elicit genuine responses. One VTsIOM poll in October 1999 found that 34 percent of respondents agreed with the suggestion to compile lists of Jews in leading positions in Russia. While the delegates in Durban debate whether Zionism is racism, in Russia the relevant question is: Should anti-semitism be seen as racism?

In reality, the picture regarding racism in Russia is rather complex. One problem is the term "racism" itself. Like "privacy," the concept of racism never quite made it into the Russian language. The terms rasa and rasizm were lifted directly from English and still carry foreign connotations. Thus if a Russian talks about "racism" he has in mind black/white struggles in the United States or South Africa. There is no exact Russian equivalent to the term "race." The human race is rod lyudskoi, where rod means family or kin. Traditionally, Russian analysis of "ethnicity" focused more on cultural, historical and linguistic ties, than racial origins per se. Boris Lanin, a professor at the Academy of Pedagogic Sciences in Moscow, remarks that "Russians know the word 'racist' but they never use the word 'rasa,' or, to be precise, they use 'rasa' incorrectly.

Which is not to say that the Russians don't divide humanity into "races." They do, into three: black, white and yellow. The main target of racial anxiety for Russians seems to have been the perceived threat from Asia. Hence aziaty is a derogatory term, and the Russian equivalent to the English phrase "don't judge a man by the color of his skin" is "don't judge a man by the shape of his eye." But these three racial categories don't coincide with the main targets of Russian xenophobia today. Jews and people of Caucasian background are classified as "white" or "European" rather than "black" or "Asian." As explained by Igor Zevelev, a professor at the Marshall Center in Germany, calling Caucasians chyorniye, or blacks, "deprives them of honor to be white. That is why it is derogative!"

Back in the late Stalin period a huge team of ethnographers was assembled to map the peoples of the world on a "scientific" basis. In 1964, after years of labor, they published an "Atlas of Peoples of the World," which included some racist categories in its classification of nations. For example, it distinguished between some of the Central Asia peoples on the basis of presence or absence of the "Mongolian fold" eyelid. Ironically, data from this atlas was put into a "Political Indicators Handbook," and to this day it is still being used by U.S. political scientists as a source for basic information about the ethnic structure of countries around the world.

So, Russian attitudes towards race are rather confusing. Intolerant Russians are more accurately described as xenophobic rather than racist. Some Russians undoubtedly have strong negative feelings about certain ethnic groups, which they see as having a common descent. But this descent is primarily understood in cultural and historical terms, and Russians do not have a developed and coherent theory about races within which these various ethnic groups are located.

This all serves to raise doubts about the wisdom of having an international conference on "racism" alone, since many forms of interethnic hostility do not fall along racial lines. One only has to look at the conflicts in the Balkans to find a graphic illustration of this point. Many Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Moslems have fought viciously at various points over the past decade, yet racially the three groups are indistinguishable.

Peter Rutland is a professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.