Incident In Astrakhan:  How Much Has Treatment Of Chinese By Russian Authorities Changed Since Blagoveshchensk Massacre? – OpEd


South China Morning Post, in a piece entitled ‘Chinese diplomats complain to Russia after influencer denied entry from Kazakhstan’ and published on 4 Aug, 2023, reported as follows:

“Chinese diplomats have lodged a protest with the Russian authorities after a well-known video blogger and his friends were questioned for more than four hours and denied entry from Kazakhstan. In a statement posted on social media platforms, the country’s embassy in Moscow said it had complained that the treatment of the Chinese nationals was “barbaric and excessive”. “We’ve made clear that … this incident seriously violated the legitimate rights of Chinese citizens, and was totally out of line of the currently amicable relationship between China and Russia, and the growing trend of closer exchange of personnel between our two countries”, the statement said. “The embassy has asked the Russian side to further investigate the excessive law enforcement of its border officials and provide us with a satisfactory response”.

The incident caused a wide resonance in the world media. It is understandable, because this way of treating Chinese seems to be very much inconsistent with the relations between the two countries that have become even stronger in the last 18 months amid the war in Ukraine. The treatment of the Chinese nationals by Russian border authorities in the above case, described even by Chinese diplomats normally avoiding abrupt words and expressions with regard to riendly nations, as ‘barbaric and excessive’, cannot be seen as anything but a counterproductive act. In politics, this is called shooting oneself in the foot.

According to a post on the Chinese Embassy’s Weibo account, a Chinese social media site, Russian border police detained and interrogated for four hours a group of Chinese citizens who were traveling through Kazakhstan on their way to Russia. The incident ‘seriously damaged the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens’. The Chinese diplomats in Moscow required the Russian Federation to conduct a swift investigation to determine the incident’s cause, spare no effort to prevent the impact of its sinister influence and take steps to ensure that such incidents do not reoccur, as well as to fully respect and protect the dignity and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens.

The post on the Chinese Embassy’s Weibo account also included an answer of the Russian side, which stressed that the encounter at the Karauzek crossing point in Astrakhan province was ‘only a single incident’ and promised that the country does not discriminate against Chinese citizens. The reason, given by official Moscow, for rigorous scrutiny at Kazakhstan-Russia border was that the actual destination did not match that on the Chinese citizens’ visas, in violation of Russian law. Such an explanation seems to have not fully satisfied the Chinese Embassy in Moscow. It asked Russian authorities to look further into excessiveness in the behavior of Russian border control inspectors and to give China an honest answer. Furthermore, the Chinese diplomats in Moscow appealed to their co-citizens coming to Russia or temporarily living in that country with a request to promptly seek help from the Chinese embassy and consulates in the Russian Federation in the event of damage to their dignity and legitimate rights and interests. They added that the Chinese embassy and consulates in Russia would ‘do everything possible to protect the security, rights and interests of our citizens’.

It appears that the question regarding the treatment of Chinese people in Russia by the Russian authorities and society has become a focus of such considerable concern for Beijing’s official representatives in Moscow for the first time in years. In this country, they have been and are being treated just as other people of [East] Asian descent. There are times when they may be beaten, or even killed on racial grounds, like other people with Asian look in Russia. In such cases, no distinction is made between the Russian or ex-Soviet Asians and the Asians from economically developed countries, like China and South Korea. Here and here are examples of this. Even the most resonating incidents of this kind as a rule remain without serious consequences. The perpetrators of crimes against Asians are often being punished with light sentences or exempt from criminal punishment. This is not any secret, and it’s obvious. The Russian authorities, judging by facts, often either take the side of Slavic white supremacists or, in extreme cases, do everything possible to soften punishments for the perpetrators. There is a need for facts here?

Well, here are some facts. The Russian regional newspaper Novaya Sibir, in a report entitled ‘Racism won: Yakuts who took offence at a racial slur have been thrown off a flight’ and published on January 27, 2023, informs that in Novosibirsk Russian police officers removed an ethnic Yakut family couple from a Thailand – Novosibirsk – Neryungri flight for overreacting to a racist insult from a Russian lady who had been sitting nearby. In fact, the title of this report says most of it. In Russia, such cases are the most common things. There are many such examples as the above one, but the result is the same: If one attempts to defend his human dignity when faced with racist insults, as a rule, he himself will be retaliated towards for allegedly inciting national discord, while his abusers will be left out of the picture. Thus, the Russian authorities impose the [East] Asian minorities in the country a habit of taking instances of racial humiliation and discrimination as a norm of life.

\Well, what do they do when racist murders occur? Below is an excellent example of what Russian law enforcement and judicial authorities are capable of in dealing with this kind of crimes. When Sergey Nikolaev, a Russian International master in chess of Yakut ethnicity, had been brutally murdered near the subway station Yugo Zapadnaya in Moscow his murderers from ‘a gang of racist youths’, who committed this crime, were ‘charged with murder motivated by ethnic discord’. The investigators also found that they previously had brutally beaten 4 Central Asians and 3 Chinese and killed Altynbek Ashirov, a Kyrgyz migrant. After an intense police investigation and much public and media interest, the trial took place. Here is how it was assessed by Boruch Gorin, head the public relations department of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia: “If such a [serious] crime, with so many aggravating circumstances, entails such a light penalty, then an outside observer may deem that murder on the basis of national and racial hatred can serve as a mitigating factor at court sentencing [in Russia]. Both society and the criminals themselves perceive it this way”. “Everything would have been different if the court punished [the perpetrators] to the fullest extent of the law. If it were, the defendants would hardly have dared to [gleefully] shout ‘Sieg Heil’ after pronouncement of the sentence”, – Borukh Gorin added. That says it all.

Russian FM Lavrov as a promoter of the slogan ‘White Lives Matter’

As they say, ‘nothing comes out of nothing’. In Russia, examples for the contemptuous treatment of people of [East] Asian origin always have been and are being set by the top leadership and TV celebrities. And below are some of the many proofs of this.

Here is the first one. Alexander Grishchenko, a Russian linguist at Moscow Pedagogical State University, published a research paper titled “Ancient Phtheirophagi and the Russian expressive ethnic name ‘Kolbity”. It had been, as far as is known, done with a grant from the President of the Russian Federation. It reflects the full diversity of Russian traditions of offensive behavior towards ethnic Kazakhs and apparently serving the cause of transmitting to the new Russian generation attitudes of contempt for the title ethnic group of Kazakhstan. For, as it is written in the paper’s abstract, “young Russian-speaking respondents have almost forgotten the meaning and connotations of the word ‘kolbit’, but their elders remember it as a very derogative term”

The point here seemingly is to do not let ethnic Russians and other people of European (Caucasian) origin in the post-soviet space, including Russia and Kazakhstan, forget the meaning and connotations of the racial slurs and other pejorative terms regarding the Kazakhs, like ‘kolbit’, ‘churka’ (which means a ‘subhuman’; this word is also contained in the above paper) etc. And as is known, they are not been forgotten, but more on that a little further.

Second. Immediately after 20 March 2021, the top Russian TV networks were making fun of Joe Biden stumbling thrice while boarding Air Force One on his way to visit Atlanta. As was well known, he went there for the purpose of meeting with Asian-American leaders and condemning the rising violence against the community after six Asian women were shot dead in the US state of Georgia. Yet the reason for that visit was almost totally neglected by the Russian mainstream media. It looked like a kind of conspiracy of silence. RIA Novosti’s Irina Alksnis has been almost the only one author to speak specifically on the topic linked to prejudice toward Asians in America in the Covid-19 Pandemic. Yet everything becomes clear when you look at the title of her article, reprinted by a few Russian periodicals, on the matter – “New white people in the US: Asians are bearing the costs of their success”. That sounded like a highly unethical, even cynical reasoning at a time when there were increases for anti-Asian hate in the US. Or like, “you [Asians] had it coming”. What happened next was quite remarkable. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement expressing his profound concern over the rise in violence against Asians, and people of Asian descent. 

A few days later, on April 1, Sergey Lavrov sort of made his contribution to the high-level talk on racial discrimination. Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, 60 percent of whose territory has historically belonged to ethnic groups of [East] Asian origin, spoke against the aggression towards white people, white US citizens and warned that anti-white racism might be building in America. And if to call things by their proper names, Russian top diplomat expressed himself precisely in the spirit of the White Lives Matter slogan, the appearance of which the media associate with several white supremacist groups. His statement might appear to be somewhat paradoxical, but it most likely reflects the Russian power’s and public’s attitude towards ethnic and racial minorities not only in America, but in Russia itself as well. 

Russian celebrities, engaged in dehumanizing the image of Buryats, Kazakhs etc

It seems to be a matter of continuing the tsarist times’ tradition of contemptuous attitude toward East Asian nations and Russian minorities of [East] Asian descent. Maybe Russian leaders would like to follow the example of Tsar Nicholas II who took liberty to describe the Japanese as ‘macaques’, but now times are very different. However Russian MPs and TV celebrities easily allow themselves what Putin, Lavrov and other Russian top officials can’t afford with respect to the Russian minorities of [East] Asian origin, as well as to neighboring nations such as Kazakhs and their likes. 

They are actively engaged in dehumanizing the image of the latter ones as perceived by the ethnic Russians (living not only in Russia itself, but also in neighboring countries such as Kazakhstan) through the Russian state TV channels and other mainstream media. Thus, Vladimir Zhirinovky, Russian politician and leader of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) from 1991 to 2022, once recalled the idea of calling Kazakhs ‘zveri’  (‘animals’, ‘beasts’), just as, according to him, Kazakhstani Russians did in the Soviet period. Evgeny Fyodorov, a State Duma deputy, called the titular ethnic group of Kazakhstan, the Kazakhs, ‘nitshebrody’ (‘vagrants and beggars’, ‘trash’, ‘homeless people who beg for alms’).

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. 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 any real results. Russian law enforcement authorities virtually gave notice that racist comments directed at Buryats [as well as other peoples of [East] Asian descent) does not constitute an offence under the laws. Anfisa Chekhova has had no problem with it at all.  Exactly the same may be said of Boris Korchevnikov, a host on the state-owned television channel Rossiya-1, who earlier described the Kalmyks [Russia’s another ethnic minority of [East] Asian origin] in the same way on his TV talk-show.

What are the differences between the current regime in Russia and the P.W. Botha apartheid regime in SA in 1980s?

There are, of course, many differences between them. What unites them is that the current regime in Russia is most concerned with the issues of protecting white people, just as was the P.W. Botha apartheid regime in 1980s. Yet P.W. Botha and his government openly pursued such policies, i.e. on the basis of relevant laws. Official Moscow has to cloak such policies, especially in conditions where Russia is totally at odds with the ‘collective’ West.

The increasing deterioration of the Asian looking peoples’ situation in Russia and total disregard for this issue being showed by its authorities seem quite understandable given that, as Casey Michel explained in Politico, Moscow’s strategic support for Western nationalist and Christian fundamentalist movements has put Russia, as the number two white power with the United States being the number one, “at the helm of the global Christian right”, and “American fundamentalists bent on unwinding minority protections in the US have increasingly leaned on Russia for support – and for a model they’d bring to bear back home”.

With this kind of politics in Russia, not just Russian minorities such as Buryats and Kalmyks, but also Kazakhs in Kazakhstan cannot expect anything good. The efforts by Russian MPs and celebrities in dehumanizing the image of peoples of [East Asian] descent do not go unnoticed in Kazakhstan, too. There are already three known cases in which Kazakhs were called ‘apes’ by Kazakhstani Slavs. As the Russian proverb says, ‘A bad example can be contagious’. In Kazakhstan, such insult is a criminal offence. And what is remarkable, Russian authorities are taking under their protection those white ethnic Russians who have been brought to responsibility for insults of a racist nature in other countries. Maxim Yakovchenko, a native of West Kazakhstan province, had publicly called the Kazakhs ‘monkeys’. He then was charged under Kazakhstan’s Penal Code, sections 174 (‘inciting hatred’) and 180 (‘separatism’). Maxim Yakovchenko left for Russia. As reported by the press, Maxim Yakovchenko has been granted refugee status in Russia and can’t be extradited. That seems to be what the P.W. Botha apartheid regime would have done in a similar case.

That is what lies behind ‘an obsolete imperial idea of the 19th century’

Here is what Alexander Nevzorov, a former member of the Russian State Duma, Russian commentator and Putin critic who has been sentenced in absentia to eight years behind bars for spreading deliberately false information about Moscow’s armed forces, said about racism in Russia: “The Putin regime has become an excellent hothouse for growing this very Russian racism that existed in the USSR, even though having been kept under lock and key and quite strictly persecuted. In the [19]90s, in the years of freedom, such cues in general were unthinkable. Perhaps there were such thoughts in the skulls of the most violent rednecks, but these were things to be concealed and ashamed of. Putinism, having made a bet on the vilest trait in the character of the people, gave absolute carte blanche to Russian racism… Racism has gained strength, voice, right, exclusive opportunities and dignity. And I have to upset you here – it won’t be possible to push this racism back in its former place even after Putin’s death. It will take 20 years of hard, smart work to get rid of this evil, to stuff it back into the hiding cage. It’s a difficult job, and in Russia, there is no strength, nor is there any means and desire to do it”.

According to Nevzorov, ‘what he (Putin) professes is an obsolete imperial idea of the 19th century’, and ‘besides he got stuck in Russian racism’.

Those comments by him seem to be the key to understanding what happened with the Chinese blogger and his friends in Russian Astrakhan province. The Karauzek crossing point is a place where people from the post-Soviet Central Asian republics usually pass. It appears that till now Russian border officers haven’t been shy about being arrogant, harsh, and even discriminatory with the latter ones. And then there are a few citizens of China, which is unusual. Russians normally believe that all Asians look the same. So they are in habit to treating different people of [East] Asian descent in the same manner. Maybe that’s why what happened happened with those Chinese citizens.

Besides, a mass fascination with ‘an obsolete imperial idea of the 19th century’ and a historically traditional ‘Russian racism’ might inspire some people in Russia to long for the days when the Russians could kill people of Asian look just because they wanted to. Here one can mention 5 thousand Chinese massacred by Russians during the 1900 Amur anti-Chinese pogroms in Blagoveshchensk and the numerous cases of the massacre of civilians by tsarist punishers in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in 1916. Here is what Casey Michel said in this regard: “Too many either don’t know or ignore that Russia was, and remains, a major colonial power. From the Caucasus to Crimea, from the Arctic to the Amur, from the Volga to the Pacific, Russia’s colonial campaigns conquered innumerable nations – decimating local cultures, bulldozing local sovereignty, and engaging in genocidal practices”. That is what lies behind ‘an obsolete imperial idea of the 19th century’ that the current Russian regime is trying to revive.

So, the question remains: How much has the treatment of Chinese by Russian authorities changed since Blagoveshchensk massacre?

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

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