If I had five kopecks for every time an American friend has asked me about Russia’s take on Obama and the election, I’d have a hell of a lot of kopecks (but I’d still be poor – thanks, world economy!). The 140-odd million people who live here don’t all agree with one another. This is a fact sure to stun the mass media whose Obama-narratives afford only the most homogeneous characterizations of international populations and these populations’ response to the Democratic victory. This is hard news to break to my champagne-popping American amigos: most Russians don’t give two shits, or even five kopecks, about who sits in the Oval Office.
One would think that Obama would have it in the bag with the Russians after McCain crawled into bed with Saakashvilli and threatened to kick Russia out of the G8. One would be wrong. The fact of the matter is that most Russians are racist. That may seem a heavy charge to lay at the feet of such a vast country, but it’s something I observe everyday. Even the most legitimately progressive of my friends readily admit that most of their fellow countrymen make judgments based solely on race, and the bulk of Russians I know readily admit to it in their own lives. It’s sometimes hard for me to imagine normal people casually admitting to being racist, but like so much else in Russia, things just work differently here. Racism is most obviously manifested in prejudice against Central Asians, Georgians, Azeris, etc, but there is definitely enough suspicion and disdain to go around. Though not as noticeable as the run-of-the-mill cultural chauvinism directed against Estonians, Poles, and Czechs, racism against blacks is a curious feature of Russian culture and one worth looking into.
I spent my second night of a trip to St. Petersburg staying in the apartment of a friend who was vacationing in Turkey for the week. Poking around his lavishly furnished living room (as one always does in such circumstances), I noticed two mahogany statuettes of Pygmies flanking the faux fireplace. Big childish eyes, huge lips, the usual “folk” art. I suddenly had the feeling that I had somehow gotten on the wrong flight and was actually at an auction house in Backass, Arkansas. “It’s normal,” the statuettes’ owner later assured me.
“Really? It would be considered quite unusual in the United States,” I offered.
“Yes, but you have blacks in America,” said my friend, “we don’t here, so they are considered very mysterious and ‘other’. It’s not really racism.”
“They’re people; it’s the definition of racism,” I said.
“Sure, if you want to look at it that way.”
The whole conversation was oddly reminiscent of one I had just a few days ago with my landlady. In one breath she segued from an explanation of why Russians are never racist (“the Soviets advocated international friendship”) into a joke about evolution and blacks, complete with monkey noises. In fairness, the sound effects were for my benefit, because from the expression on my face she assumed that I didn’t get the joke. This actually happens quite a lot in Russia; people think I don’t understand what they’ve said, when in fact I’m just amazed that they’ve said it.
Generally such charades are pointless, as the concept of racism, as we usually think about it, has no currency here. It is taken as a fact of life, and not a matter of opinion, that people from the Caucuses are crooks, Jews shrewd, and Central Asians uncultured. I would not be surprised if in wandering the city’s back alleys I were to stumble upon the St. Petersburg State Phrenological Institute or some other such entity. Political correctness is treated as a joke in Russia, and when a Nass writer finds something offensive…it’s probably pretty offensive.
What my friend with the Pygmies wasn’t kidding about what the sense of mystery that shrouds blacks in Russia. Russia’s exposure to blacks consists almost entirely of African students brought to the Soviet Union for higher education (few stayed) and what they see in American movies and music videos. I know I’m in a white-ass country when I am the local expert on “black culture.” Of the many wonderful innovations blacks have brought to and developed in America, none is more sorely missed here than rhythm. Watching Russians dance is like watching a slow motion replay of a middle school boy putting a spider down his partner’s dress.
But I digress.
When I say that I’ve checked my observations out with “my black friend,” I am not being the tiniest bit ironic. I’m one of the only guys I know in Russia who knows a black person, and if I count the half-black pop star I met last summer who lives here, but carries a Dutch passport, then I know two and could host a multicultural festival in my kitchen. I had been carrying around with me the nagging feeling that I was perhaps taking out the stress of living here on the whole culture in an unfair and, indeed, prejudiced manner. That’s when black-friend-number-one told me about the brick thrown through her window a month after she moved into university housing. Of course, every country has its violent morons and an isolated incident has little significance, but as she unloaded on me what it’s like to be black in Russia, the incidents of prejudice began to seem less than incidental. The real tragedy is how little energy is expended in the public sphere to combat racist attitudes. Off-color (no pun intended) jokes do less damage in the short term than bricks, but they do make otherwise well educated, cultured people look like jackasses. In the long run, they amount to the same thing: an accepted racial hierarchy.
Given the state of racism in Russia, what’s really amazing is that nine times out of ten, total indifference to the electoral process trumps any concern over the prospect of a black administration. The hyper trendy crowd wishes they were riding the Obama tidal wave, but they’re only splashing in a kiddy pool. Afisha, the journal of everything hip east of the Iron Curtain, put Obama on the cover of its November 3rd issue and even wrote his name in a trendy lower-case font. However, closer inspection of the magazine reveals that it contains no actual information or opinions about Obama or about the relevancy of his candidacy. Instead there is a multi-page time line beginning in 2005 cataloging Obama’s celebrity endorsements. I can’t say that I’ve read every (or indeed any) other issue of Afisha to confirm that such glib trash is par for course, but if there was ever a time to say something substantive in a biweekly about something to happen on November 4th, the November 3rd issue is the place to do it. Afisha addresses only the pop star angle of the Obama phenomenon, and its attitude of ignorance and indifference to the social and political ramifications of an Obama administration is well in keeping with that of mainstream Russian society.
Certainly one piece of the puzzle is the popular reluctance to acknowledge that the United States is a superpower and that its policies will affect Russia. In a major address last week, President Medvedev made no mention of Obama’s victory and apparently has since congratulated him only by telegram. The speech was about establishing the rule of law, extending presidential term limits, and most troubling for the West, stationing missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea. Many observers have been quick to argue that the recent naval tragedy in Vladivostok, where a technical failure resulted in the death of at least 20 sailors, demonstrates that the Kremlin cannot walk the walk. But my point is not that Russia is so weak that it must listen to America. My point is that we should listen to each other regardless of which country has the stronger military or economy. The so-called superpower syndrome (a fancy way of talking about an inferiority complex on a world-historic scale) has left Russia’s elite looking more like the go-it-alone Bush cabinet than anything else.
There is a fundamental difference between American and Russian mentalities. Politics is a boring topic of conversation here, because few people feel responsible for or in any way connected with their government. As an American who has been embarrassed since the age of thirteen by George Bush’s antics, a part of me used to envy Russia’s complacency. Now that I have something of which to be unequivocally proud, to paraphrase Michelle Obama, my voice is engulfed by a flood of pessimism.
“All governments are the same.” “If Bush hadn’t invaded Iraq, someone else would have.” “There’s no difference between the candidates, the same people will control everything.”
Such statements are typical, and not only from the mouths of moody teenagers. Only in the dark corners of dank computer labs with my headphones on and the volume on high have I found, through the magic of streaming news and the internet, people who take the idea of democracy seriously. Since the tragic death of Tim Russert, I’ve found it difficult to stomach cable news, or as it is better described, “infotainment”, but watching it as I am in a country where the government is totally unaccountable and no one cares makes even the likes of Keith Olbmerman and Arianna Huffington tolerable.
The charges I hear from Russians, that American freedom is imperfect and therefore non-existent, that our elections are controlled by parties and therefore perfunctory, are as absurd as they are commonly expressed. Obviously the United States is not perfect, but the difference in mentality of which I speak is that which leads Americans to think that can they can always do better.
Limiting as the two-party system is in the United States, it at least provides a forum within the mainstream for argument and discussion. The Russian political sphere lacks this kind of space. The government effectively controls who is allowed television time and who is limited to Echo Moskvy, a radio station popular only with the intelligentsia and one of the few remaining sources of unfiltered news and analysis. Extremists are given plenty of leeway as their presence serves only to bolster the legitimacy of the existing government, but within the mainstream of popular opinion, little dialogue is allowed.
The kinds of discourses that result from discussions of news and politics in Russia are typically more conspiratorial than enlightening. I bet you didn’t know that the Kursk submarine was accidentally attacked by the United States and that the US Government paid the Kremlin millions of dollars to keep it a secret and let all aboard drown. Of course it was a US rocket that hit the Pentagon, how else could Bush have gotten his war approved? Of course the CIA killed Kennedy.
Will photos of Barak Obama and Dmitri Medvedev shaking hands in the coming years change the way Russians think about race and power? That’s the question that I most often ask my acquaintances here. That question is really the best answer to the query with which this article began. In Russia, Barak Obama winning the election is a big deal not because people wanted or expected it, but because now that it has happened, no one knows what they want or expect from it.