The Corner

Racism and Russia

Earlier this month, I published an NRO piece based on my observations from time spent in Russia, which highlighted some Russians’ xenophobic sympathies. I stand by what I wrote, but I acknowledge that my piece could seem biased and overgeneralized – if the implicit context is ignored. It wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive analysis, but a list of observations of mine that formed a distinct pattern. My Russian acquaintances’ frequent insistence on discussing politics left an unmistakable impression of a resentful culture. Anti-Americanism may be nearly universal, but Russia’s former superpower status makes the kind revealed in my conversations there especially acute.

Did I ignore the positive aspects of Russian culture? I have been at the receiving end of Russian generosity countless times. Many people I met there lent or even gave me small amounts of money when I had problems with my card. The only thing more dependable than a Russian’s appetite is a Russian’s eagerness to share his table with a friend, or even a new acquaintance. None of this, however, is newsworthy. It has no relation to the looming impact of demographics and ethnic tensions on Russian politics in coming decades. It seems obvious that criticism of a society’s prevailing social attitudes is not tantamount to an indictment of every aspect of the culture.

When I denounced the cult of the Great Patriotic War and its eternal, insidious influence on Russian politics, I didn’t want to demean the heroism of the Soviet soldier in World War II, or to minimize Nazi atrocities against the Soviet people. But Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union has served to morally launder Stalinism. Russians rightly take pride in their victory, and honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but celebrating victory has overshadowed the contemporaneous and equally destructive scourge of Stalinism (and the inhumane manner in which they conducted their invasion of Germany). There is even a dangerous myth on the left that collectivization and penal labor helped save the Soviet Union. The war’s legacy has served the interests of the Russian state — even up to today, with the Russian dismissal of the Ukrainian opposition as a fascist movement. When I wrote of “inhumane, gruesome pride” in Soviet casualties, I was thinking of the all-too-common belief that Jews were not Hitler’s greatest victims simply because fewer of them perished compared to Russians. Competing in death tolls is a gross pastime.

Friends of Pat Buchanan would claim that Russia is merely conscious of its national identity, and that Western societies would do well to take its lead. But this misses a key distinction: Russia is an empire-state. It has never had the level of homogeneity traditionally associated with France or Japan. Its multinational character is inherent in the distinction between Rossiya and Rus. Supporting border and visa enforcement, the sovereign prerogatives of any nation, does not preclude basic civility towards foreign minorities (known in Russia by their name in West Germany — Gastarbeiter). Native tension with immigrants is common to every country with high levels of immigration, but it’s remarkably obvious in Russia. Considering Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union project isn’t likely to stem the tide of newcomers, the breakdown of trust and comity in Russian society will only worsen.

To critics on the left who suggest that American chauvinism and racism makes similar Russian attitudes irrelevant, I can only suggest learning Russian, visiting the place, and deciding for themselves. There is a great deal of both America and Russia that I have not seen. My article, however, reflects the reality of what I have seen. 

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