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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Xenophobia Is All the Rage

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It seems symbolic that these kinds of things happen on NTV, of all channels. NTV, once considered a bastion of freedom in the Russian mass media. A channel founded not only by an oligarch but -- even more symbolically -- by the head of the Russian Jewish Congress at the time, Vladimir Gusinsky. Yet it was NTV that honored that consummate anti-Semite, Albert Makashov. It all happened last week on the political debate show, "K Baryeru!" The show's host, Vladimir Solovyov, admitted his Jewish heritage on live television, which is still a bold move in 21st-century Russia. It all happened only a week after the world marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, at which President Vladimir Putin publicly apologized to Europe for the anti-Semitic petition to the prosecutor general initiated by 19 State Duma deputies, who called for a ban on all Jewish organizations.

Makashov repeated everything on the air that Putin apologized for.

Makashov's opponent was cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who came out in a uniform bedecked with medals. This worked in his favor for the first few minutes. However, after Makashov unleashed his main -- and only -- point, Leonov was not able to respond, and lost shamefully when the viewers' votes were tallied.

The premise of the show was: "Why are the bulk of those who struck it rich during privatization Jewish?" Makashov's answer was obvious: The Jews have robbed Russia blind. And his view was supported by the majority of NTV viewers.

The similarity of this view to that of the Nazis did not bother Makashov or viewers one bit. It's not enough, alas, to simply accuse someone of being a Nazi nowadays. Those who face such accusations are not afraid or ashamed of them. It is also symbolic in a country that defeated Nazism and plans to celebrate the 60th anniversary of this victory .

Neither Makashov nor his fans were fazed that Putin had just condemned anti-Semitism. Putin's word, it seems, is also not enough to settle the issue in Russia today. And neither is the Constitution, nor the tough laws prohibiting the encouragement of interethnic strife.

This is not the first time the winners on Solovyov's show have presented the anti-Western, chauvinist and pro-communist solutions to various problems. It's always the liberals, the pro-market reformers and basically reasonable people who lose. This has become a pattern. There are two ways to explain this. Both are simple.

One: Something is wrong with NTV's audience. After the authorities purged the channel, the channel's previous, more progressive audience either no longer watches television or has moved to entertainment channels like STS. Entertainment is all the rage in Russia today. Russians are sick of politics.

The second version runs something like this. It's also simple. There is something wrong with the entire country. More and more frequently, people are inclined to blame those who are not like them. They are looking for foreign conspiracies. They ask why things are still messed up in Russia. It can't be that we're doing something wrong. Other people must be to blame. Anybody, but not us. George Soros. The Americans. The West. People from the Caucasus. Jews. Oligarchs.

This is not just a matter of ideas. It is more and more often a matter of spilled blood. Almost every day in various places around Russia, skinheads beat someone of Caucasus heritage or some student of color to a pulp.

Chauvinism and xenophobia are spreading rapidly, and not only among the poor. Once, you used to be able to find an "economic" explanation similar to the European theory of the rise of right-wing nationalist sentiments, the notion that the foreigners are stealing all the jobs. But now chauvinism has become part of mainstream thought and part of Russian neo-patriotism.

No one is getting in the way of this wave at the government level. The authorities are passively playing into the hands of neo-patriot forces. They are not being brought to task, and official condemnations sound false and automatic. Official denunciations of "Western machinations" and "American conspiracies" resound in perfect unison with the xenophobic foolishness. Russians are a simple lot and can't tell an "American" from a "Zionist" conspiracy. It's all the same to them. Putin's public apologies, made for the benefit of Europe, were barely noticed back home.

If we don't learn history's lessons the first time around, it will give us new ones. Much tougher ones.

Georgy Bovt is editor of Profile.