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Talking Policy: Jennifer Wilson on Race and U.S.-Russia Relations

What do rising ultranationalism and the alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election have in common? World Policy Journal spoke with Jennifer Wilson, a postdoctoral fellow for academic diversity in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania, to discuss the intersection of race and U.S.-Russia relations.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Many people are still reeling from the alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, especially now, after the resignation of national security advisor Michael Flynn and the disclosure of the two conversations Attorney General Jeff Sessions had last year with the Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak. But much of your work brings another element of the issue into focus: race. What is the danger in linking Trump’s victory to Russia and what does race have to do with it?

JENNIFER WILSON: I think what your first question is getting at is a real fear that some people have in the U.S., and this is particularly the case among activists, that if we make Trump’s victory about Russia and Russian interference in the process, then what we’re really doing is downplaying the role of racism and xenophobia within the American electorate in shaping the results—that we’re taking this populist uprising that’s homegrown and making it seem that this was actually the result of a foreign agent. That’s really what prompted me to organize the event I did at the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at NYU. I wanted to ask if there is a way that we can both be suspicious of Russia’s alleged involvement in the election—and if not an involvement then this groundswell of support for Trump we’re seeing there—and also look at racism as a driving force. I wanted to change the conversation from being “either/or” to “both/and.”

I think that the media coverage for the most part has really focused on “did they or didn’t they”—did Russia hack the election or not? But very few people are asking why—why are so many Russian people excited about a figure like Donald Trump whose campaign was predicated on xenophobia being in the White House? To understand why, you have to look at ethnic tensions within Russia. While there are a lot of people who voted for Trump in the U.S. because they want to build a wall with Mexico, there are similarly a lot of peofple in Russia not happy with the influx of migrant workers from the former Soviet Republics, like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. The xenophobic language of Trump is really something that animated not only xenophobic feelings in the U.S., but also support outside of the country, including in Russia.

And Obama is a really important figure here too—Putin was really seen as Obama’s adversary. A lot of these ultra-right groups in the U.S. and elsewhere saw that Putin was not buying the narrative of Obama being a transformational figure. When Putin pushed back against Obama, they saw that not only as Putin pushing back on American interests, but also against a black man and against diversity.

WPJ: We’re seeing the rise of populist, far-right groups all over the world, often with supremacist and/or nationalist leanings. What is happening in terms of these movements in Russia, and how does the situation there compare to that in the U.S.?

JW: These groups are very much connected to one another; they’re really a network; they don’t operate in isolation. Probably the most well known figure with the alt-right movement in the U.S. is Richard Spencer, the head of the think tank, National Policy Institute. In addition to being a figure supporting white supremacy in the U.S., he’s also a Russophile—he has called Russia the “sole white power in the world” and sees Russia as being the main antagonist to NATO and other liberal institutions. He’s been advocating for the U.S. to have better relations with Russia and even wears cologne that he thinks was worn by the tsars in Imperial Russia. Also interesting is that Spencer is actually married to a Russian woman, Nina Kouprianova.

The Russian political philosopher Alexander Dugin is probably the figure that connects all of these groups. The main idea Dugin is associated with is Eurasianism, which has a complex history, but in its most recent iteration, it’s very much associated with the idea that Russia has its own version of Manifest Destiny as a Christian nation and a beacon of Christian values for the world and that it should pursue an aggressive imperial campaign, like returning Ukraine back to Russia and calling it “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”).

David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK, is another figure within the alt-right who has strong connections with Russia. Duke, who knows Dugin personally, has gone on record to say that Russia holds the key to white survival. He also goes to Russia quite a bit to promote his book, My Awakening: A Path to Racial Understanding, which has been openly sold in the main lobby of the State Duma in Russia, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Matthew Heinbach, a member of the alt-right and founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party, also sees Putin as the last standing figure fighting against liberal institutions that promote things like diversity. He sees Russia as the axis for nationalism and claims that he converted to Russian Orthodoxy with his wife, although this has been contested.

On the Russian side you have nationalist groups like Rodina (the Russian political party Motherland-National Patriotic Union), which held a right-wing conference last year in St. Petersburg and invited a lot of white supremacists from the U.S. It essentially got all of these nationalist groups in Russia and the U.S. in one room, where they spewed anti-Semitic rhetoric. And that’s really important—one of the reasons these alt-right groups in the U.S. look toward Russia is to get their ideas backed by a nation-state with a historical legacy of anti-Semitism.

Another thing I should mention is that white nationalists in Russia don’t like Putin; they don’t see him as a defender of the white race at all. These groups think Putin has been too friendly with the Muslim population in places like Chechnya, in particular, and that his immigration policy is too lax.

WPJ: What types of race relations exist in Russia? What Soviet legacy or legacies are at play when it comes to race in contemporary Russia?

JW: The biggest tragedy today, really, is the absence of the Soviet legacy. The Soviet Union was really an important force on a global scale in proliferating anti-racist rhetoric. It was a staunch critic of U.S. race relations, defended African sovereignty against white European imperialism, and backed indigenous movements around the world. The Soviet Union also gave lots of scholarship to students from what is now called the global south—mostly from Africa—to study in Russia for free. But with the fall of the Soviet Union and the lack of a Cold War, there is also a lack of an imperative to be critical of U.S. racism.

That said, some would say that even during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was being really hypocritical because, at the same time they were criticizing the U.S. in terms of Jim Crow, there was also heavy repression of minorities there, like Jews and Central Asians, who had their own cultures stamped out through Russification. Regarding the enduring ethnic tensions in Russia, some people would say that’s in many ways the Soviet legacy—just not the Soviet legacy the Soviets wanted us to know about. Other people would say today’s behavior is a betrayal of the ideals—not the actions, but the ideals—that the Soviet Union claimed to rest upon.

WPJ: We’ve seen Russian English-language news sites like RT and Sputnik, as well as Putin himself capitalize on problems regarding race and inequality in the U.S. You’ve also written about racist comments and behavior in Russia aimed at former President Obama. What do you believe are the intentions behind this rhetoric and the exposition of racism in America by the Russian media?

JW: Pointing out America’s racial tensions was a really big part of the Soviet Cold War propaganda campaign. For instance, the case of the Scottsboro Boys—a group of black teenagers in Alabama falsely accused of rape—was all over the Soviet press. An entire propaganda campaign was created around this, pointing out, rightfully so, the links between racism and capitalism, as well as the American hypocrisy of claiming to be this purveyor of global democracy. When Ferguson erupted, the Russian media—and not just RT—was very much fascinated by this and described it as “Black Maidan,” saying that if America wants to make a big deal of the pro-Ukrainian uprising in Kiev, then Ferguson can be labeled as America’s Maidan.

I think that the problem—and this has always been a frustration— is that Russians are very good at pointing out American hypocrisy and historically adept at criticizing America’s role as a global imperial power, but it’s often used to hide their own domestic problems in terms of ethnic tensions and xenophobia. Very often, pointing to America’s race problems is a way to downplay their own, and change the conversation.

WPJ: Since the election, which has in many ways calcified the divisiveness in American political culture, one trend continues to unite both left and right: Russophobia. While there are profound human rights abuses occurring under the Putin administration, the U.S. is not guilt-free either. As a scholar of Russia and race relations, how do you maintain a critical eye in the midst of hypocritical statements from both sides?

JW: I think that for me, what’s really important is to not think of this so much as “America versus Russia.” I think one of my frustrations with a lot of academic response to the election is that in the flurry of events sponsored by universities across the globe trying to grapple with the results, it’s always framed as “Trump and Putin.” I really wanted to make it less about national leaders and countries themselves, and make it much more about populations and minorities who live in these places. Instead of what might be called transnational, I try to do “translocal” thinking. So it’s much less about Trump and Putin, and much more about African Americans and Ukrainians or migrant laborers from Mexico and migrant laborers from Central Asia—the people who are being repressed in these places.

When you start getting into Russia versus the U.S., they’re both imperial nations, so if you defend either, you’re defending a global superpower. Superpowers don’t need defending. Given that the U.S. is a historical adversary of Russia, there’s always been a lot of negative news coverage of the country and misinformation about Russia. And I think there’s sometimes a knee-jerk reaction by Russian specialists, including in my field, in academia, to want to defend Russia from that. But the unfortunate consequence of that propensity to defend is it often ends up obscuring valid criticisms of Russia, be it Russia’s gay propaganda laws or problems with racism, for instance. Very commonly, when we write about identity issues in Russia—the lives of gay youth or minorities, for example—if we say anything critical, we’re accused of Cold War propaganda. But these are countries that actually have a lot in common with one another. I try to focus on understanding the plight of oppressed people in both places.



This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.  

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!  

[Interview conducted by Natasha Bluth]

[Photos courtesy of Jennifer Wilson]

CORRECTION: Jennifer Wilson originally stated Richard Spencer’s wife, Nina Kouprianova, wrote her dissertation on Alexander Dugin, which is incorrect. Kouprianova, who later translated a few of Dugin’s works into English, wrote her thesis on commercial advertising, popular print culture, and Soviet Americanism in the era of the NEP.

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