Racialising Russia

  •  Author: Ian Law, Aug 2011


The Russian state has over centuries constructed patterns of governance and domination that have been articulated through twin hierarchies of backwardness and civilisation, multiple forms of racialisation, ethnophilia and primordialism, separations between Russia’s ‘West’ and its ‘Orient’ and undercurrents of ‘Great Russian chauvinism’. Physical anthropology, ethnology and racial science have provided intellectual foundations for racial Russification, racial Sovietisation, ethnic cleansing (Pohl 1999) and post-communist racial and ethnic hostility. This cumulative historical legacy has provided some of the important pre-conditions for contemporary political racism, media race hate, racially motivated murders and attacks, and continuing racial and ethnic discrimination and marginalisation of ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation.

Firstly, the origins of Russian racism are examined. This is located, at key periods, in the formation of the Russian state and its particular relations with both its borderlands, and with the development of scientific thinking. This section examines this historical context not by providing a chronology, nor by providing a comparative account in relation to other imperial and racialised regions, such as Europe, but through a combination of the comparative and relational methods (Dikötter 2008, Goldberg 2009). This involves maintaining a careful balance between specifying both the autonomous forms of ideas, behaviour and practices and identifying the complex interconnections, interrelations and intersections between Russian racialisation and those processes operating elsewhere in Europe, Asia and America. Parallels are drawn between Tsarist Russia and Soviet Union in the articulation of racial and ethnic hierarchies and in imperial strategies of domination.

Secondly, an evaluation of contemporary racism since the formation of the Russian Federation in 1991 is addressed. Nationally pre-existing myths, images and hatreds have provided a cultural  reservoir which contemporary forms of racism have reworked and reinvented in an attempt to ‘make sense’ of the world. Internationally the racialised politics of the War on Terror and the move to racial neoliberalism (Goldberg 2008) have intensified racial conflict and exclusion. Also the increasing international links between extreme right groups and the expansion of internet newsgroups and other forms of web based networks as a vehicle to mobilise and disseminate racist ideology are also having immediate local effects in the ‘racist underground’. There has been a general escalation in racial hostility in social attitudes, racial discrimination, exclusion and marginalisation in institutional and individual behaviours, and also in racist violence and extreme right activity. The track record of evidence is examined to explore the nature and extent of these trends, and then an overall assessment is made of the strength and significance of Russian racism.


Civilising and racialising the Imperial and Soviet empires 

The domination of ‘Russia-in-Europe’ for 250 years by the Mongols is of central significance for understanding the racialisation of Russia (Wheeler 1960). The nucleus of the Russian centralised state, the Moscow Great Princedom, came into being in opposition to the Tatar-Mongolian invasion, and the statet was permeated by ‘anti-horde’ sentiments which shaped a central imperial-missionary orientation in Russian governance (Mastyugina and Perepelkin 1996, p.15). These sentiments together with Orthodox Christianity shaped Russian Islamophobia, with Islam seen as both as a constant threat and a religion of violence and intolerance  in the Russian collective unconscious (Tlostanova 2010). The Russian state sought to inferiorise, Christianise and civilise the diverse groups of people living in the borderlands (Breyfogle et al 2007). Russian officials running the southern and eastern frontier districts were charged with ‘gathering in the lands of the Golden Horde’ (Kappeler 2001, p.31) and referred to Kazakhs, Kalmyks and Bashkirs as ‘wild untamed horses’, ‘wild animals’, ‘wild, unruly and disloyal people’, ‘the steppe beasts’ who practiced ‘savage customs’ (Khodarkovsky 2001, p.10). Ivan Poshkov, a leading contemporary of Peter the Great, writing in 1719 referred to ‘our pagans (inovertsy) are like children, without a written language, without a law’ (quoted in Khodarkovsky 2001, p.19).

The Russian state stood for civilised values, morality and above all a superior Christian identity which drove imperial domination. Russian shame and indignity, arising from the historical memories of the Mongolian invasion, became encapsulated in the term ‘Tatar’. The association of this group of people with evil and hell, derived from the connection between this label and Tartarus, a living hell; the dark place below Hades (the place of the dead) where sinners where sent in classical mythology.  Tatars, for their part, remember the subsequent destruction of their state, the annihilation of many of their people, their period of subjugation prior to the 1917 revolution, continuing policies of forced assimilation, for example Bashkirization in the federal republic of Bashkiriya, together with rising ethnic assertiveness in the neighbouring republic of Tatarstan. (Ziatdinov and Grigoriev 1996, p.240).

The encounters between Russian officials, merchants, colonists and anthropologists, and the people living in the frontier borderlands involved the construction of a wide range of markers of difference including race, smell, clothing, hairstyles, food, customs, marriage, lifestyles and languages. Although, as Khodarkovsky (2001 p.21) argues many of these were of secondary concern to the Russian state, categorising, defining, listing and recording these peoples was vital in the process of building strategies and policies to ensure loyalty, religious conversion, and incorporation into the Russian empire. The construction, labelling and manipulation of ethnic and racial hierarchies was a central and essential part of Russian imperial governance. The ruling of the Russian Orient necessarily involved differentiation in status, measures of civilisation and character (Crews 2006).

The political and military domination of a diverse range of peoples was facilitated by the creation of difference, those groups subject to domination were constructed as backward, exotic, oriental and morally inferior. As Brower and Lazzerini (2001) argue, there are close parallels between French and British images of Muslim lands and Russian cultural representations of people in the south and east regions of the Russian empire. Inevitably resistance and violence accompanied Moscow’s attempts at domination, for example in the North Caucasus (Jersild 2002, Gorenburg 2003).

The racialisation of Caucasians continues as now Caucasian peoples are the top target for racist violence in the Russian Federation, as a leading NGO in Moscow confirms:

‘Among the hated “blacks,” there are visitors from the Caucasus and Central Asia, indigenous RF (Russian Federation) residents with darker features, people who speak Russian with an accent and those who speak Russian much better than their offenders, citizens of the former USSR, and foreigners who arrive from afar. Essentially, this includes all of those people who ethnically differ from a certain, undefined “Slavic type” — especially those who look swarthier or “more oriental.” The Roma belong in this category.’ (Moscow Helsinki Group 2002, p.368)

The category ‘Caucasian’ has been a key racial type and label for whiteness since the development of racial science in the late eighteenth century, and it still is in some countries for example the US (Law 2010). Its inversion as a black category in contemporary Russia illustrates the shifting nature of racial identities. As Baum (2006) confirms, the historical development of the myth of the Caucasian racial type is both ‘intertwined with and distinct from’ the history and conflicts of the Caucasus region.

The specification of the Caucasian race appeared in racial taxonomies which were developed in natural history, anthropology and ethnology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Carl Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae (1758) attempted to classify all living things into genus, species and variety, or subspecies, and identified six varieties of Homo sapiens; including europaeus (white, ruddy and muscular), asiaticus (yellow, melancholic and inflexible), afer (black, indulgent, phlegmatic) and monstrous (other deviant –disabled- forms). Blumenbach, a German anatomist with a formidable collection of human skulls, revised Linnaeus’s classification and identified five different human varieties; Caucasian, Mongoloid, Ethiopian, American and Malay. ‘A blind person’ he argued could ‘distinguish at first grasp the scull of a Calmuck from a negroe’ (1796, quoted in Augstein 1996, p.65).

Georges Cuvier’s account of race involved dividing Homo sapiens into three subspecies, Caucasian, Mongoloid and Ethiopian; whites, yellows and blacks. Presenting us with a description of a world where three major races developed in isolation from each other, resulting in a hierarchy of differences in culture and mental ability produced by natural physical characteristics. For Cuvier therefore, it was clear why ‘the Caucasian race has gained dominion over the world’, why the Chinese were less advanced and why the Negroes were ‘sunken in slavery and the pleasures of the senses’ (quoted in Banton 1987, p.30).

But, to what extent did European racial science during this period influence regimes of truth and knowledge in Russia? Slezkine has examined the accounts of travellers, naturalists and scholars in eighteenth century Russia and identifies the role that German scholars, hired by Peter I, played in describing and classifying everything drawing on their traditions of fieldwork in natural science, and so, ‘people were organised into peoples’ (2001 p.30). Naming peoples, identifying territories, and classifying patterns of consumption and interaction, such as food and sex, were all used to build the foundations of Russian ethnology and anthropology. ‘Savages’ were the ‘raw-eating Eskimo’ or the ‘self-eating’ Samoed, and evidence of ‘lecherous business’ and ‘filthy fornication’ differentiated these peoples from the enlightened and the Christian (2001 p.30). The creation of hierarchies of peoples based on customs, social mores and traditions, for example the Ossetes were a ‘barbarous, predatory and miserable race of men’ and the Koriaks were ‘suspicious, cruel, incapable of either benevolence or pity’ (also see Layton 2001). So, this process of categorising transformed the state:

‘the Muscovite state had formally divided the frontier population into the Orthodox (also known as Russians) and the foreigners/infidels, whose ‘otherness’ had usually been interpreted in terms of Oriental ‘perfidy’[deception] or raw-eating beastliness.’ (Slezkine 2001, p.35).

Beyond this central axis of differentiation, Russian ethnographic descriptions followed Linnaeus’s general classification of the human species, and used racial categorisation of complexions and lineages. But the human diversity of the Russian empire proved highly complex and often confounded the attempts of scholars to produce coherent and viable systems of named peoples. These difficulties were bypassed by a focus on linguistic groups and, a range of scholars including Stralenberg, Tatischev, Müller, Fischer, Schlözer and Pallas produced, by the end of the eighteenth century, a set of categories classifying Russian people by language, but also, within these categories physical type, customs and descent were seen as key markers of human difference (Slezkine 2001 p.47).

The focus on lineage and physical type, along with other markers, to determine divisions between peoples and their origins involved the construction of a biological taxonomy with the Russian empire being seen as containing groups of people at different stages of historical development, from the primitive to the refined. This is exemplified in the Ethnological and Statistical Map of Russia published by the Imperial Geographical Society of St Petersburg in 1852. This was then used as a basis for Latham’s (1854) account The Native Races of The Russian Empire. Here for example the Talish and Lesghais of Dagestan are described as ‘uniting the better qualities of highlanders with the barbarity of savages’ (p.311) drawing a direct comparison with the Highlanders of Scotland. 48,247 Tsigani (Gypsies) are identified as a separate racial group, whereas the Russian race ‘Proper’ is seen as descending from ‘Great Samatian stock’. The Russian Empire is seen as comprising people descended from three blood stocks: Ugurian, Samatian and Turks. Samatians are differentiated by their flatter faces, broader heads, grey eyes and brown hair, within this group Russians are seen as comprising three kinds: White, Great and Little. White Russians are ‘weaklier in body’ and ‘worse-looking in face’ than the other two types, and the Little Russians are reported as ‘much better looking’. For these geographers and ethnologists, Russians as a race had been ‘orientalised’ (1854 p.324) by the Mongols through the stamping of ‘physical and moral features’ which are shared in common with ‘Northern Asiatics’.

Russia embraced European developments in natural and racial science and developed them into its unique mix of ethnic primordialism and physical anthropology (Geddie 1885). This is exemplified in the writings and collections deposited by Russian ethnographers in the Caucasus Department in Tbilisi, which became the Caucasus Museum in 1867, which included human skulls as well as a wide variety of other artefacts.

The academic study of ethnic craniology is also exemplified in both the historical and contemporary work of the Department of Physical Anthropology, in the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg. This department  is the oldest one of this type in Europe. It was first led by Karl Ernst (Karl Maksimovich) von Baer and in 1846, his first study in physical anthropology was published, followed by the acquisition of human crania on a large scale. This work was carried on by a number of other prominent physical anthropologists such as G.A. Bonch-Osmolovskii, V.V. Bunak, V.V. Ginzburg, B.V. Firstein, K.Z. Jazuta, Ju.V. Ludewig, G.I. Petrov, B.N. Vishnevskii, V.P. Yakimov, A.N. Yuzefovich, and E.V. Zhirov. Its current principal research themes are metric and non-metric cranial variation, integration of data from various trait systems, and biological and cultural factors of human behaviour, and one of the main current projects is the Physical Anthropology of Human Populations of North Eurasia.

Currently the 100th Anniversary Guide to the Russian Ethnography Museum in St. Petersburg reports that the principal task for Nicholai Mogilianski, the Curator of the Ethnographic Department is to reveal ‘the ethnic physiognomy’ of the peoples of Russia. Physiognomy is the art of revealing human character, emotions and the workings of the mind from facial features and draws on a long history of ideas from Aristotle to Darwin, and the rise of evolutionary explanation of facial expressions led to the dissolution of phsyiognomic thinking. Yet still in 2010 the central purpose of this major Russian Museum is conceptualised as revealing the character and differentiation of ethnic groups from their facial features. Under the banner of ethnic primoridalism and essentialism lurks a mythical and un-scientific operationalisation of racial categories. Indeed, the assumption that races are real things is also revealed in various ways in the Museum. The Guide for example refers to the Ainu as one of the ‘oldest human races in the world’. Various displayed texts throughout the Museum explaining the exhibits refer to various groups of people as races, for example the Mongol race.

This legacy of racial thinking derives particularly from physical anthropology. The classification of racial types based on measurements of human skulls and other physical chracteristics was a key thread in this school of physical anthropology. Viktor Valerianovich Bunak (1891-1979) in his article, translated in 2003, provided this account of the racial types making up the Russian population,

‘One of the most important conclusions resulting from the anthropological study of the Russian population, consists of the identification of three basic types, most clearly represented at present as well as in past periods of time in zones adjacent to the northern Urals, in the eastern Baltic area, and in the Black Sea Provinces of the North Caucasus and the Balkan peninsula, and which, for this reason, have been termed the Ural, the Baltic and the Pontic types. These three basic types, as well as some others less distinctly represented, are distinguished by a complex of characters: by the pigmentation of the iris, hair colour, beard growth, structure of the eyelid, and possibly also by one or two distinguishing characters of the nasal structure.’ (Bunak 2003, p.130). (Also see his translated work, ‘Race as a historical category’ in Contemporary Raciology and Racism, Bunak et al. 1961, translated by Earl W. Count, Bloomington Ind.: Indiana University, Research Centre in Anthropology, Folklore and Linguistics)

Anthropologists were also involved in the 1920’s eugenics movement. Following the European tradition, ethnology (the study of ethnos or culture) was distinguished from anthropology, a more biological discipline modelled after Broca’s school, which roughly corresponds to US physical anthropology. Bunak, the anthropologist, became interested in eugencis through craniometry and his attempts to develop new techniques for measuring skull characteristics (Adams 1989). Key linkages betwwen American, German and Soviet scientists on aspects of eugenics illustrates the dominance of international racialised thinking in the early decades of the twentieth century (Spectorovsky 2004, Flitner 2003). Russia had a small but flourishing eugenics movement before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. With the advent of the Communist regime, some biologists hoped that the application of scientific principles to reproductive policies, as to agriculture, would receive official support. Flitner (2003) confirms that in Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States concepts of agricultural modernisation were substantially linked to social Darwinist thought which embraced programs of eugenics and ‘racial hygiene’. In Russia:

‘Sergei F. Ol’denburg, Vladamir Vernadskii, and Vladamir Il’ich Lenin himself had long admired the German approach to the scientific management and use of productive forces, which German scientists had developed in South West Africa (a former German colony) and had used to their government’s advantage during World War I.’ (Hirsch 2005, p.1).

This refers to the genocide of the Herero and the Nama in South West Africa by German modern military means. In Namibia by 1911 only 16,000 of the Herero population, which numbered up to 80,000 in 1903, were left alive. This was the first genocide of the twentieth century and through its use of concentration camps, the idea of complete annihilation (vernichting) and racial supremacy it has been argued to provide an important precursor to both the Armenian genocide and the Nazi holocaust (Madley 2005, Mann 2005, Jones 2006). Chests of Herero and Nama skulls were shipped to the Pathological Institute in Berlin for scientific analysis. Eugen Fisher’sevaluation of ‘Basters’, the mixed-blood children of Dutch menand Nama women, argued that ‘Negro blood’ was of ‘lesservalue’ and that mixing it with ‘white blood’ would destroy European culture, and advised that Africans should be exploited by Europeans as long they were useful, after which they could be eliminated (Haas 2008, p.332).

Nazi eugenics followed mainstream scientific research in the USA and Europe (Proctor 1988). Grant’s American text The Passing of the Great Race or the Racial Basis of Human History (1916) developed an account of the Nordic race who were primarily responsible for human achievement but who were threatened by race mixing, which was ’race suicide’, thus justifying racialised immigration controls in the USA and eugenic policies which included laws banning interracial marriages, the anti-miscegenation laws. Grant’s work built on Ripley’s (1899) account of Nordic, Alpine and Mediterranean races, with Nordics being seen as superior innovators and conquerors, which itself drew on Gobineau’s earlier Aryan theory. Grant’s account of Aryan racial supremacy was highly influential. This theory was elaborated by German eugenicist Eugen Fisher and his colleagues Barr and Lenz whose work Human Heredity (1921), was read by Adolf Hitler before he wrote Mein Kampf in 1923.

Fisher had established his reputation with his findings on racial supremacy and the detrimental effects of racial cross breeding in German South West Africa which had been influential in racial hygiene policies there. Fisher became Directorof the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics, and served on commissions that planned for the sterilization of Afro-Germans and provided scientific testimony on the racial heritage of German citizens. Nazi eugenics advocated ‘racial hygiene’, the reproduction and improvement through breeding of the master race, the elimination of racial mixing, the extermination of human beings of ‘non-Aryan’ or ‘related’ blood and the killing as ‘ballast’ those of no use for ‘national unity’ such as the chronically sick and disabled (Haas 2008). In 1927/1928 Soviet and German experts and their respective governments had begun negotiations about the establishment of a German-Russian Institute for Racial Research specializing in constitutional medicine and disease pathology (Adams 1990, Hirsch 2005).

In late 1927, a branch was set up in Moscow, and in 1930 a second office was established in Tbilisi, in the Georgian SSR. Using the Tbilisi office as their base, German and Soviet researchers began to evaluate the prevalence of certain diseases among different nationalities in Georgia and in other parts of the Caucasus. The initiation of collaborative German-Russian racial research in the Caucasus coincided with the rise of national socialism in German universities.  Hirsch (2005) argues that the relationship between Soviet and German scientists came under strain, as differing perceptions of the significance of race increasingly divided Stalin and Hitler.

Montefiore (2007) observes that, coincidentally, Hitler and Stalin were both staying in Vienna in 1913, and that they were ‘obsessed, in different ways, with race’. Hitler was developing his anti-semitic völkische theories of racial supremacy and Stalin was developing his framework for the construction of Soviet nationality policies.

‘The Jews did not fit into either of their visions. They repelled and titillated Hitler but irritated and confounded Stalin, who attacked their ‘mystical’ nature. Too much of a race for Hitler, they were not enough of a nation for Stalin.’ (2007, p.225).

The Jewish presence in Russia predates the formation of the Russian state, with records for example of a Jewish community in Kiev in the 10th century (Dmitriyev and Yakerson 2007). The gradual expansion of the Jewish presence was cut short by a series of events including pogroms in the Ukraine in 1648/49 which led to a quarter of the Jewish population being exterminated, and imperial decrees in 1727 and 1747 which had been enacted to expel Jews from Russia and the Ukraine. Christian-driven anti-Judaism  and other more bigoted forms of anti-semitism were common and widespread and this provided a cultural reservoir shaping the response to Russia’s transformation into the country with the largest Jewish population, as a result of imperial expansion.

Three divisions of Polish territory, annexation of the Crimea, the Caucasus and parts of Central Asia all led to an expansion of the Russian Jewish population. Their role as traders and representatives of absentee landlords brought them into conflict with peasants leading to charges of exploitation and ‘bloodsucking’ (Laquer 2006). Tsarist hostility and suspicion, backed up by intensified attacks from the Russian Orthodox Church and demands for conversion, led the Russian government to take a segregationist solution and confine the Jews, with limited exceptions, to the Pale of Settlement, which was established in Poland, Lithuania, parts of White Russia and the Ukraine by Catherine the Great in 1791 and lasted until 1917.

Poverty, exclusion, confinement, murder and rising ideological anti-semitism characterised the Jewish experience. Mass murder and violence, pogroms, occurred during this period with particularly devastating attacks occurring from 1881–1883 and from 1903–1906. Failed attempts at Russification such as  enforced military conscription at the age of 12 (in 1827), were replaced by state quota controls on access to schools and universities in the 1880s with no more than 10% of Jewish students allowed within the Pale, 5% outside the Pale and 3% in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev. Spontaneous violence, official and unofficial anti-semitic propoganda, including the publication of the ‘bible’ of anti-semitism the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, together with the embedding of restrictions on rights and movement characterised this period, together with the emergence of the state financed, organised extreme right-wing populist political movement, the Black Hundreds, which played a key role in the pogroms in 1904-05 (Laqueur 1993). The social base of the Black Hundreds was Okhotny Road, an area of meat markets in central Moscow, and was made up from those with ‘little education, staunch belief in the monarchy and the church, enemies of the intelligentsia and non-Russian nationalities’ (Laqueur 2006, p.87), and they were supported at the time by parts of the press, the clergy, patriotic groups, and local police and civic administrations.

Although losing support and fragmenting by 1908, the Black Hundreds, along with the League of the Archangel Michael and other groups, laid the basis for extreme right mobilisation and violent Russian anti-semitism through to the present day. Stalin confirmed the strength of everyday anti-Jew racism in early twentieth century Russia; ‘the general swing of the philistine towards anti-Semitism… these are generally known facts’ (1913, part I). This deep and durable dimension of Russian society was challenged by the official stance of the new revolutionary government, as on 20 March 1917 the Provisional Government abolished all restrictions on the rights of Russian citizens concerning their religion, faith and nationality, and thus ended the segregationist structure of containment that was the Pale of Settlement. But the murder of Jews continued and Jewish claims for recognition were denied. Stalin’s 1913 essay on ‘Marxism and the National Question’ had listed the attributes which an ethnic group must possess to qualify as a nation. One of the crucial criteria for nationhood was the possession of undivided national territory. Ethnic communities which were fragmented or dispersed were not real nations, all such groups including the Jews and the Roma were seen as national minorities who were doomed to dissolution and excluded from engaging in national forms of struggle.

‘what sort of nation, for instance, is a Jewish nation which consists of Georgian, Daghestanian, Russian, American and other Jews, the members of which do not understand each other (since they speak different languages), inhabit different parts of the globe, will never see each other, and will never act together, whether in time of peace or in time of war?!’ (Stalin 1913, part I).

This essay also clearly indicates Stalin’s perception of the meaning of race. Races are real things and nations are made from bringing races together.

‘A nation is primarily a community, a definite community of people. This community is not racial, nor is it tribal. The modern Italian nation was formed from Romans, Teutons, Etruscans, Greeks, Arabs, and so forth. The French nation was formed from Gauls, Romans, Britons, Teutons, and so on. The same must be said of the British, the Germans and others, who were formed into nations from people of diverse races and tribes. Thus, a nation is not a racial or tribal, but a historically constituted community of people. On the other hand, it is unquestionable that the great empires of Cyrus and Alexander could not be called nations, although they came to be constituted historically and were formed out of different tribes and races.’ (Stalin 1913, part I)

This view was also shared by others, Stalin quotes a statement by the political leader of those calling for regional autonomy for the Caucasus where this person said, ‘everybody knows that the Caucasus differs profoundly from the central (region) as regards for the racial composition of its population’ (Stalin 1913, p.IV). Stalin’s belief in the unquestionable reality of races was coupled with strong hostility towards many groups, such as ‘ingrained distrust’ and ‘personal fear’ of Muslims and Muslim unity (Blank 1994, p.220). This showed itself in imperialist divide and rule tactics, Muslims were set to purge Muslims and Tatars to purge Tartars, as provincial cadres were mobilised to facilitate the retention of central power and control.

For Stalin races were real bio-cultural entities, and this position was borne out by Russian science. In the 1920’s collaborative German-Soviet research took place. Important sites of German fieldwork had been lost with the ending of German colonisation in Africa and East Asia through the Treaty of Versailles. Schmidt-Ott and other prominent German scholars expressed a strong interest in doing fieldwork in the Caucasus and Central Asia as the ‘Russian Reich with its range of racial differences’, and ‘Russia’s colonial hinterland’ in the east in particular, as a promising place to continue their research agenda (Hirsch 2005). This was facilitated in 1927 by Soviet government funding for the study of productive forces. They participated in a number of major expeditions which included an anthropological-ethnographical detachment who examined racial, linguistic, and social-hygiene aspects in a variety of areas, the Soviet side included the Commission for the Study of the Tribal Composition of the Population of the USSR (KIPS), the Japhetic Institute (which specialized in linguistics), and the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (MAE).

The ethnographer and linguist Nikolai Marr (a member of KIPS and the head of the Japhetic Institute) led the detachment and supervised its ethnographic program. Vishnevskii and his colleagues examined the correlation between ‘narodnost’ (nationality) and racial traits. They conducted blood-group studies, recorded morphological data (head measurements and height, as well as skin, eye, and hair color) on some one thousand men and women; and took photographs of representative Chuvash, Misher, Russian, and Mordva ‘types’. As Hirsch confirms (2006, p.3) Vishnevskii’s expedition report described significant differences between the Chuvash and the Mishers in blood group distribution as well as in skin, eye, and hair colour, and concluded that the two peoples belonged to ‘different anthropological groups’. Vishnevskii did not make value judgments about these anthropological groups, or attempt to link racial traits to particular cultural, behavioral, or psychological traits. He did show that the patterns of racial and linguistic intermixing in the region resembled each other, and on the basis of available historical data he argued that this was the result of migration and settlement patterns.

Two trends emerged in the development of this field of knowledge, the first like the Chuvash expedition, defined races as real groups who had a ‘biosocial profile’, the second, linked racial/biological and cultural traits, and in line with older concerns about the ‘Yellow Peril’ warned about the dangers of racial mixing in the Russian Far East, for example the findings of an expedition of anthropologists and ethnographers in 1927.  In the expedition’s published report, the ethnographer Vladamir Arsen’ev argued that the Russians, Chinese, Iakuts, and Chukchi were ‘the most viable peoples’ in the Far East and that the Tungus and other ‘backward narodnosti’ of the region were doomed to extinction. In this same report, another researcher (the physician A. A. Beliaevskii) warned that the ‘cross-breeding’ of Russians ‘with a lower weaker race’ was damaging to ‘the physical constitution of the Slavic race’ and to ‘the Slavo-Russian [nationality]’. Such evidence was used to justify a short-lived Soviet crackdown on academic research in this field in the 1930s.

The Central Committee of the Communist Party outlawed work on eugenics in 1930, making the Soviet Union the only country where eugenics was officially denounced by governmental legislation. In the mid-1930s, the agronomist Trofim Lysenko started a campaign against genetics and was supported by Stalin. Between 1934 and 1940, many geneticists were executed (including Agol, Levit, Nadson) or sent to labor camps (including the best-known Soviet geneticist, Nikolai Vavilov, who died in prison in 1943). But, the attempt to build a Bolshevik eugencis continued and also as Adams (1989, 1990) confirms much of the work on Soviet genetics was restored by the mid-1930s.

The mobilisation of racial categories in anthropology, the tradition of Russian eugenics and the domination of primordial approaches to ethnicity in the Russian social science tradition (see a critical account in Tishkov 1997 and Weinberg 1974) have combined to provide a theoretical foundation for prevailing knowledge on race and ethnicity in this region. This evidence points to relational continuities in the scientific construction and understanding of racial and ethnic identities between pre- and post- revolutionary Russia. The Bolsheviks relied on former imperial experts, including ethnographers, for information on the peoples of Russia as a basis for developing ‘Soviet colonisation’, a revolutionary nationality policy and the bringing of peoples into the revolutionary process and securing their active involvement and participation, in an interactive way in the great socialist experiment (Hirsch 2005, p.6-7).

The anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and multiethnic and multinational aspirations and declarations of the emerging USSR were combined with ‘selective borrowing’ from Western European imperialism. Soviet colonisation was defined as the state directed development of productive efforts without imperialistic exploitation of ‘less developed peoples by more developed peoples’. The immediate and central construction of a hierarchy of nations and peoples within the revolutionary process provided a core mechanism for the reproduction of elements of racial and ethnic hierarchies from both inside imperial Russia and from contemperaneous external colonial and imperial forms of governance, although, officially, backwardness was not due to innate racial or biological characteristics.

The Soviet regime developed an ideology of ‘state-sponsored evolutionism’ (Hirsch 2005, p.7) which was a Soviet version of the civilising mission, entwining a Marxist conception of historical development with European anthropological theories about cultural evolution. This was based on the view that there were ancient, historical, primordial ethnic groups which were to be classified, shaped and privileged as the building blocks of nations, with the state  constructing modern nationalities as an essential step on the road to socialism with  these nations merging with the advent of communism, constructing a new ‘ethnicised modernity’ (Bonnett 2002). Race was defined in Marxist Leninist terms as socio-historical backwardness not biological inferiority, with some groups seen as doomed to extinction and others persecuted for having the ‘wrong’ ethnic origins and claims to group identity.

The Soviet regime’s conception of modernity as well as that of Western European nations drew on the legacy of the European Enlightenment with its emphasis on the capacity of science and rationality, which combined with faith in unilinear social and economic progress, would lead towards the ideals of civilisation and the emancipation of humanity.The fundamental tensions inherent in these key ideas facilitated both the reproduction and development of racist/antiracist, colonial/anticolonial forms of governance, and the construction/destruction of ethnicities. Science, technology and rational bureaucracy provided the means for both Stalinist ethnic cleansing and the categorising and promotion of ethnic nationalisms. The political and social project of civilisation in Europe is documented by Elias (1978), and parallels the Soviet civilising mission. Here, the development of codes of manners and behaviour were part of a process where elites attempted to civilise themselves and then impose their visions and programmes for civilisation on other groups.

In the USSR during the 1920’s selected clan and tribal identities were transformed into nationalities by ethnographers and local elites. This was the regime’s high period of ‘ethnophilia’ with the wiping out selected languages, cultures, identities in order to clear the way for the new nationalities, this paralleled previous imperial efforts at ethnophilia. For example in the 1890’s Emperor Alexander III decreed that Georgians had to learn and study in Russian and the impact of this on one young Georgian, Stalin, and his school mates.

‘When he enrolled at school in September 1890, Stalin shared the hatred of the new Russian rules. The boys were not even allowed to speak Georgian to each other…Josef Iremashvili, Stalin’s school mate, unable to speak Russian well said ‘our mouths had been locked in this prison for children…, we loved our native country and mother tongue..They considered us Georginas to be an inferior culture into whom the blessing of Russian civilisation had to be beaten…Speaking Georgian in class was punished by ‘having to stand in a corner or holding a long piece of wood for a whole morning or being locked in a detention cell without food or water and in complete darkness until late evening’. (Montefiore 2007, p.35).

This process of ethnophilia involved the deployment of ethnographic knowledge, and the cultural technologies of rule which in this case involved eliminating differences and distinctions rather than creating them as in European colonisation, through the use of the census, the map and the museum. Here there was a process of double assimilation, with diverse populations shoe-horned into nationality categories, and national categories integrated under the dominance of the Soviet state. As Arendt (1958) has noted the Soviet regime maintained power through mass mobilisation, and the interactive process of participation from below also facilitated assimilation and the strengthening of Soviet rule. As Tishkov (1997) confirms the ‘whole vocabulary’ of nation-building was changed by the Bolshevik regime with the deployment of ‘Austro-Marxist ethnonational categories’.The socialist nation was built on the basis of the territorialisation of ethnicity, invented differences and mutually exclusive ethnic loyalties ‘on the principle of blood’ (Tishkov 1997, p.250).

Marxist-Leninist and Stalinist ambitions to create a homogenous, russified Soviet citizenry, were underpinned by claims to Moscow’s revolutionary right to rule over non-Soviet peoples which were operationalised through Soviet nationality policies. The Bolsheviks granted ethno-territorial groups political recognition in the form of pseudo-statehood’ in return for political loyalty. This ‘integrationist’ logic advocated a strong, centralised state. Despite Lenin’s fears of the resurgence of pre-1917 Russo-centric imperialism and his attempt at compromise with separatist/segregationist political forces, Stalin by the late 1930s embarked on a clear course of blatant Russification as a way to Sovietization and denationalisation (Huttenbach 1990). The adherence of the masses to national rather than class identity was as significant in Russia as in other republics and regions. The hiding of Russian domination and imperial domination behind internationalist rhetoric reforged the linkages between empire and autocracy and restored ideological and institutional practices of Tsarism (Blank 1994). In a re-evaluation of Soviet ethnic and national purges Weitz (2002) argues that between 1937 and 1953 racial politics crept into nationalities policies with population groups being seen as having immutable traits, particularly in the unstable, unassimilable borderlands. As Wheeler (1960) observes, the rehabilitation of Tsarist conquest and exploitation of Asia and handling of Asian nationalities was an unmistakeable feature of the Soviet regime. Despite the concept of the empire being counter to Communist theory, maintaining access to vital natural resources, concerns of over Soviet security in Central Asia and Transcaucasia, the position of over two million Russian settlers and naturalised Russian superiority with hyper-centralised power were all key factors leading to this move. The Soviet Empire operated with different logics in relation to ethnic and national identities and racial logics than Western European empires (Chari and Verdery 2009).

The Soviet Union suppressed ethnic identities and reified the national principle into a fundamental organisational device, one that contributed to its own downfall. ‘Nationalities’ were both reinforced and created (Brown 2004, Hirsch 2005). Each major nationality had its own republic, and each republic’s minor nationalities often enjoyed some administrative autonomy. On the other hand Western European empires often manipulated and privileged ethnic and national identities with imperial policies that reified ‘chiefs’ and traditional authorities as instruments of indirect rule. Both approaches laid the basis for group-based postcolonial and postsocialist identity politics (Chari and Verdery 2009).

In the Russian Muslim autonomous republic of Kabardin-Balkaiya in the North Caucasus, Yemelianova (2005) charts a postcommunist regression from a Soviet version of civic nationalism to the clan- and region-based ethnic particularism with the formation of an ethnocratic regime representing a few powerful Kabardin clans. More generally in Russia’s Muslim regions an ethnonationalist and Islamic resurgence has facilitated the resurfacing of ethnic primordialism in elite narratives, with for example official registration of clans by the Ministry of Justice in 2000 symbolising the ‘re-clanization’ of Kabardin-Balkaiya.

Young (2001 p.10) observes that the Bolshevik revolution fundamentally transformed the dynamics of imperial and colonial relations with the first powerful state in the world ‘opposed to western imperialism in principle and practice’, laying out a global plan for decolonization in 1920. In the years leading up to this it was also clear that racist attitudes towards colonial people also infused socialist debates, for example at the 1907 Stuttgart Congress, these were vigorously opposed by Lenin (Young 2010, p.116, Rogers 1973). He developed a strong critique of both socialist concessions to racist colonial polices which advocated socialism for all nations alongside ongoing exploitation of natural resources, and of Russian chauvinism and ethnocentrism which sought to reduce minority nations to Tsarist colonies. But, in relation to Soviet Muslim Central Asia from the 1920’s to the early 1990s centralised strategies of ethnic and cultural destruction dominated minorities and minority nations, for example the extensive purges of Muslim leaderships and intelligentsia in the Muslim republics in 1928. In consequence, marked patterns of spatial and social segregation, including low rates of intermarriage, between Russians and Muslims characterised this region (Wheeler 1960). Systematic violation of the rights of Muslims, and other national minorities, is commonplace including the right to work, to medical help, education, social security, the right to leave the country, to property rights and even the right to live (Tlostanova 2010). This exemplifies the sustained trajectory of Russian Islamophobia from the Czarist period to post-Soviet Russia.

Colonialism and anti-colonialism were therefore both central logics of the Soviet state. Outside the Soviet Union, material and military support was given to many anti-colonial struggles, for example in Black Africa from the late 1920s onwards. Lenin’s argument that the communist victory in Europe hinged on the success of revolution in the colonies was accompanied by common Bolshevik references to the oppressed, homogenous, ‘toiling masses’ in Africa and Asia which indicated fundamental underlying problems in Soviet discourse. This Soviet position (the ‘Red’ promise is discussed in more detail in Chapter 5) attracted pan-Africanists to the Soviet Union including George Padmore who moved there from 1929 to 1934, publishing the classic text ‘The Life and Struggle of Negro Toilers’ for the Red International of Labour Unions in 1931. Here, following the Soviet line, black workers are seen as ‘oppressed as a class and.. as a nation’ (1931 p.5), illustrating the difficulty of foregrounding racism in Soviet ideology. Padmore’s powerful , global portrayal of the lives of black workers, ‘one of the most degrading spectacles of bourgeois civilisation’, does place black political actors at the forefront of revolutionary change and it also highlights white workers ‘scorn’ and ‘pariah’ perception of blacks and widespread ‘white chauvinism’ amongst the ranks of ‘revolutionary workers’.

Inside the Soviet Union images and attitudes towards Africa and Africans resonated with racialised logics moving from a long period of communist paternalism, to overt hostility from the 1980s onwards as Africa became both a scapegoat for popular discontent and a metaphor for poverty and backwardness (Quist-Adade 2005, Matusevich 2006, 2008). Attacks on racism and racist practices such as South African Apartheid and American racism became a staple of Soviet propaganda which is evident in the work of Soviet writers, poets and filmmakers, yet they also contained key elements of racist discourse.

Simplistic, idealised, exotic images of Africa were portrayed by the Soviet media and bureaucracy. School textbooks, posters and television in the 1960s contained images of communist compassion and the saving of helpless black victims of capitalist injustice and the Soviet civilising mission, together with clearer racist messages about the bestiality of black men and warnings about the ‘racial crime’ of black/white marriage. Despite Soviet journalistic training which gave the message that ‘socialism and racism are incompatible’, coverage of Africa in Pravda, Izvestiya and Novoe Vremya from 1985 to 1992 showed that for Russia’s new political bureaucracy Africa became a metaphor for backwardness and a way of criticising the former communist leadership for ‘wasting’ Soviet resources in Africa (Quist-Adade 2005). From early Soviet hostility to the sexual degeneracy and uncivilised, jungle, gross nature of jazz, to the contemporary everyday experiences of hostility and violence of many Russian Africans it is evident that Russian racism is highly dynamic and deeply embedded in Russian society and culture.

For the Roma, the advent of the Soviet Union brought initially new opportunities for civil rights, as with other ethnic minorities, with greater opportunity for literary and educational activity stimulating a cultural renaissance, the revitalisation of Romani language and the establishment of several gypsy schools teaching in Romani (see Chapter 2, Crowe 2007). Also the official encouragement of sedentary lifestyles was taking place through grants of land and the establishment of the first Roma collective farm, Khutor Krikunovo, near Rostov in 1925. This situation dramatically reversed in the mid 1930s as minority policies under Stalin changed, emphasising assimilation and Russification and the Roma renaissance faltered, Romani schools were closed and nothing was published in Romani between 1937 and 1989.

Roma were sent on masse to Siberia or shot by the Soviet state and then during the Second World War 30,000 to 35,000 Soviet Roma were killed by the Nazis (Crowe 2007, p.186). This comparatively large Roma survival rate being due to failure of the Germans to occupy key cities and large parts of the country. Subsequently, after Stalin’s death during the Soviet ‘thaw’ it was Khrushchev who completely outlawed the nomadic Roma way of life in the decree of 1956, which paved the way for the resurgence of contemporary anti-Roma racism, despite a another short-lived revival of Soviet Roma culture and politics under Gorbachev.

Contemporary racism in Russia

The forms of contemporary Russian racism are highly diverse, and include anti-Caucasian and anti-Chechen hostility, anti-semitism and anti-muslimism, anti-roma and anti-black hostility, and forms of hate, discrimination and violence aimed at other migrant and minority groups such as Meskhetian Turks, Armenians, Kurds and other ‘non-indigenous’ communities. Contemporary racism has been identified in government policies, political communications, in universities and in the mass media (Verkhovsky 2002, Kozhevnikova 2008, 2009, Sokolov 2002, ECRI 1999, 2001, 2005,Amnesty International 2002, 2009a, 2009b, Danilova 2007).

Pogroms, deportation and displacement of entire communities, particularly Jews and members of other ethnic minorities, are a key feature of the history of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Although modern forms of anti-muslimism are related particularly to post-Soviet political independence movements, particularly in Chechnya, Islam, as other non-Orthodox religions and spiritual practices, were persecuted and repressed in the Soviet Union. The thousands of black African students who came to the former Soviet Union for education have also been a key target for harassment, attack and abuse. In 2006 the UN sent their Special Rapporteur on Racism, Doudou Diène, to investigate accelerating racism in Russia (UN 2006). This mission was prompted by:

  • an increasing number of racially motivated attacks, particularly against people of non-Slav appearance originating from the Caucasus, Africa, Asia or the Arab world and associated neo-Nazi activity,
  • the resurgence of anti-semitism as well as other forms of religious intolerance, in particular against Muslims,
  • the existence and the increasing importance of political parties with racist and xenophobic platforms,
  • the social, economic and political marginalisation of ethnic minorities and other discriminated groups in the Russian Federation (2006: 3).

The rise of mono-ethnic interpretations of Russian political nationalism since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the underlying economic and social crisis are seen as central here in promoting a culture of ethnic hatred and racism. Ethno-nationalism has made post-Soviet contexts a terrain of destruction, ethnic cleansing and uncontrolled violence (Tishkov 1997). In Russia a continuing tradition of extreme right intellectual currents is drawing on Western European neo-fascist ideas and adapting them to the Russian situation (Shenfield 2001, Parland 2005). This rising hostility was reflected in the reports from opinion polls which respectively indicated that 53% of respondents supported the slogan ‘Russia for the Russians’ and that 42% would support a decision to ‘deport representatives of certain ethnic groups’ from their region.

A high profile disturbing case which illustrated these trends was the murder of Khursheda Sulto nova, a 9-year-old Tajik girl murdered in St. Petersburg in February 2004 by a group of teenagers armed with baseball bats, chains and knives whilst shouting the slogan ‘Russia for the Russians’. Contemporary Russian ethno-nationalism was mobilised from the 1980s onwards by groups like Pamyat (Memory) mixing Orthodox monarchism, national Bolshevism and anti-semitism and advocating power for ethnic Russians and demonising the global Zionist-Masonic conspiracy (Tishkov 1997). Russian nationalism in its extreme forms resembles fascism with ethnic Russians being the supreme embodiment of the Aryan race and is best represented in the RNU (Russian National Unity) who were formed in 1990. The RNU advocated stopping mixed marriages, boosting the fertility rate of ethnic Russians and a struggle against ‘parasitic’ peoples like the Roma and Jews.

Increasing hegemonic nationalism, involving suppressive and expansionist activities of a dominant ethnic group, towards both internal and external ethnic groups, is evident, for example in the Chechen wars. State discourse has been characterised by ambivalence both condemning anti-Chechen attitudes and advocating the need for strong, centralised power. The Chechen wars and Chechen terrorism in Russia have been a major factor in the growth of racist hostility and violence together with the operation of a criminalised police force. The frenzy of state racism embodied in Anti-Terrorist Operation Whirlwind following the 2002 Nord-Ost siege (or the Moscow theatre crisis) led to many examples of planting of drugs and cartridges on Chechen people and expulsion of Chechen men and women from their jobs and homes and children from schools (Politkovskaya 2004).

The role of the Russian media in the dissemination of racist news messages, political opinions and comment has been severely criticised. The growing influence of parties with racist platforms in Russia, advocating anti-immigration, anti-asylum and hostility towards a range of groups, includes parties with representation in Parliament, such as Rodina or the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Racist messages are openly disseminated both by mainstream and ‘specialised’ media, for example in the association of Roma and Tajiks with drug trafficking and organised crime, Caucasians – in particular Chechens – with extremism and terrorism, or immigrants in general with unemployment of Russians and criminality. More than 100 newspapers regularly use hate speech and instigate racial hatred against foreigners, at least seven publishing houses have links to extremist movements and support the publication of revisionist literature, and over 800 websites of extremist orientation give open space to leaders of neo-Nazi or extreme right organizations (2006: 43).

An excellent example of empirical study of hate speech in Russia (Lokshina et al 2002, Lokshina 2006) draws on monitoring of a range of national and regional newspapers and some websites, providing a systematic overview which shows that 51% of news items involved support for hate speech by journalists, 28% were neutral and 21% included condemnation by authors, with a wide range of different forms of racial and ethnic hostility being displayed. This piece is rare in identifying the big picture of media messages and highlights the positive tendencies in media communications that need to be considered alongside expressions of hostility and superiority. We continually need to be alert to this global context of racial ambivalence. Recently the European Commission on Racism and Intolerance (ECRI 2005) has confirmed the increasing occurrence of race hate speech in the Russian media together with a lack of adequate sanctions on journalists and editors for making shockingly racist statements. But, it also identifies that some media have tried to draw attention to the growing problem of racism and intolerance and to expose the difficulties that visible minorities have in their everyday life in Russia.

Empirical evidence on patterns of hostility has been collected by the Levada Centre since 1987-88 when it was founded. In 2008 it has documented the level of hostility across the Russian Federation towards different groups based on a public opinion poll (Levada Center 2008). Highest levels of hostility were focussed at Gypsies (40%) and Chechens (36%) with other key racialised groups including Chinese (16%), Tadjiks and Azherbaijanis (both 15%), Jews (12%) and Africans (11%). Other indicators of current levels of hostility include the finding that exactly half of Russians favour some form of segregation, i.e. where people from different national groups live separately from each other, that 42% are opposed to inter-ethnic marriages, and lastly, that a majority 57% felt that it was important to let foreigners know that too many of them are unwelcome and undesirable. The everyday choices made by many Russian parents, living in major cities, about which secondary school they will send their children to often rests on visiting various establishments and identifying the one with the least number of non-Russian children based on snap judgements of physical, ‘dark’ appearance (Alexandrov and Ivaniushina 2010).

The central place that anti-Roma hostility occupies in Russian racism today has been widely acknowledged (MHG 2002, ERRC 2005, Crowe 2007, FIDH 2004, 2008). Violence by state officials, paramilitary and nationalist-extremist groups together with racial discrimination against the Roma in the exercising of their civil, social and economic rights and complete absence of government response is legitimated by widespread anti-Roma racist discourse.

A recent poll conducted by the Moscow based research centre VTsIOM (2009) interviewed 1,600 people in 140 locations in 42 regions, territories and republics across the Russian Federation and found that public hostility to the Roma is highest amongst the young and negative experiences with the Roma were reported at a level of 61%+ for 18 to 34 year olds. Only a quarter of adult Russians reported positive views towards the Roma, and only 7% reported positive social experiences. Highest regional levels of hostility were reported in Siberia (66%), and highest levels of hostility were found amongst those in higher socio-economic groups (61%) compared to those in lower socio-economic groups (35%). Anti-Roma racism was reported as deriving from four key sources: social interaction and personal experiences (47%), socialisation and stories from family and friends (39%), movies and fiction (26%) and lastly television and news media (21%). The limited evidence of positive views of the Roma were most likely to have been received from movies and literature which indicates the absence of positive images in social and family contexts.

One of the most widespread contemporary forms of flagrant racial discrimination carried out by the Russian state against the Roma is the regular practice of forced evictions (FIDH 2008), which have also been happening in many other European countries including France, Italy and Serbia with varying degrees of EU criticism and response. The 1956 Soviet decree prohibiting ‘vagrancy’ forced many Roma families to settle. Enrolment in collective farms led to loss of skills, marginalisation and rapid impoverishment, together with suspicion and hostility from residents in villages where they were forced to obtain permanent housing.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union the Russian authorities arbitrarily denied residence registration and hence refused to legalise the housing of these forcibly settled families. Mass evictions often involve violence by law-enforcement officials and are often facilitated by local authorities who take advantage of the families’ lack of security of tenure, lack of understanding of legal processes and extreme levels of poverty and then demolish the houses and sell off the land to the highest bidder. Roma settlements are often deprived of essential services including water, electricity and gas, and non-registration of housing prevents access to education, employment and other social rights. Forced evictions also often follow local media campaigns presenting the Roma as drug dealers and criminals. Also, persistent racial profiling of the Roma by the police together with widespread police violence, torture and arbitrary detention produce large scale human rights abuse aggravated by rampant corruption (FIDH 2004, ERRC 2005).

Education is an acute problem with many Roma children never attending school, often resulting from lack of documentation and school’s refusal to enrol children, and those that do experience lower quality education and high levels of teacher and pupil hostility (Kulaeva 2002). The ADC Memorial Centre in St. Petersburg has recently been investigating problems of racial discrimination and the violation of the rights of Roma children at school and these were discussed during interviews carried out there in December 2009 (ADC Memorial 2009). In the Russian Federation Roma children who have managed to become enrolled at school are often segregated in ‘Gypsy’ classes, with mass transfer of Roma children to correctional classes with no justification, and sometimes to separate ‘Gypsy’ schools.

School directors often take this action due to the refusal of non-Roma parents to put their children in classes with Roma, for example the school of Nizhniye Oselki (Vsevolozhsk district, Leningrad Province) where less than 100 Russian children were taught by 20 teachers in a building with 20 classrooms, and the ‘Gypsy’ school which operated in a separate building with more than 100 Roma children being taught by 3/4 teachers in 2 rooms. This situation is subject to official denial, for example the deputy Minister of Education in Rostov province, Marina Mazaeva stated that ‘There is no problem with access to education: the Roma themselves are not willing to study, they are roaming the steppe. We have no Roma classes’ (2009, p.5).

Both grass-roots and elite anti-semitism are ongoing features of Russian political and social life (Rossman 2002, SOVA 2004, UCSJ 2007). Violent attacks on individuals, desecration of synagogues and graves, attacks on Jewish property and graffiti are regularly reported. In 2008 some examples include;

  • Mikhail Altshuler, a well known Jewish musician, who was beaten and abused by three skinheads on the Moscow metro,
  • three 18-19-year-olds stormed into a synagogue in Nizhnii Novgorod and beat up the guard,
  • a gang of ten people painted swastikas, slogans including “Jews leave Russia” on the synagogue and Jewish community center in Ulianovsk,
  • a home-made bomb was left at the gate of a synagogue in Omsk,
  • dozens of Jewish gravestones were discovered broken at the Petrodvoretsk cemetery at the outskirts of St. Petersburg,
  • the Holocaust memorial at the old Jewish cemetery in Kaliningrad was defaced with swastikas, antisemitic slogans and paint in October,
  • on May 9 (Victory Day), swastikas, “glory to Hitler,” “Death to the Yids,” “Yids to the oven,” “Russia for Russians” and the letters “SS,” were painted on the Jewish Culture and Charity Center in Tula and swastikas and anti-semitic graffiti was found on many buildings in the city,
  • dozens of antisemitic posters appeared on buildings in Novosibirsk, calling on parents to protect their children before the Jewish holiday of Passover because “these disgusting people still engage in ritual practice to their gods. They kidnap small children and remove some of their blood in order to prepare their holy food − matza − and eat it during their Passover and throw the bodies onto garbage dumps.” (Stephen Roth Institute 2009).

Contemporary Russian intellectual and political anti-semitism has been analysed by Rossman (2002) who identifies five different types each suggesting a specific basis of identity for citizens of the post-Soviet states; cultural, religious, social, racial and cultural. Firstly, a type of anti-semitism where the Jew is seen as a rootless and homeless cosmopolitan, a cultural enemy of Russia in the discourse of Neo-Slavophilism, a key component of Russian nationalism, promoted by Vladimir Zhirnovsky, which seeks a restoration of the Soviet empire. Secondly, a position where the Jew is seen as a religious enemy of Russian National Orthodoxy. Thirdly, in the discourse of National Bolshevism where the Jew is an arch-capitalist and a natural enemy of Russian socialists. Fourthly, where Jews are constructed as a racial foe for example in neo-Nazi propaganda. Lastly, within Neo-Eurasianism where Jews are constructed as geopolitical enemies of continental civilisations such as Eurasia. These have been interwoven and articulated in the context of the post-communist period. But it is surprising that Russian Jews have not been more widely victimized.

There is no evidence of steadily rising popular hostility over the course of the 1990s (Gibson and Howard 2004). Economic collapse, political turmoil, an ideological vacuum, historical precedents of pogroms, purges, show trials, professional and educational quotas, bans on religious expression and ridicule in popular culture together with vigorous messages of anti-semitism from elite and intellectual sources all provide a fertile context for an upsurge in mass hostility, violence and successful mobilisation of anti-semitism in electoral politics but this has not occurred.  The majority of Russians do not share the views of the anti-semitic ideologists (Rossman 2002). Public condemnation of anti-semitism by President Putin and other key political figures, together with the targeting of alternative scapegoats such as the Chechens and the Roma are two key factors in accounting for this outcome (Gibson and Howard 2004).

SOVA: monitoring and challenging racist violence and state inactivity

SOVA is the most important NGO monitoring racist violence across the Russian Federation and interviews with Alexander Verkhovsky and other staff members were carried out at the organisation’s offices in Moscow in November 2009. SOVA developed from a group called Panorama who were involved in a wider range of human rights related activities and were set up in 2002 with a specific brief to investigate and monitor racist violence. Funding was obtained from foreign organisations such as the SOROS Foundation, and then funding from (the now gaoled) Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was secured, who was also funding Open Russia. Funding was lost as this financial empire was taken over by Putin’s allies. Subsequently, in 2008 SOVA achieved greater government recognition as there was increasing Russian government concern over the political threat posed by neo-Nazi groups to the stability of the Russian state and civil society and the potential for riots and urban disorder.

So, SOVA received a Presidential grant for about 50% of its work which gives this organisation greater legitimacy and the space to pursue its objectives of trying to convince government agencies, Ministry of Interior, police etc, of the seriousness of racial violence and the need for greater urgency in pursuing prosecutions. SOVA is seen as helpful in gathering useful information and has now established more regular contact with state agencies. Being in receipt of a Presidential grant also gives them greater recognition in negotiating with other agencies.

The organisation has about 8-10 staff, Director Alexander Verkhovsky, Deputy Director Galina Kozhevnikova, 2 staff monitoring religious extremism, two staff monitoring hate crime and xenophobia and another member of staff who monitors the mis/use of anti-extremist legislation. There is an impressive and consistent level of output and an extensive website record of publications and other material from this organisation (http://www.sova-center.ru/en/).

Since 2002, daily data collection has been carried out focussing on violent incidents, lower level incidents not involving serious assault or worse are not recorded. The organisation estimates that they probably pick up about 50% of hate crime murders. Data comes from monitoring federal and local press and media using online output, and other web sources and sites, very few incidents are directly reported by victims to SOVA. Evidence shows that targets are usually chosen randomly among people looking ‘foreign’, most being from Central Asia. In 2008 they catalogued 97 racist and neo-Nazi murders, and a further 23 from January to April 2009. (SOVA 2008, 2009b)  Data covers all the Russian Federation and SOVA has regional contacts and staff doing monitoring work.

There are some big gaps in data collection, often highly dependent on the extent to which regional media report racist violent incidents. These gaps mainly only come to light months after the incident has occurred when a criminal case goes to court and race hate is formally identified as one of the aggravating factors. If a racist incident is reported by victim, this may be recorded by the Police in a statement but it will not appear in SOVA statistics unless a formal prosecution follows. Media coverage of racist violence incidents is often nothing more than the perfunctory reporting of court cases. The news media are often hostile and anti-immigrant but they are not necessarily in denial about these events, more that they are not seen as important and newsworthy. Less incidents have come to light recently and this may be because of multiple arrests and prosecution of some active neo-Nazi groups. The media have taken up cases such as Tajik girl killed in St Petersburg (noted above), but they soon lose interest and may face hostility due to the spotlight put on this case. There are other related organisations working in this field such as the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights who are more officially connected and tend to record a higher level of incidents. There are strong disagreements over this and related methodologies of data collection.

The rise in informal extreme-right activity in the Russian Federation over the last ten years has been a key factor in patterns of racist violence, with the number of ‘skinheads’ rising from 7-8,000 in 1996 to 60-65,000 in 2007 (Arnold 2009). The development of the National Socialist Society in 2005/6 attempted to formalise neo-Nazi groups and organise and mobilise political racism. This has been effectively crushed by the Russian state and police due to (over) estimation of its political significance and political threat, political racism as exemplified by parties such as the British National Party would not be allowed to develop in Russia.  Lacking formal organisation the extreme right skinhead movement now consists of widespread small, informal, groups of young people who are very difficult to track, a Police official said it is ‘impossible to track a 16 year old who turns to violence’. These may be, for example, a group of young lads in a housing ‘yard’ some of whom may be linked to a neo-Nazi groups some not. It is very difficult to therefore assess the extent to which incidents are organised or spontaneous. There are links between neo-Nazi groups and radical nationalists, and between these groups and Young Russia, a paramilitary youth movement closely allied to United Russia, the main political party.

The United Russia Young Guard ( the most official of the pro-Kremlin youth movements) have staged numerous anti-immigrant pickets in Russian cities and the slogans carried by pro-Kremlin youth have been identified as virtually the same as those used by the radical nationalist Movement against Illegal Immigration (DPNI). In 2009, there was a march of about 3,000 radical nationalists in Moscow, so this group is very small and very difficult to organise politically.

There has been street-based direct opposition to neo-Nazi groups organised by radical anti-fascists with violent face to face conflict and these anti-fascist groups are also subject to attacks, violence and murder in turn. The development of strong horizontal networks between violent racist groups which means that traditional criminal justice techniques will and have failed to make substantial impact. Such networks include the ‘Big Game Project’, designed to involve ultra-right youth in hate crime, led by key founders including Pyotr Khomyakov (SOVA 2009a). There has been a general upward trend in recorded incidents of racist violence during SOVA’s period of monitoring, reflecting a real upward trend which is not due to better reporting as the same systems are in place and there is no greater awareness in media sources, apart from very recently in Moscow where there has been a drop in incidents due to multiple arrests and a police crackdown on neo-Nazi groups.  But the police think that this is unlikely to be significant as other groups will spring up to take their place, there is no inevitability here but perceptions of the future prospects for racist violence are very bleak.

Mass popular racist hostility legitimating developing youth sub-cultures of race hate and violence are combined with both the inability of criminal justice agencies and other public services to cope and deal with these issues and the hostile rhetoric of law enforcement officials. There are also very poor prospects for building an anti-racist movement as there is very little contact or coordination between NGOs, churches, community agencies, and other relevant organisations, which also hinders reporting. There is also no apparent link to increasing or decreasing racist violence and mainstream political and media discourse. Mainstream political statements are often ignored or scorned by these young groups, but anti-immigrant rhetoric has aided the development of a bigoted social climate.

The main claim to success in SOVA’s work is two-fold. Firstly, over seven years they have helped to change the terms of the debate and secure greater and more serious recognition of race hate crime and racism itself. Ten years ago the debate was focussed on ‘inter-ethnic  tensions’ and concerns over ‘Russian fascism’, now debate is more about tackling rising xenophobia and the extreme right political threat.

Before 2000 there was very little conception of racism as an officially recognised problem inside the Russian Federation, racism was seen as an American problem, and acts of violence were seen simply as ‘crime’. But SOVA’s perception is that the Russian state does not care about the victims of racism, it only cares about securing political stability, this is a key driver for increasing prosecutions. SOVA’s second area of success has been to contribute to pressure for more effective police and court action to deals with these serious cases of racist violence.


There are strong continuities in the development of racism in Russia, strong interconnections between Russian racism and Western racisms and powerful internal social, political and economic forces driving contemporary processes of racialisation in the Russian Federation. Anti-racism as a political project is and has been weak and subject to attack with activists being subject to harassment and in some cases murder. The attempt to break with racism and colonialism in the Soviet Union has been a failure with the proliferation of race-thinking, decades of denial of the mechanisms of internal racialisation and active racialised construction of many groups inside and outside the Soviet Union, although it did not let human heredity become a defining feature of political schemes as in Nazi Germany.

The potent logics of Red racism mark one central phase in the wider historical formation of racial marking, hierarchies, segregation, violence and domination that have been identified in this chapter. The Soviet period marked the switch from religious thinking to scientific race thinking, with Soviet aetheism and Soviet school teaching of biology popularising the idea that physical appearance and/or genes matter more than religion, and now ‘the darkies’ are the focus of hate (Alexandrov 2010). Future prospects are grim and the racialised Russian state will continue to strengthening links between racialisation and criminalisation as well as segregation and marginalisation of stigmatised groups like the Roma. Official challenging of the ‘racist underground’ provides a rhetoric of progressive action which positions the state as without racism, as in the Soviet era, except that racist thugs and gangsters are now recognised inside this region rather than being identified externally in America and the West.

The Russian Federation has recently carried through a number of positive measures. These include specifying ethnic, racial and religious hatred as an aggravating circumstance in relation to crimes such as homicide, prohibiting the use of racially and ethnically offensive images and expressions in commercial advertising, and the establishment of an institutional framework for the protection of the rights of ethnic minorities and small indigenous peoples embodied as the Department on Inter-Ethnic Relations. But, as the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination report (2008) confirms action still needs to be taken in a number of areas including stopping the destruction of Roma settlements, the segregation of Roma children into special remedial classes, and the denial of access to schooling to ethnic minority children. Stopping ethnic minority workers and non-Russian citizens being subject to exploitative work conditions and discrimination in access to jobs is also urgently needed.

The practice of racial and ethnic discrimination by state officials in excluding former Soviet citizens from acquiring Russian citizenship against groups like the Meshketian Turks also continues, as does the exclusion of indigenous peoples from the North, Siberia and the Far East from political representation. The effective combating of racial and ethnic hate speech in the media, on the internet and in political discourse, the activities of extremist organisations involved in racial and ethnic violence, as well as the disproportionate harassment, arrest and detention of Roma, Africans and people originating from the Caucasus area by police and law enforcement officials all remain to be addressed. In the absence of action Russia’s ‘pragmatic steady racism’  accentuated by moments of ‘frenzied whirlwind racism’ (Politkovsya 2004), in the ongoing racialised politics of the War on Terror, will continue.

The revival of ‘old’ racism drawing on contemporary constructions of Slavic pre-history, Aryan myths and also neo-paganism are being forged into new representations and discourses of the racial purity of Russia (Laruelle 2008). This has been facilitated by Soviet discourses and primary education regarding World War Two which have resulted in lack of knowledge of the ideological foundations of the Nazi regime and associated Aryan myths, together with the yearning to rediscover the national past and rehabilitate regional folkore. President Putin’s posturing in Siberia (Spiegel Online 5 November 2010) is deployed to symbolise this re-connection to the comforting historical continuity of the Russian people and the forgetting of the disappearance of the Soviet Union.

The continuing racialisation of Russian society was further illustrated when the worst race riots since the break-up of the Soviet Union happened in December 2010, with riots in central Moscow focussed on Manezhneya Square and also in Saint Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don and in other cities around Russia. The incidents were sparked by the shooting of Yegor Sviridov an FC Spartak fan in a street fight between a group of fans and a group of Chechens from the North Caucasus (described as an armed group of martial arts trained wrestlers and cagefighters ). One of whom, Aslan Cherkesov, was charged the others were released, and this was said to be one of the triggers for the ensuing protest and violence. Following the mass demonstrations and chanting of racist slogans organised by Spartak fans and nationalist groups, groups of young people took to the streets daily, shouting ‘Russia for Russians! Moscow for Muscovites!’. For Yevgeny Valyaev, the shaven-headed leader of Russky Obraz, an ultra-nationalist group that helped gather some of the 5,000 men who descended upon the Kremlin on 11 December, the cause is clear,

‘It’s not one death. It’s a pressure that’s been building for several years.There was no way we could not gather – because he was a football fan and because he was Russian. It was a protest against ethnic banditry.’ (quoted in Inter Antifa Russia 2010)

These events have led to intensified prosecution of the extreme-right and the banning of the two largest organisations – the DPNI (Dvizhenie protiv nelegal’noi immigratsii, the Movement against Illegal Immigration) and, earlier, the Slavic Union (Slavyansky soyuz), and a decline in reported racist violence. In response new extreme-right coalitions and organisations are being established including the largest one to date the Ethnopolitical Association –– Russians (Etnopoliticheskoe ob’edinenie – Russkie) and pursuit of illegal/underground ‘autonomous clandestine activity’, or racial terrorism, is actively underway (SOVA 2011).



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