Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Racist Russia

Paul Goble writes in his Window on Eurasia blog about the fateful consequences of officially sponsored xenophobia and racism in Russia,summarizing an article in the current issue of Novaya Gazeta by the Russian journalist Natalya Mursaliyeva:
Aleksandr Asmolov, a psychology professor at Moscow State University, told her that as a result of the attitudes the authorities have expressed and thus sanctioned, prejudice has overwhelmed reason and Russia now finds itself in a situation in which those who engage in “lynch law” are turned into heroes.

Because of that, he continued, the country is becoming “a closed society,” one in which tolerance for other groups is viewed not as a public and private virtue but rather as a limitation on the rights of the majority. And the spread of that attitude in recent years, Asmolov suggested, has put the country on “a suicidal path.”

Vyacheslav Sharov, a social psychologist and psychotherapist, supported that view. He told Mursaliyeva that until officials change their public messages, “xenophobes of all kinds will receive from [the current comments] a signal of approval,” a sense that attacking migrants is something that the authorities actually welcome.

Moreover, he continued, the behavior of such xenophobic individuals and groups is one that can be called “fascism” or even “terrorism” because its victims often are not those guilty of any crimes at all but rather innocent bystanders who are only ethnically similar to those the xenophobes blame for their problems.

But the most damning comments about this trend and Putin’s responsibility for it were offered by Lev Gudkov of the Levada Analytic Center. Although arguing that no one index measures all aspects of xenophobia, he said the rapidly growing support for the idea of “Russia for the Russians” as indicative of the problem.

“Before Putin,” the current high level of public backing for that idea simply “did not exist.” At the same time, however, Gudkov carefully noted that Putin and his team had not so much created something out of nothing but rather had made use of “mass prejudices” to generate support for themselves and their policies.

Unfortunately, in playing to the worst in the population rather than the best, he continued, Putin and his command had encouraged many xenophobic Russians to assume that their attitudes were entirely justified. And that in turn has not only intensified these feelings among those who already had them but led more to adopt them as well.

Many officials, he continued, have an interest in ensuring that migrants are kept in a position of fear. Such a situation pays “its own dividends.” And as to officials in the “law enforcement organs,” there, Gudkov said, “the level of xenophobia and hostility [to non-Russians] is stronger and greater than in any other sphere.

All this promotes the notion among Russians that their nation is “always right,” that others are trying to diminish it, and that attacks on representatives of these “others” are thus justified and even backed by the authorities themselves. “They don’t respect us,” Russians say; “we have to show them who is boss.”

Gudkov noted that research shows that “the propaganda of racism” of this kind is increasing, with ever more Russians concluding that “the superiority of the titular nationalism has risen to the status of an official rule of behavior.” This rule is as yet “unwritten,” he continued, but it has been accepted at the highest levels.”

Mursaliyeva concludes with the following observation: “The genie of xenophobia has escaped the bottle” during Putin’s administration, but it might still be controlled if the new president changed the messages he sends to his countrymen about how they should behave.

But if that does not happen, she argues, the future is truly frightening. As anyone who has examined what happens when governments play to the racism of the crowd knows, such regimes quickly find themselves prisoners of the very monster they have allowed to emerge.
Post a Comment