November 7 was a national holiday in Kyrgyzstan celebrating – the Bolshevik Revolution. Well, every post-soviet country has a different way of dealing with its past. While in most of them every single Lenin statue has been torn down, this is not the case in lovely Kyrgyzstan, where my Latvian flatmate is still shocked and disgusted whenever she sees Lenin on a street corner, friendly standing opposite the national hero Manas. Neither in Latvia nor Uzbekistan or Georgia could bronze Lenin survive his empire.
But for somewhat more contemporary reasons I want to talk today about Russia. Although Lenin can also be found in Russia, apparently the country has developed another way of dealing with its memory.
On November 4, Russia celebrated “Unity Day”, a holiday established in 2005 to commemorate the unification of Russia against a Polish-Lithuanian occupation force in the beginning of the 17th century. It is also said that the day was mainly installed to replace November 7.
However, “Unity Day” somewhat seems to be the opposite of unifying today. In several marches all over the country it showed to be mainly anti-gay, anti-muslim, anti-migrant, xenophobic and racist (“Russia for Russians”, “White Russia”).
While the former president Medvedev posted on twitter that “Russia is a unique combination of peoples, traditions and history. We are different, but united”, other News revealed worrying abuse of the day. Thousands of people (Russian authorities legalized the march for up to 15 000 people in a district of Moscow) rallied in the streets under the old tsarist, imperial flags and chanted anti-migrant slogans (see a video of the events in Russian here. or German here).
During the last years we witnessed a serious increase of racist propaganda and nationalist activities in Russia. When I was searching for ‘Russia’ on the Guardian’s website, news about anti-gay laws, anti-migrant pogroms, new anti-terrorist laws concerning the Northern Caucasus (related to the Winter Olympics in Sochi that are coming up this year) popped up all over the page.
The increasing acceptance of these actions among the population is worrying aswell.
According to the Levada Center, 40% of the population supports the idea of the Russian March to a varying degree: 11% of the respondents view such events “very positively,” and 29% “somewhat positively.” The popularity of the idea of the Russian March is gradually increasing: in 2006 only 14% of Russians welcomed such actions, while in December 2010 twice as many citizens (28%) expressed support for such events. Only 7% of Russians expressed “very negative” attitudes towards the Russian March, while 19% view it as “somewhat negative.” Another 35% were not able to define their attitude towards this event.
Where does this hate against minorities come from?
Of course, it’s not exactly a Russian phenomenon after all. We are all painfully familiar with anti-migrant tendencies all over Europe. Due to 9/11 they are mostly combined with Islamophobic tendencies.
Russia is just the tip of the iceberg and especially striking due to it’s twist in politics. After a period of unification (you could also call it colonization but that’s another story) under its leadership during Soviet times, the break-down of the Soviet Union led to a rapid increase of nationalism in all post-soviet countries. There are different hypothesis’ about this development. I just want to introduce three of them very briefly but if you’re not intrested in this theoretical stuff, you can just skip the italic part and continue with today’s events.
Some more or less academic hypothesis’
The first idea to mention is called the “boom”-hypothesis with Dimitry Polikanov as one of its representatives. According to the boom-believers economic development brought about different values, among them stronger nationalist feelings. I did not exactly find why this would be logical because on the other hand there are theories stating that welfare decreases the need for people to rely on a certain non-economic ideology (except for capitalism) because they identify with material things (such in Germany after WWII).
A second possibility is the “break-down” hypothesis (a.o. represented by Jurij Levada – founder of the Levada-Centre) that explains rising nationalism due to a lack of national identity (yeah, Soviets did a good job in basing every aspect of life on their ideology). But while other republics, like the Baltics, Caucasus and famous Central Asia could draw on various “national heroes” before Soviet Union (however constructed they actually are), get rid of all the imperialist heritage (or at least the heritage that was obvious and easy to destroy, like Lenin statues) and frame the Soviet time as occupation, this was obviously no option for Russia. Moreover, identity construction always goes via dissociation from a more or less specifically defined “other” (in social sciences also called “othering”). This would explain two current developments. First, the recollection of religious Russian-orthodox culture that actually WAS oppressed during Soviet times and therefore can serve as a point of cultural reference “before”. Second, the above-mentioned strong tendency of “othering” towards minorities to stabilize ones newly built identity.
A third hypothesis is, that racism has been there all along during Soviet times. In my view this could be at least a contributing variable, since othering, exclusion and discrimination are inherently human strategies to stabilize ones position in society and therefore can in no system be erased entirely. However, it is difficult to measure the extent of this variable because of a lack of credible data for the whole period.
Like all too often in social science I consider a mixture of all of these ideas as the most probable cause for recent developments. Economic growth led to a rise in welfare, and high immigration in order to benefit from this promising development (several hundred thousands work in Russia only from Kyrgyzstan which, remember, is the smallest of the Central Asian Republics with an overall population of only 6 million). This fact, combined with an increased division between the rich and the poor, and the lack of functioning social systems, leads to social frustration among deprived parts of the Russian society, which in turn, can explain the growing aversion to migrant workers. In the newly built, partly religious based identity there is also no room for minorities like gays, migrants and muslims. Additionally, the creation of national identities of other post-soviet countries or regions, striving for sovereignty (North Caucasus – which encompasses Chechnya, North Ossetia and Dagestan as hot-spots of separatism), fosters fear to lose even the last bit of control over them. Combined with terrorist attacks mainly from the North Caucasus and the growing importance of Christian religion for identity-building it is all too easy to blame certain disfunctions of society on “the muslims”.
And now… ?
Whatever the actual reasons are, it is a worrying tendency towards racist practice and discrimination, which is not exactly countered by governmental efforts, but according to Human Rights Watch even encouraged by the behaviour of politics, police and media:
“This police officer, who refused to identify himself, was very precise about highlighting a current reality — Russian law enforcers do suffer from xenophobia. At the same time, as a rule, they refrain from openly supporting the domestic nationalistic organizations. However, this situation appears unlikely to remain for long. This is particularly evident in light of joint street patrolling by the police and RNE with nationalistic Cossacks noted in some regions of Russia.”
This also affects Central Asia, which is why on November 4 there were two demonstrations in Bishkek in front of the Russian embassy. However, it was poorly reported and I only found out about it afterwards. Protesters held banners promoting “peace without racism” and opposing a “Racist” instead of Russian Federation (Расистская Федерация instead of Российская Федерация). A Ukrainian newspaper covering the protest stated that the protesters were suspected to be sponsored by the American embassy. As usually the only thing that can be said for sure is that it were only about ten protesters who stood against thousands in Russia. I might be wrong, but I didn’t hear of any protests in Europe either and in general found poor coverage of the march in German media (20 sec on ARD – while they spent 2 minutes on plastic bags in the EU) that was all absorbed about Russia in regards to the Snowden news before.
And that was actually why I started writing this post in the first place although it might have gotten a bit messy along the way…
I think it’s important to think about these events in Russia not as something “the Russians do” but something that is linked to our global society, that shows once again the worrying global tendency towards right-wing propaganda, and xenophobia that just got over the tops in Russia but can be observed to different degrees almost everywhere. And the first step to let it gain power is to naturalize it, to ignore it, to shut our eyes, our ears, our newspapers. In Germany, we have established a strong culture of anti-fascist demonstrations. Whenever nationalists plan on celebrating a random day (bombing of Dresden in February; May 1st), they are usually blockaded. While the links to German history are relatively clear in this case, I tried to show the links to history in the case of Russia aswell. We all come from different backgrounds but we all have to deal with these tendencies and we all have to fight them today, everywhere, unless we want to get even closer to entering a discriminating, anti-social era of history again.