This strange incident flashed in my head as I was reading Anna Badken's article, "A gathering storm of Russian thugs," about the rising tide of Neo-Nazi racism and thuggery in Russia in SF Gate today. Anti-Black and anti-foreigner racism and violence in post-Soviet Russia is nothing new; although the country's self-acknowledged greatest poet was a self-acknowledged person of African descent (Alexander Pushkin, pictured at right, painting by Kiprensky), xenophobia has long permeated Russian society and culture, and racists over the last few decades have regularly targeted Blacks, who in the Communist years mainly comprised African immigrants who were invited to study at Russia's universities for political and ideological reasons. Racist and religiously tinged anti-Semitism extends far back in Russian history (think pogroms, the Pales of settlement, Cossacks, Stalin, etc.), as have other forms of racism and exoticism involving non-European Russians (as well as against specific European ethnic groups, like the Ukranians, etc.), perhaps not in spite of but because of the country's longstanding ethnic diversity, a result of its vast and variegated geography, which straddles Europe and Asia. The recent Russian wars against the Muslim separatists in Chechnya and Ingushetia, the political value of xenophobia, and the tenuous economic situation most Russians face have only exarcerbated this pervasive complex of racist and ethnocentric attitudes.
In a country that lost at least 26 million people to Nazi Germany 60 years ago, tens of thousands of young people are embracing the beliefs their grandparents fought against, attacking foreigners, especially anyone with dark features hailing from the Caucasus, Asia or Africa.
Driven by the combination of outrage over terrorist attacks by Chechen insurgents, rising nationalism and inequitable economic conditions, they are turning to a savage blend of Nazi ideology and Russian chauvinism, say Russian and Western human rights activists and neo-Nazis themselves.
She goes on to note that ultranationalist and racist parties and elements are increasingly outspoken in the country, that there are anywhere from an estimated 100,000 to 500,000 Neo-Nazi and skinhead extremists in Russia, that over half the world's skinheads (about 50,000) live in Russia, and that in 2004 alone, people identified as Neo-Nazis killed 44 people across that country, double the number in 2003. She also points out that in a recent survey of Russians by Moscow's Yuri Levada polling center, "58 percent of those polled approved of the 'Russia for Russians' slogan, almost twice the level recorded in 1998. One out of 5 of those polled said all non-Russians should be evicted from 'traditionally Russian territories.'" The irony of people condemned by the Nazis for being racially inferior and degenerate touting the same hateful claptrap is lost on this 58%, obviously, but then again, it hardly surprises me.
Russian society remains in crisis, economically, politically and socially. Russia is losing its own citizenry faster than it can replace them (either by births or immigration, since the death rate exceeds both), its economic experiment with capitalism stumbles along despite some obvious successes, and its political experiment with democracy hovers beneath obvious and hidden forms of authoritarianism. For disaffected and alienated youth there, as elsewhere, the easiest option, other than turning on oneself (which is symptomized by the country's problems with alcohol and AIDS seroconverstion), is to turn on scapegoats. Who is easier to identify than a person of different, darker skin color, a person with different-looking eyes or hair texture, or whose clothing marks them as different? And in a social context that includes indifference by the government and courts, and support by security forces, there is no incentive not to choose the second option (which also can coexist quite well with the first).
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Neo-Nazi Right has become quite strong in its traditional bases in Germany, especially the economically depressed former East Germany. In Austria, which for half a century has assumed the fictional victim mentality despite having bequeathed Hitler to the world and cheered his troops' annexation of its terrority, an ultraconservative governing coalition, led by Nazi sympathizer Jörg Haider is still in control. Just a few years ago, the popular response to political and economic problems in France was the near-election of ultrarightwinger Jean-Marie LePen (instead, the French people chose the slightly more palatable crook, conservative Jacques Chirac).
Given the turn of events over the last five years, and especially since the murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands and the Spanish and British train bombings, it would be a miracle if right-leaning, racist and ethnocentric ideologies did not surge in response. In fact, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's recently announced policy of expelling radical Muslims (as opposed to immigrants of any background or faith who vocally advocate violence against particular sectors of society) is yet more testimony to a rightward shift even among the (so-called) left leadership. (And such calls are legion here in the United States, where racists and racialist elements participate in border-guarding vigilantism under the patriotic-sounding moniker of "Minutemen," while people on the right and in the middle call for racial, ethnic and religious profiling, expulsion of immigrant dissenters, and more misguided violence, including war with Iran.) But back to Russia and Badken's article: it's definitely worth reading, as its story reflects trends occurring in a number of other places. It doesn't provide an explanation for the young man I glimpsed on that Santo Domingo street.
(And while I wouldn't be telling anyone I know anything new by stating for the record that racism and white supremacy are alive and, unfortunately, thriving, I also want to note that I came across this extremely disturbing article, via the Raw Story, about an allegation of attempted racial segregation and racist retaliation at a Tyson Foods office in Alabama in the 21st century. Then there were the recent racial attacks in Brooklyn and Manhattan....)