In Russia, if you have dark hair and a slightly swarthy complexion, you are likely to be in danger. Sadly, Russia’s leaders have tolerated, if not encouraged, fear of foreigners and assaults on those whose appearance differs from the average Russian.
In a residential area of Moscow, a group of adolescents, many with shaven heads and wearing combat boots, marches and shouts Russian nationalist slogans. When they come across three Azerbaijani boys, they don’t hesitate. Soon, one of the boys — only 13 years old — lies severely injured; he will have to be hospitalized. The other two are injured as well. The perpetrators are never caught.
Bashir Osiev, 24, born in Ingushetian and a clerk in a Moscow bank, is assaulted by a group of skinheads while walking home with a friend. The friend is badly wounded but manages to escape; Osiev dies after being stabbed in the back. Two of the assailants are injured in the course of the fight and arrested after seeking medical assistance at a hospital. The others are never caught.
Two men from the Caucasus are on their way to the metro, and are attacked by a group of adolescents with knives. Both are treated in hospital, the perpetrators escape unrecognized.
In a small town in central Russia, two Uzbeks are viciously beaten up by a group of teenagers.
All of these incidents occurred within just one week. They are picked at random from an endless series of similar assaults, many of which end fatally.
Russian authorities tend to play down these attacks as the acts of rowdies — even when the perpetrators are caught and can be prosecuted. This is because charging someone with racism and xenophobia is more complicated and the process more drawn out than winning a conviction for simple thuggery.
Indeed, Russia’s racists can be assured of considerable sympathy from the security forces and the public. After all, these attacks generally don’t occur in some dark alleyway. In most instances, they take place in crowded markets, metro stations, or simply in busy streets. Passersby look the other way — even if the victims are women and children.
A Chechen friend of mine and her 14-year-old son were attacked in the street by three drunken skinheads. The skinheads began to push them around and harass them, as people in the street looked away and kept moving. My friend managed to talk insistently to the three until eventually they left her and her son alone, only to pounce on a married couple that happened to be passing by. The man looked like a Jew, they insisted loudly, and started to push him around. But he’s Russian, his frightened wife insisted, whereupon the three — apparently mellowed by drink — apologized and let him go.
Neither husband nor wife were alarmed that the three drunks were chasing Caucasians and Jews, but pressed charges because they, as Russian citizens, had been harassed. My friend didn’t. It would not do any good, she said resignedly, and then spoke of how her 12-year-old daughter is repeatedly told at school that all Chechens are criminals and that nobody likes them.
Since the day former Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke on TV of flushing all Chechens down the toilet, hatred of Caucasians has become all but socially acceptable. Once again, a subgroup of the population has been declared bandits and potential terrorists, satisfying people’s urge to find a clearly identifiable enemy who can be blamed for all that is wrong in today’s Russia. While there has been no lack of speeches calling for tolerance and condemning racist and anti-Semitic attacks, the situation barely changes.
The old USSR was anything but tolerant. But since its collapse, a gnawing feeling of inferiority has crept into Russian society. “Once we were somebody,” the thinking goes. “And today nobody takes us seriously, so we have to defend ourselves against anything that comes from outside and holds us down.”
Both the state and openly racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic groups — of which there are dozens, as well as more than 100 clearly xenophobic publications — increasingly ignore Russia’s multi-ethnic character. In an everyday context, this is reflected in slogans like “Russia for Russians,” which really means white European Russians.
The attacks therefore are directed in equal measure against people from the Asian former Soviet republics, Africa, and the Far East, as well as Russian citizens from the Caucasus or who belong to one of Russia’s more than 90 national minorities. The state hypocritically expresses its concern while doing nothing to oppose it, because too many officials are only too willing to exploit such sentiments.
Susanne Scholl is Moscow bureau chief of ORF (Austrian Public Television). Copyright: Project Syndicate
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