African and Russian students protest neo-fascist violence
The following commentary originally appeared in the Sunday, May 7, edition of Johnson's Russia List.
Two classic and different approaches highlight the diverse manner in how Russia is covered. One of them deals solely with that country, minus analogies to what's evident elsewhere. The other scenario takes a comparative view, where related situations in other parts of the world are linked (in academia, "comparative politics" is a standard political studies discipline).
Both extremes have their advantages and drawbacks. No two situations are exactly the same and quite often, the given comparison can be way off the mark. A prime example is Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski's recent suggestion that the Russo-German gas pipeline is a reincarnation of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which saw Poland carved up between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. When used properly though, the comparative route can better relate the situation in a country to others outside of it.
The unfortunate problem of racism in Russia brings to mind some recent articles on the subject. Along with my friend Yuri Mamchur's Russia Blog post on May Day fascist demonstrations, an Open Democracy article by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski covers intolerance in Russia without making comparisons to other parts of the world. Kirill Pankratov of eXile.ru in contrast, takes the comparative approach. This route shouldn't be seen as deflecting attention away from the serious problem of racism in Russia. At the same time, there should be a fair and balanced appraisal of Russia's problems.
Skinheads beating a victim
All three articles downplay an aspect dealing with the positive. I'm reminded of the adage of good news being no news. Like most Americans, the majority of Russians aren't racists. One can easily isolate specific cases of ongoing extremism in the US and assert America to be a very intolerant place. In Russia, there's great opposition to intolerance. Russian mass media has scornfully condemned it, with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government each issuing statements denouncing the exhibited extremism. Russian mass media's positive role against intolerance contrasts with a recent New York Times article revealing how Polish mass media have sometimes been soft on anti-Jewish references.
I will add a bit more to Pankratov's comparative commentary on intolerance. Ninety percent ethnic Slovenian Slovenia is reluctant to permit one mosque in its capital for its Muslim inhabitants. The reluctance on the part of many Slovenians is frankly stated (they view Islam as part of a historically overbearing influence of occupation). Over the years, I've heard (from friends who lived in Japan) and read numerous accounts which suggest that many Japanese have a definite disdain for a good many non-Japanese.
My point is to not bash the Slovenians and Japanese, but to underscore what I feel is an ongoing bias among some analysts of Russia. Unlike in Russia, minority groups haven't been physically attacked in Slovenia. At the same time, Russia has many mosques, with more being built. On the whole, Russia's minorities haven't been threatened. In Russia, the Jewish, Orthodox Christian, Buddhist and Muslim faiths are officially recognized as historic religions of that country. The mentioned religious denominations are represented in the Russian Duma (parliament).
Like Slovenia, the island nation of Japan is a primarily homogenous nation unlike historically multiethnic Russia. Japan and Slovenia are collectively wealthier (in standard of living) and less violent than Russia. Wealth no doubt attributes to the relative non-violence (likewise, compare the crime rates in upscale American neighborhoods to the impoverished ones). A wealthy and homogenous society is less likely to have much terror when compared to a multiethnic environment of extreme wealth and poverty. Russia's current crime problem involves many other criminal aspects besides racism. In this proportioned sense, the hate crime situation is Russia isn't disproportionate. If Japan and Slovenia were to suddenly become poorer and more multi-ethnic, you can be certain that there would be attacks on minorities.
Like most matters pertaining to Russia, I remain a great optimist that the racism situation in Russia will decline. Realistically, this will not completely end the misguided intolerance, in clear contradiction of Russia's great past of multiethnic compatibility. A point that will no doubt raise the ire of those providing a list of past transgressions in Russia. My preemptive strike is to advise these individuals to objectively analyze (as much as possible) Russia's pre-1917 past, relative to what was happening simultaneously in many other parts of the world.
In the last decade, Russia has endured a brutally chaotic period without a Nazi-like party assuming power. Various indicators confirm that Russia is now moving forward and will likely continue to do so in the foreseeable future. The window of opportunity for political extremism appears to have passed in the land of my forefathers.
The responsible patriotism exhibited by most Russians should in no way be confused with minority fringe groups, who make a great caricature for Russia haters.
Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst whose commentary has appeared in Eurasian Home, Johnson's Russia List, Intelligent.Ru, The Moscow Times, New York Times and Newsday.