The Kremlin propaganda machine keeps working hard each day to justify the Russian leadership’s policy in the Ukrainian and Mid-Eastern context. Yet its mainstream media outlets sometimes get distracted from the routine and involved in activities that are beyond the usual range of duties for them, say, in topics in history.
Thus, on October 31, ‘heavy artillery’ of Russian propaganda represented by Russia-1 TV, Russia’s principal state television channel, opened fire on the American edition of Politico because of a critical article by Casey Michel about the Russian colonial practice in Alaska in the 18th and 19th century. The host of 60 Minutes social and political talk show on Russia-1 TV, Evgeny Popov, tried to answer Politico and its author together with his guests in a counter-accusatory manner. It is a familiar rhetoric, and there is no point in repeating it. Russia didn’t and doesn’t admit any guilt in the context of its colonialist history. So it’s not surprising that its propagandists and historians are nervously reacting to any other sort of speaking on this subject. In such cases, they are sure to deflect criticism from Russia to Western countries.
But here are a few things one should keep in mind when one listens to their arguments. The somber side of the practice of colonialism by the Western colonial powers has long and well-known across the world. The French, the Belgians, the British, the Spaniards, and even the Germans live with the awareness that it’s part of their countries’ history. Thus, Germany’s President, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, recently apologized for killings under colonial rule in Tanzania more than a century ago as he met descendants of an executed leader of a revolt against German rule, and vowed to seek answers to questions about that era that leaves Tanzanians no peace.
Very different is the case of Russia. The accepted narrative in Russia is that Russians haven’t made to indigenous non-white people in Central Asia, Siberia, the Far East, and Alaska anything wrong – on the contrary, the Russians have made to them nothing but good. Yet this apparently is not what it was really like. Casey Michel, in his article entitled ‘Russia’s Slaughter of Indigenous People in Alaska Tells Us Something Important About Ukraine’, described Russia’s colonization of Alaska as the ‘rampant violence, spiraling massacres, and decimation of local Alaska Native populations that came along with it’. Here is what the author said next in this regard: “Even with new reassessments of European colonization of North America, as well as the recent spike in scholarship regarding the U.S.’s bloodied imperialism across the American West, Russia’s role in smothering and seizing Alaska stands apart as an overlooked chapter of colonialism on the continent”. As can be seen from the above, Casey Michel didn’t gloss over the relevant colonial practice of America (“the U.S.’s bloodied imperialism across the American West”).
This piece got a wide negative resonance in the Russian mainstream media because the appearance of such an article in the press having worldwide coverage had been one of those rare cases in which Russia is shown to the world in a way that most of its own non-European (non-Caucasian) minorities have long been accustomed to seeing it. This is a common practice among the Russian political, intellectual, and media elites to rush fending off any attempts from outside to expose the falsity of the notion about Russia’s ‘imperial innocence’. So, there is nothing surprising in the fact that those words by Casey Michel, describing Russian imperialism and colonialism in a way that refutes Moscow’s rosy reading of them, have been broadly slammed by Russian TV and online outlets.
The Russians invariably want to see themselves as good and they have been and are doing all they can to prevent the appearance of any talk at the international level about them having done bad things in their history such as treating non-white indigenous people brutally and exterminating them on the outskirts of the empire. And they have been and are being quite good at it.
Few people in Russia have seemingly read what Politico said in the above-mentioned article. Yet there already is a widespread belief that this article is aimed at vilifying Russia and the Russians.
Here is another, more recent example of how the same Russian media outlet, Russia-1 TV, has turned the topic of the current situation of once-colonized ethnic and racial minorities in Russia’s Siberia inside out and adapted it to suit its propagandist needs. A top Russian TV news presenter, Dmitry Kiselyov, on his November 5 News of the Week program on Russia-1 TV had a big harangue about the great friendship between people in Russia, expressing confidence in this in the following words: “For centuries, we have been one single community. Our destiny is inseparable. We share a common history. We have common woes and common victories. And the provocateurs will get what they deserve. This has always been the case”. He next said, “For now, the disciples of [Alfred] Rosenberg [German ideologist of Nazism], are seeking Russia’s destruction by fomenting inter-ethnic discord”, and showed an excerpt taken from the October 28 Radio Liberty video material, “[Ukraine’s] Siberian Battalion – indigenous peoples of Russia “against Putin”, in which three members of this unit – two of them, ‘Vargan’, an ethnic Yakut, and ‘Buryat’, an ethnic Buryat, without “balaklavas” – appear.
In the original video material, these two explain in detail how and why they came to fight on the side of Ukraine. The excerpt from it, shown by Dmitry Kiselyov in the framework of his talk show doesn’t have any of that. There, they give their names and say where they’re from. With this Dmitry Kiselyov’s excerpt ends. And those Russians watching the talk show are left in the dark about how and why ‘Vargan’ and ‘Buryat’, natives of Russia, came to fight on the side of Ukraine.
Then Dmitry Kiselyov himself once again takes the floor and says that the German fascists were doing just the same during the war [against the USSR]. In other words, he compares the AFU (the Armed Forces of Ukraine) to the Wehrmacht, the Siberian Battalion to the Vlasov army, the Turkestan legion, and their kind. Dmitry Kiselyov seems to believe that ‘all is fair in war’. As to the Siberian Battalion, one can say the following: those Russia’s natives, who come to fight on the side of Ukraine as part of this unit, may have their good reasons for such a move.
Yakout ‘Vargan’ claims that he doesn’t consider himself a Russian [citizen]. And here is what ‘Buryat’ says about this issue: “Three times I was in Moscow, and every time I was treated as a ‘churka’ [a sub-human], as a ‘slant-eyed’, as a ‘chink’. I have been called many names but ‘our Russian citizen’ wasn’t one of them. In Ukraine, that’s not once happened to me. Not once”.
Let’s look at what’s behind such statements. As far as is known, there has never been a time when some Russian official, MP, journalist political party, or social organization would have responded in any public way to cases of overtly racist verbal abuse and physical violence – often ended with a fatal outcome – by the members of the Russian/European ethnic majority against their non-European (non-Caucasian) co-citizens. The topic related to this situation, despite all its acuity, has never been on the Russian national agenda. 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 and propagandist media remains unchanged. It is still comfortable for them to hide their heads in the sand and not see the obvious.
Yet as the war in Ukraine to protect the people ‘subjected to abuse, genocide from the Kyiv regime’ and ‘to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine’ stretches on, a growing number of Russian citizens of non-European (non-Caucasian) descent are beginning to wonder why should they, while being members of the racially oppressed minorities in Russia, go to Ukraine to fight to ‘denazify’ that country. The paradox here is that, as noted by the three persons mentioned above, in Russia itself, there is Nazism with deep roots in the society. In claiming this statement to be true, they refer to their personal experiences of facing Nazism, while living in the Russian Federation.
What they mean is probably the following. In Russia, it, if to call things by their proper name, is accepted to despise everything [East] Asian, while marginalizing Asians (Kazakhs, Buryats, Yakuts, and their like) living in the Russian Federation, and love everything white Western, even despite the current confrontation between Russia and the West. Among the majority of ethnic Russians, expression of contempt or disgust to even the most prominent members of other racial groups is perceived as an act to be proud of. Here it would be enough to simply cite as an example the case of Irina Rodnina, an MP from the Kremlin’s United Russia party and a triple Olympic champion figure-skater, who “posted an image of Barack Obama on Twitter that was photoshopped to include a banana”. The incident “was widely discussed in the Russian press, with many commentators coming” to the defense of the MP. So the people of the Central Asian or Buryat, Kalmyk, Yakut origin and the ones of their kind, who face verbal and physical abuses regularly in Russia, should not hope for some kind of public sympathy. It’s a country, where “so many people openly and even proudly declare their racism”. As Guardian once noted, “racism is rife in Russia”.
Here, it is possible to object, of course, saying that the Russian majority can do what they see fit in their own country. True, these people do have free will to do what they want, yet there is only one but: why do the Buryats, Kalmyks, and Yakuts and their likes, who frequently face racism, xenophobia, and other chronic forms of discrimination in Russia itself, also need to be part of the Russian war in Ukraine under the banner of denazification?
According to Vladislav Ammosov, a native of Yakutsk and a former officer of the Russian General Staff’s Main Directorate, even the best-qualified specialists in this or that sphere of activity from among Yakut [Buryat, Kalmyk] people are viewed as second-class people, i.e, as inferior beings. It appears that in Russia, this practice is informally regarded as quite fair and seen as the unwritten norm that actually outweighs the constitutional clause guaranteeing equality of rights of all citizens. Experience has proven that complaining about it is useless.
Well, here is just one example. 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.
As they say, ‘nothing comes out of nothing’. In Russia, examples of the contemptuous treatment of people of [East] Asian origin always have been and are being set by the top politicians and TV celebrities.
How are such cases, and such practices being commented on by the officials, and MPs from among those minorities? They normally ignore them. Instead, when it comes to even the slightest excuse to accuse some foreigners from far abroad of negative comments on, say, the Buryats, they are quick to talk about racism. Thus, according to the Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper, Russia’s official print media, the head of Buryatia, Alexei Tsydenov, recently described the words Arkady Milman, ex-ambassador of Israel to the Russian Federation, had said about the cruelty of Buryats, as racist ones, although this was and is not the case. Well, that explains a lot of things.