Racism in Russia and the Caucasus

By Dewaine Farria

VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia — “Documents.” No smile. No "please". 

I’m with four others, but the Ukrainian police officer only wants to see mine. We’re on Khreschatik Street in downtown Kiev.

“No problem.” Presenting my diplomatic card, I watch the militiaman’s scowl transform into a respectful demeanor. The officer, now contrite, salutes. It’s a chilly day, and people stop to watch our interaction. He smiles and feigns laughter. I imagine every African student, Tajik waiter, and Ingush clerk this cop had probably shaken down in the past, and so, indulging my adolescent side, I made him hold the salute longer than necessary.

As a black American working in the former Soviet Union, incidents like this are routine.  But this racist and xenophobic attitude is not just reserved for foreigners; it is par for the course for people from the North Caucasus republics. The crisis in the North Caucasus, as well as targeted violence against its inhabitants in the rest of the Russian Federation, continues unabated. The media in Russia and abroad has largely ignored the plight of Caucasians. According to the SOVA Center, a Moscow based non-profit which tracks racist incidents in Russia, 2010 saw 38 deaths and 377 injuries from racially motivated attacks throughout the country—a sizable drop from 2009’s 84 deaths, but alarming nonetheless.

The first time I heard a Russian call a person from the Caucasus a “black ass” I was dumbfounded. Looking at my pale-skinned Chechen friends, I would be inclined to laugh at the term if it wasn’t such an obvious symptom of the xenophobia in Russian society. In the West, Caucasian means white person, but in Russia, being Caucasian makes you a target for rampant racial discrimination.

As a kid, I remember watching news clips of military parades in Red Square and asking my dad, “Why do they hate us?” My father told me that the Russians were a good people who loved the arts and were not racist at all—a myth singer Paul Robeson did a lot to sell to black Americans. The fact that he thought I meant only black Americans and not all Americans says something about the difference between my father’s generation and mine. I never had to deal with the type of racism my father dealt with in the United States in the 60s and 70s. I had to travel to the former Soviet Union to get a taste of it.          

In the Russian collective consciousness, the Caucasus occupies the same space the Wild West did for Americans. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russians started referring to the newly independent states on its periphery as the “near abroad”—almost like going to a foreign land, but not really. Similarly, many Russians refer to the North Caucasus as the “inner abroad”—almost like being in Russia, but not quite.

To be more specific, the predominantly Orthodox Christian Republics of North Ossetia and Stavropol Krai feel like part of the Russian Federation, while the Muslim-majority republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan very distinctly do not. Even before Stalin’s brutal relocation of the Chechen and Ingush to Central Asia in 1944, the Muslim portions of the North Caucasus were never fully integrated into the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire.

Race was present in my interactions in the North Caucasus, but not in the way it was in Moscow or Kiev. At my gym in Vladikavkaz, the following conversation played out, in various shapes and forms, on at least four separate occasions.

“Where are you from?”  

“I’m American, from the U.S.A.” 

“Yeah, but where are you from?” Here they would wave their hands in front of their face as if to say, “Because you’re not white.”

“Well… most of my ancestors were from Africa.”

“So you’re African-American?” They would interrupt, struggling to comprehend.    

They saw me as an American citizen, but not really. The inability to believe that a black man can truly be considered an American in today’s world illustrated the way they saw themselves in Russian society. They were Russian citizens, but not quite.     

The North Caucasus is a war-torn area that is tragically ignored. The region doesn’t have any heartbreaking child amputees to parade in front of cameras or foreign troops to lambast. For its part, the Russian government has done a masterful job of diverting international attention. In early 2010, the Russian government quietly created the North Caucasus Federal District out of the Southern Federal District. This crafty political maneuver will prevent the upcoming Sochi Olympics from taking place in the same Federal District that saw (at least) 145 improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in 2010. The following year, at the Russian government's request, UN agencies operating in the North Caucasus quietly closed up shop. It wouldn’t do for humanitarian agencies to be working in such close proximity to site of the upcoming Olympic games. In response to these deft moves by Putin and Medvedev, the world hardly blinked.

The North Caucasus remains a region in crisis. For the last three years Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, and (most recently) Kabardino-Balkaria have oscillated from low-scale guerilla conflict to outright civil war. In 2010 alone, Chechnya saw a double suicide attack on its parliament building, a large-scale assault on Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s home village, and dozens of IED attacks. That same year pundits described Chechnya as relatively stable. But compared to 2009, the year the Russian authorities ended the ten-year counter-terrorist operation (CTO) in Chechnya, 2010 was relatively quiet. The end of the CTO in Chechnya spurred law enforcement and militants to increase their activities—the former to prove the CTO was no longer necessary, and the latter to undermine the decision and prove their existence and capability.

The blogger Alexey Navalny one of the leading figures in Russia's growing protest movement discussed the fact that Vladimir Putin’s United Russia racked up over 95 percent of the vote in the North Caucasus Federal District. He argues that unbelievable number proves that Putin has a lot of power over the region, but also has a need to control it to maintain leverage over the rest of Russia. Navalny says, “Putin is the president of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan—but not Russia.”

Putin’s political fate has been wedded to the North Caucasus since the second Chechen war, which cemented the rise of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB. Through the use of strongmen like Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin has achieved a modicum of stability in the North Caucasus. But, in the last 13 years, Putin has never been able to fully integrate the region into the Russian Federation. Whether the budding protests in Russia turn into a real push for revolution remains to be seen. Listening to Navalny, it’s clear that Moscow is sowing the seeds of discontent in the Caucasus with its suggestion of otherness, nationalist tone, and unapologetic xenophobia. Breaking this racist mindset in Russia will be hard to do under any circumstances. But given Putin’s iron-fisted control of the region, it is not likely to happen anytime soon.



Dewaine Farria has worked in the former Soviet Union for over 11 years, for the last two, as the UN field security officer for the North Caucasus region. He blogs at http://fsconotebook.blogspot.com/

(Photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum)    

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