In my multi-day conversation with my host about gender and race, she told me that she believes racism does not exist in Russia and is only a problem in the U.S. She was rather insistent on this, which shocked me given how she could not understand my reasoning for promoting diversity of political representatives.
I asked my Resident Director — who has lived in Russia for about 20 years and was married to a Russian woman — about my host’s comment. He said that my host’s views about race (and gender!) are very common for Russians, in general. Russians repeatedly have told him that racism and sexism do not exist in here.
Today, I talked about racism with six Russian students from a few different universities in Moscow. These students are between the ages of 18 and 23, studying topics from linguistics to engineering. All the students were fully white, except for one who was half Nepalese but rather white-passing. Five of the six students said that racism does not exist in Russia. The sixth person who believes racism does exist in Russia was not the half-Nepalese girl, which surprised me.
Their reasoning for their believed absence of racism all fell back on one idea: the Soviet Union had a mix of many nationalities from different cultures and countries. Essentially, because of this history they argue that Russia has always had a mixed identity and accepted that as “Russian.” Racism is, thus, not discussed in daily life or at school or at home. It is as if pushed underneath a rug.
This is rather disappointing as political leaders in the Soviet Union were, in fact, not very inviting to many ethnic groups. For example, Koryo-Sarams, ethnic Koreans who immigrated to Russia four to five generations ago, were forcibly and inhumanely relocated on “ghost trains” from Eastern Russia to the barren lands and desserts or Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, etc). This history is not actively acknowledged in Russia, and these ethnic Koreans still face huge economic disadvantages. My Resident Director told me that Russians may simply not know this history. Regardless, the reasoning of the Soviet Union melting pot seems rather weak to me, and Koryo Sarams are just one example of a hole in that explanation. I also have to remember here that the actions of a single political leader or political party do not represent the mindsets and mentalities of all Russians. It can be easy to forget this in any context, Russia or U.S.
Another thing I realized in my discussion with these students is that their mindset towards immigrants is much like the conservative led dialogue against Mexican immigrants in the U.S. The half-Nepalese girl (who believes racism does not exist in Russia) said that her younger brother now attends school where many students are immigrants from the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan). She said that these new students are dangerous because they can bring drugs to the school and pointed out how they need to adapt more to the Russian culture, or it can be seen as “rude.” For example, she told us how the students keep speaking in Armenian at the school rather than chatting in Russian (although I could not tell if she thought the usage of their native tongues as bad or not). This instantly reminded me of dialogues back in the states against Mexican immigrant children who speak Spanish at school or who are seen as dangerous and accused of bringing crime and drugs over the border. These dialogues, at least at my very liberal university, are viewed as sweeping statements that are politically incorrect and gateways to racism against immigrant populations.
And, as I said before, racism is pushed under the rug in Russia. The very students who complain about immigrants from the Caucasus as being dangerous and rude also say that racism does not exist in Russia. Another example is when my host brought up on her own a discussion about Trump’s wall at the Mexican border, oh which she is a proponent. She seems so wrapped up in that news, that she fails to notice that the very same dialogues against immigrants are happening here in Russia. Or that these dialogues and mentalities are what Americans could define as racist. Fascinating.
We then asked the students if their families would be upset if they became best friends with someone from the Caucasus, for example. Most answered “yes” and that it would be weird and most-likely not accepted by their parents. My American, white friend also studying Russian on this program is from the South. He pointed out that his grandmother found it incredibly hard to wrap her head around the idea that her grandson’s best friend all throughout childhood was black and that now he lives with a black roommate. He then explained how this is from internal biases and structural racism that has existed and continues to this day in the U.S.
In all honesty, I was waiting for the lightbulb moment when one Russian student would be like “oh…. I see….” but it never happened.
This whole experience made me realize a few things.
- In the U.S., we are hypersensitive about racism. Friendships are broken over a single action that can be seen as offensive and racist. Racism is something that we grow up talking about and hearing about. However, this is not to say that racism has decreased with time as we talk about it more in the U.S. That would be an incredible oversimplification of an issue that has structural foundations in our institutions, history, cultures, how people create communities and interpersonal relationships. It is may be plausible to say that people are less tolerant of open displays of racism with time, however. What comes instantly to my mind is the story of the white Yale graduate student (incredibly educated) who called the police on a black Yale student for napping in the common room. The fear that the white student felt connects straight to structural racism that continues to this day. But when she reacted publicly and failed to see her actions as racist, the internet TORE her apart, berating her for her actions and requesting that she be removed from the Yale graduate program.
- In Russia, people seem to not even have a definition for what “racism” actually means to them and why it happens and what it looks like. So acts that seem obviously racist to me and other Americans will not be perceived the same way by Russians. This is something I need to think about more and flesh out in my mind. But I am very intrigued by the Russian relationship with race.
- The promotion of increased racial diversity in political offices is not important to Russians because they are subconsciously preferring one kind of leader over another, but rather for a more surprising reason. Russians see the government very differently from the way Americans perceive the government. In the U.S., political leaders are seen as representatives of the people and the way people can get their opinions heard and struggles understood. And this is why it is so significant when more women and more people of color are voted into politics. However, Russians are much more distant from their political leaders and see them more as someone to “get the job done” and “tell them how that job is to be done.” This can be linked back all the way to the tsars, and then onto political leaders in the Soviet Union. Russians have always had leaders who “tell them how the job is done.” Again, I want to be careful to not over generalize and use cultural mentality as the main reason for how Russians behave politically, but it is something interesting to think about and explains a lot to why my host (and other Russians I have talked to) think that it is not important to promote increased diversity in politics, but rather to choose the most “умный человек” “competent person” to get the job done.
Overall, this is the beginning of my discovery of how race is perceived in Russia. I’ve only been here one month and have much more to learn about it, but wanted to share with you this information as I find it incredibly fascinating. My goal is to talk to some people of different racial backgrounds on this topic, as so far all the students I know and have been exposed to in my program are fully white, which is not the best sample group for this topic. But regardless, I am still making some interesting realizations.
Until next time.