Are Russians Changing Their Attitude To Compatriots Of (East) Asian Decent? – OpEd

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By the end of last year, something incredible happened in Russia. An ordinary incident of racism was for the first time ever called what it actually was. It may seem that nothing unusual has happened, but this is not so. 

The point here is this: it is usual in the Russian Federation (since the Soviet times) to assume that the country does not and cannot have any problems with racism. In this regard, the position of the Russian authorities remains unchanged.  It is still comfortable for them to hide their heads in the sand and to not see the obvious. Yet as the war in Ukraine stretches on, many Russian media and some of those close to the authorities are beginning to show interest in calling things by their proper names. There is nothing that can be done about this trend.

Now that the ice is broken, the authorities in Russia, obviously, will also have to officially start registering incidents of racism and hate discrimination. Should this happen it will create the conditions for the formation of an adequate understanding of the situation of non-European and non-Caucasian peoples in Russia. As of now, it’s still too early to say something in essence about that. What one can see now is just the first step towards breaking the silence around a deep-rooted Russian culture of racist treatment of indigenous peoples of [East] Asian origin. But in the current situation, this is in and of itself important. So let’s talk about everything in order.

Angelina Radchenko, CEO of the Astrakhan 24 TV channel, was sacked due to her racist statements. This was reported by Alexander Khinshtein, a State Duma deputy, in his Telegram channel. In doing so, Russian MP cited information he had received from the governor of the Astrakhan region. Such a nuisance happened to the Astrakhan 24 TV channel’s CEO, after she had placed a post on VKontakte with roughly the following words: Yesterday I ate a fish that seemed to have been brought from Rostov specifically to make me look like a Kalmyk woman the next morning. There is nothing unusual here; this is quite a common practice throughout the Russian society to refer to Kalmyks and all those of their kind (Kazakhs, Buryats, Tuvans etc) as ‘churkas’ (‘the untermensch’, ‘the representatives of the inferior races’) and ‘people with squint eyes’.

When ethnic Russians refer to their compatriots of [East] Asian origin as the ‘squint-eyed people’ that can be perceived as their seeing in the latter ones ‘people with physical handicaps’. That was apparently just the reason why Angelina Radchenko found it quite normal to recourse to a comparison with ‘a Kalmyk woman’ in the situation mentioned above. That sort of thing is no surprise to anyone in Russia. This seemingly trivial case would be left without consequences if Alexander Khinshtein, a journalist and a MP, hadn’t actively got involved in the situation. And he wouldn’t have stepped in, if there hadn’t been a war. The case described would’ve been a trouble-free experience for Angelina Radchenko, if it happened just a year or so ago. At that time, very few of those representing the Russian executive and legislative authorities paid attention to such stories.

Here is a vivid example of this. In July 2021, Anfisa Chekhova, a famous Russian socialite, TV host and model, compared Buryat women with ‘bomzhikhi’ (it means unpleasant looking female vagrants, sunk to the depths of poverty and squalor). It caused a storm of resentment among Buryatia’s titular ethnic group members. The Russian authorities in Moscow – officials and MPs – looked then like they could care less what the Buryats were saying. Alexander Khinshtein made no comment on it, too. Buryat ombudswoman for human rights, Yulia Zhambalova, asked the investigative committee of Russia to check Chekhova’s speech for possible violations of law. 

But this appeal did not bring about any tangible results. In September that year, Roskomnadzor (the Russian federal executive agency responsible for monitoring, controlling and censoring Russian mass media) told Yulia Zhambalova: “Anfisa Chekhova’s statements do not contain signs of extremist speech actions aimed at inciting ethnic hatred”. The media were then full of headlines declaring that ‘No racist statements found in Anfisa Chekhova’s speech about Buryat women’, ‘Anfisa Chekhova, who compared her own swollen face to ‘that of a Buryat woman’, turned out to have been impeccable in terms of the law’, and etc. 

Anfisa Chekhova’s case is absolutely identical to Angelina Radchenko’s one. Their difference lies only in the time of their occurrence. In a country where the rule of law prevails, Angelina Radchenko would probably be able to succeed in protecting her own interests, based on the precedent of Anfisa Chekhova’s case, or, say, Boris Korchevnikov’s one. But Russia is a country where unwritten rules often replace formal laws. The first ones change more frequently than the latter ones. However, experience has shown that not everyone even among the Russian political, intellectual and media elites is able to timely adapt to these changes. An example of this is what’s happened to Angelina Radchenko. 

Lulled by the previous safe experience of racist verbal attacks by Chekhova and Korchevnikov aimed at Buryats and Kalmyks, she apparently decided to do the same thing with her [East] Asian-looking compatriots and got in trouble. She hasn’t got away with doing things that are typically deemed normal in Russia. Anfisa Chekhova, just like Boris Korchevnikov, a host on the state-owned television channel Rossiya-1, who earlier described the Kalmyks in the same contemptuous and racist way on his TV talk-show, has continued to live her life peacefully. Their experience, apparently, looks like evidence that the Article 282 of the Criminal Code (incitement of hatred and enmity) does not apply to Russian TV celebrities. Another question is who can be considered as such.

On the other hand, using the derogatory words to refer to Kalmyks and Buryats and their kind is nowadays supposed to be apolitical in Russia. Today, the reality is that the Buryats, Kalmyks and their kind do not want to be occupiers and do not understand what ‘denazification of Ukraine’ means. “We know that it is Russia itself that needs denazification”, they are saying.

The Muscovite politicians can’t afford to ignore such sentiments amongst the [East] Asian minorities in the country. In Russia, demand for Kazakhs, Kalmyks, Buryats and those of their kind appears when the Kremlin is desperate for cannon fodder, as it is now. Moscow also can manipulate the Russian soldier men with Asian facial features to make them look guilty for war atrocities.

So, the Muscovite politicians now sometimes have to pretend that they are willing to deal with specific problems faced by the [East] Asian minorities in the country. But that’s nothing new. Now there is a war. Recent events show just how few friends the Kremlin has these days. Under these circumstances, Russia’s ethnic and racial minorities, having remembered all the humiliations, oppressions, deprivation and repressions that their peoples sustained since the times of joining to the Russian empire, begin to think about turning their back on Moscow. The Russian politicians cannot but take this into account. Yet softening attitude to ethnic and racial minorities in Russia is, as far as one can tell, a temporary phenomenon, as soon as the situation will change in a favorable direction for the Russians, things will return to the way they were. There is no doubt about it. In the history of Russia, this has already happened several times. Let us give just one example from it.

In the autumn of 1941, when the Germans were close to Moscow, Russian writers and journalists actively wrote on the heroism and courage of Kazakh officers and soldiers – the book by Alexander Beck ‘Volokolamsk highway’, the article by Ilya Ehrenburg ‘Kazakhs’ (the Russian Defense Ministry’s official newspaper ‘Krasnaya Zvezda’, October 18, 1942), and etc.

And here’s how Aman Tuleyev, a Russian politician of Kazakh origin whose father had died in the war with the Germans in 1943, describes what was happening in post-war years: “The bullying, unfortunately, began at a time when I still did not understand anything [due to the small age]. When I went to school, it all started. [Later when I got into politics] they shouted that I was Kazakh, that I had narrow slanting eyes. They told me, ‘Who do you think you are?!’, ‘Watch where you’re going!’ and so on”.

That kind of attitude towards people of [East] Asian decent still is a common sight in Russia. The picture is this: according to many Russians, a Russian citizen with Asian features should have only one privilege – to fight heroically and die for the Russian cause. But what the hell do Kalmyks, Buryats and their kind need such a privilege?

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analysts from Kazakhstan.

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