Cornell University Press

Racial Politics in Putin’s Russia

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Black Lives Matter has flowered well beyond the US to become a global movement, giving us an opportunity—and a moral obligation—to think more critically about how racism functions in diverse societies. In some national-political contexts, protesters have directed their outrage toward symbols of specifically Black oppression, toppling statues of slave traders. In other contexts with histories of colonialism, the movement has become about oppression more generally, an impetus, from Manitoba to Australia, to reckon with the structural violence directed at colonized peoples.

In Russia, the Moment Is… Complicated

The Black Lives Matter movement has struck a nerve, but it has not prompted widespread empathetic protests or a real reckoning with Russia’s own race relations. Most Russian commentators have focused on isolated incidents of looting and unruliness among protesters. More crucially, they have treated BLM and the structural inequality that provoked it as essentially American problems, such that they don’t see any reason to turn criticism inward.

Is Russian Racism Definitionally Impossible?

This attitude has a long history. Soviet discourse during the Cold War held that racism was a problem of the capitalist West, particularly the United States. Soviet nationalities policies focused on mixing rather than segregation, encouraging extensive internal migration between far-flung parts of the Soviet Union and its “brother republics.” Early Soviet biologists studied the physiological benefits of racial mixing in border republics like Buryatia, directly challenging Nazi “race science.” Linguists emphasized the mutual influence of languages on one another.

Some of this might sound like colonialism. But indigenous peoples were supposed to have been liberated from Russian colonialism by Soviet socialism, so it was definitionally impossible for Soviet minorities to be colonial subjects. This narrative has had remarkable staying power, and racism within contemporary Russia remains, even in the era of BLM, largely undiscussed. So, is Russian racism impossible?

Short Answer: No

Most non-Slavic people understand themselves as racialized within Russia, without necessarily using the term. Racism especially impacts labor migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as members of Russia’s many ethnolinguistic minorities.

My book, Mixed Messages: Mediating Native Belonging in Asian Russia, examines the history and politics of one such native minority, the Buryats of southeastern Siberia. I focus on language, which has been the main criterion for ethnonational belonging in the Buryat territories, and on the media that reify expectations about who speaks “good” Buryat and, thus, is a “good Buryat.”

Drawing on ethnographic research conducted since 2005, I argue in the book that contemporary native Siberians like the Buryats negotiate impossible expectations, leveled by both themselves and others. They are racialized within Russia as exotic Asians, but they are also supposed to be somehow European and quintessentially modern, a “bridge” for European Russians to a wilder East. The core tension examined in the book is that people expect local Buryat institutions such as newspapers to affirm indigenous language and culture—and, as illustrated throughout the book, they genuinely do represent key means for negotiating Buryat belonging—but the forms they take are also assimilatory and hyperinstitutional.

Local Institutions Are Also Operating within a Broader Sociopolitical Context in Russia That Has Become Increasingly Racist

In Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities far from Buryatia, people routinely mistake Buryats for Chinese immigrants, based on racialized assumptions about Russia’s citizenry and who inhabits its cities. Xenophobia, graffiti proclaiming “Russia for the (ethnic) Russians!,” and periodic hate crimes against Buryats in western Russian cities remind Buryats of their precarious status in Russia’s racial hierarchy. Young people sometimes identify as “Black” based on this racialized inequality and what they see as a shared urban or working-class lifestyle.

Whether this perceived likeness grows into political action for racial justice remains to be seen. At present, it seems unlikely that BLM will be the catalyst for reckoning with racism in Russia, for reasons unpacked further in the book. But that doesn’t make the problem go away.

*Featured photo by Soviet Artefacts.

Kathryn E. Graber is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University. She writes about language, media, and materiality and is co-editor of Storytelling as Narrative Practice: Ethnographic Approaches to the Tales We Tell.

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