[N.B. This post has been revised since its initial publication]
The English edition of Pravda published an op-ed last week entitled “Obama’s Soviet Mistake,” by one Xavier Lerma (who is identified only with a link to his blog, which is where Pravda got it—high journalistic standards they have there in Russia—, but which contains no biographical information). The op-ed is a doozy, which has to be read to be believed. I posted it on FB, which led to an exchange on Russia with a couple of FB friends and with me declaring that
I have no hesitation in saying that I find Russia a dangerous and frightening country. Any country where neo-Nazi gangs can roam the streets in the heart of the capital city and murder dark-skinned people with impunity, with the tacit approval of the citizenry and the police looking the other way, has serious mental problems. And then there’s Vladimir Putin, so hugely popular until only recently.
I have written as much in recent months on AWAV (go to the Russia/ex-USSR category and see the ‘Elena’ and ‘Russia: Mafia state’ posts). This reminded me of an op-ed in Haaretz from earlier this month, on Russians in Israel and racism, which I kept. Here it is. Notable passages are highlighted in bold. The author is a historian at Hebrew University. Given his name, one would assume he has intimate, personal knowledge of the phenomenon, i.e. that he knows of what he speaks.
Is it racist to call Russians racist?
Since Barack Obama was elected president, one of the most popular jokes in Putin’s Russia is: “Obama’s election as president – the black humor of Americans.” Would it be racist to argue that a cultural group which embraces such a joke is a group characterized by clear racist tendencies?
By Dmitry Shumsky | Nov.05, 2012
Since Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008, one of the most popular jokes in Putin’s Russia – and its cultural diaspora around the world, including in Israel – is: “Obama’s election as president – the black humor of Americans.” The question is: Would it be racist to argue that a cultural group which embraces such a joke is a group characterized by clear racist tendencies or would such an argument in fact be anti-racist, since it diagnoses a worrying trend of racism among a population with a shared past of sorts?
Such a question could also be asked of Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On’s comparison between Yisrael Beiteinu’s leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and Russia’s leader, President Vladimir Putin. Would it be racist to postulate that there is some common denominator between two politicians who come from a single country that no longer exists, who rose to greatness thanks in no small part to the former citizens of that country, and who have both demonstrated loyalty to that country’s tradition of suppressing civil rights? Or perhaps the opposite is the case; maybe such a theory demonstrates the post-Soviet phenomenon of racism in a broad context.
The Soviet state carried out an unprecedented human experiment. On the one hand, the concepts of enlightenment and equality, morality, human dignity and human freedom flooded the public space ad nauseam. On the other hand, in the absence of an open society and without any possibility of public oversight, the most despicable of human drives were awakened and ran wild.
All you need to do is see the tormentors in the somewhat subversive Soviet movies from the end of the Soviet era to get an impression of the extent of the social Darwinism, the deification of belligerence in relations between groups and individuals, and the contempt for the different and the weak – categories that included many Soviet citizens in the 1970s and ’80s. Those who did not live in the Soviet Union of that era, or have not researched it thoroughly, will find it difficult to imagine the low point to which the ethics governing civil and political life plummeted as the result of that experimentation.
The inconceivable gap between the rhetoric of civil and national equality and the reality of social Darwinism gone crazy and institutional discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin caused many Soviet citizens to see the concepts of enlightenment, humanism and equality as the culprits. They thought the ideas themselves, rather than those who corrupted them, were inherently false and hypocritical.
And so the average native Israeli is wrong to say, as Ari Shavit did in his opinion piece last week, that “the immigrants from Russia sought to escape a tyrannical political culture and not replicate it.” Most Lieberman voters, like most Putin voters in Russia, want to live in a country that will not make use of the corrupted version of equality and humanism and that will not, even for the sake of appearances, futilely fight discrimination among various groups, since they see such discrimination as the legitimate expression of human nature.
Putin voters in today’s Russia have, in large part, succeeded in fulfilling this political and social vision. Lieberman voters in Israel are likely to do so in the near future. As such, a comparison between Putin and Lieberman is not racist. On the contrary, it is an expression of the protest against a wave of post-Soviet racism, on the part of those who do not want a joke like “Obama’s election as president – the black humor of Americans” to take root in Israel as well.
On the subject of Russia, there is a lengthy review by Amy Knight in the Nov. 22nd New York Review of Books on John B. Dunlop’s The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Examinations of Russian Terrorist Attacks at the Onset of Vladimir Putin’s Rule. It begins
In 2000 Sergei Kovalev, then the widely respected head of the Russian organization Memorial, observed in these pages that the apartment bombings in Russia in September 1999, which killed three hundred people and wounded hundreds of others, “were a crucial moment in the unfolding of our current history. After the first shock passed, it turned out that we were living in an entirely different country….”
The bombings, it will be recalled, were blamed on Chechen rebels and used as a pretext for Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin to launch a bloody second war against Chechnya, a republic in the Russian Federation. They also were crucial events in promoting Vladimir Putin’s takeover of the Russian presidency as Yeltsin’s anointed successor in 2000 and in ensuring his dominance over the Russian political scene ever since.
As John Dunlop points out in The Moscow Bombings of September 1999, the attacks were the equivalent for Russians of September 11, 2001, for Americans. They aroused a fear of terrorism—along with a desire for revenge against the Chechens—that Russians had not known since Stalin used the supposed terrorist threat as a pretext to launch his bloody purges of the 1930s. Yet unlike in the American case, Russian authorities have stonewalled all efforts to investigate who was behind these acts of terror and why they happened. In the words of Russian journalist Yuliya Kalinina: “The Americans several months after 11 September 2001 already knew everything—who the terrorists were and where they come from…. We in general know nothing.”
Dunlop, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, seeks in his book to provide the “spade work” for an official Russian inquiry, if it ever were to be initiated (a highly doubtful proposition as long as Putin remains in power). He draws on investigative reporting by Russian journalists, accounts of Russian officials in law enforcement agencies, eyewitness testimony, and the analyses of Western journalists and academics. The evidence he provides makes an overwhelming case that Russian authorities were complicit in these horrific attacks.
Knight’s review, which is entitled “Finally, We Know About the Moscow Bombings,” is a must read for those wishing to understand the workings of power in Russia, of the us et coutumes of the men who run that country—and always have—, not to mention their level of morality and consideration for human life. One consequence of the 1999 bombings that Knight does not get into, as it is outside the scope of her essay, was the upsurge in violent racist attacks against Chechens—and against Caucasians and Central Asians more generally—across Russia. Not that virulent racism against the large migrant communities from the ex-Soviet periphery hadn’t existed before, but it became that much more so. Apart from a few isolated incidents there was no such reaction to Arabs in the US after 9/11. Knight’s essay is behind the NYRB’s paywall but may be read in full here.
ADDENDUM: On the Chenchen conflict, see the review essay in the 24 September 1998 NYRB (the only one of the numerous NYRB articles on the subject not behind the paywall), “Chechnya: How Russia Lost,” by then Moscow correspondent Robert Cottrell.
Slide mouse over the photo for explanation. It is taken from a 2006 piece, “Russia: Racism ‘Out Of Control,’ Says Amnesty.”
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