In the summer of 2010, Russia experienced its highest temperatures on record. Moscow was shrouded in a veil of smog from peat fires on the capital’s outskirts. People were wearing masks; the daily death rate had doubled. It was a peculiar, unnerving welcome to a country that had fascinated me since childhood. One evening I was in an overpriced coffeehouse with a group of other American students. We were talking loudly in English, as Americans tend to do, and a middle-aged man tried to interject in vaguely British English. “Why are you studying Russian instead of Chinese?” he asked with naked condescension.
In fact, Russia may not have China’s economic clout, but it will remain a country to watch on the world stage. Unfortunately, as I’ve discovered from my own experiences there, this is for all the worst reasons: racism, messianic nationalism, and fervent anti-Americanism.
Since that first trip, I’ve twice visited Russia on tourist visas. My Russian has vastly improved, and from conversations in taxis, third-class trains, bars, and people’s homes, I’ve formed a rough conception of the Putin-era zeitgeist. The countless well-meaning, generous, and hospitable people I’ve met need only honorable mention here. Russian society’s flaws, rather than its virtues, are what will keep the country relevant for generations to come. Brezhnev-era internationalist cant aside, Russia is a deeply racist country that holds minorities in open contempt — not quite the equivalent of Jim Crow, but still distressing. The default names for Central Asians and Caucasians are the derogatory churki and khachi, for Ukrainians khokhly and for Jews zhidy; but don’t be surprised if you hear “black a**es” to refer to swarthier ethnics, including Armenians. Granted, Russian nativism is at some level understandable: If there is ever to be rule of law in Russia, they might start by enforcing the border and deporting illegal immigrants from former Soviet republics. (This does not apply, however, to Chechens and other North Caucasians. Chechnya elected to separate from Russia, but Yeltsin and then Putin reduced that republic to rubble. Now, when Chechens flee to live in the capital of the country that successfully fought to keep them, they’re treated like foreign invaders, but they can’t be deported because they are still Russian citizens. Internet memes are a reliable barometer of youth culture in any country, and the level of racism on the humor pages on VK, Russia’s social network, is shocking to anyone accustomed to Western racial attitudes, and a disconcerting sign of the future of ethnic relations in Russia.
I’m of Mexican extraction, and the most offended I’ve ever been in my life was when an old man in Sochi told me I looked like Obama — offended not because I’m not an Obama supporter but because I look nothing like him, and the man was clearly treating all dark-pigmented people as interchangeable. Common graffiti include swastikas and slogans like Rossiya dlya russkikh. This means “Russia for Russians,” but the American equivalent would be “America for whites”; rossiyskiy refers to any national of the multiethnic Rossiya (“Russia,” as opposed to the old “Rus’”), whereas russkiy means ethnic Russian. This nuance is lost in translation. “F*** the Caucasus” also seems to be a popular slogan. The most colorful but most sinister graffito I’ve seen said, “Yid Satanists control Russia, and Putin is their puppet.” In fact, anti-Semitism is conventional wisdom. I met a farmer in the Udmurt Republic who complained about Jews in Moscow robbing the people. I wanted to say that I had no idea Putin, who has made much of his fortune by dispossessing Jews like Khodorkovsky, was Jewish, but I held my tongue.
Several times I’ve been put on trial for my nationality and my country’s alleged sins. One particularly rude woman on a train to Sochi spent hours haranguing me about America’s evils, which ranged from our invasion of Iraq to McDonald’s making her obese. She looked bewildered when I told her that in America it is generally considered impolite to spoil an acquaintanceship by bringing up politics and that we would never verbally attack a foreign visitor’s country. When I told her Americans don’t cringe in terror at the mention of Russia, she grew even angrier, cursing Putin for his weakness. This same woman thought Gorbachev was an American spy and shouted, “Let the Chinese eat their sushi!”
Her exciteability, sentiment, and ignorance were hardly exceptional. During a lunch break on a tourist excursion in Sochi, a vacationer half-asked me if the U.S. and Russia are enemies. “We don’t worry too much about Russia,” I said, trying to be politic. “We feel more threatened by Iran, North Korea, China . . .”
“I beg of you, how do they threaten you?” he howled before I could finish. Not up to delivering a lecture on the basics of geopolitics to a middle-aged man with a Soviet hangover, I told him that Americans typically aren’t comfortable discussing politics when they first meet people.
“Why, are you afraid of your government?” he asked, in apparent earnestness.