08 October 2006

The Ugly Side

Disclaimer: I think this is the first post I could legitimately get into trouble with the university for writing. As a disclaimer, the following is my own account of events that I have no material proof actually happened. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see it. If a university official informs me that this account is incorrect, I will notify my readers immediately. As an additional note, throughout this post, I use the term “Russian” to refer to an amorphous group of people who identify as ethnically Russian, which often includes people with some Ukrainian or Belarusian heritage but emphatically does not include every citizen of the Russian Federation. I also hope people recognize that I’m speaking in generalities; things I say here do not apply to every Russian, or even most Russians.

There was a Chinese holiday on Friday. I have to confess my cultural ignorance by saying I don’t know what the holiday is called exactly (Moon Festival? Lunar New Year? Something along those lines...), but that’s not important at the moment. The point is, several of the visiting Chinese professors who live in our dormitory were celebrating this holiday on Friday evening. They were having this celebration on the sidewalk outside the dorm; I’m not sure why, but it probably had something to do with the dorm’s absolutely-no-alcohol-ever policy. Anyway, the dorm is on our relatively closed campus, so it’s not like they were just on the street. Nonetheless, some (presumably drunk) Russian guys came up behind them, started chasing them and throwing things at them, and eventually hit one of the teachers in the head with a brick. Besides that guy’s very bloody head wound (no concussion that I know of) and some scrapes on a girl who fell down trying to run away, no one was injured. Which is good.

But still.

Racial and ethnic hatred is, I would say, a big problem in Russia. In Western Russia, the brunt of the xenophobia is felt by Caucasian people – that is, Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis – but many Russians feel dislike for all sorts of non-Russian groups, from Jews to East and Southeast Asian immigrants to simply any foreigner who clearly doesn’t fit in. Maybe some of you saw the recent New York Times article about the ethnically-motivated bar brawl in a village in Karelia that culminated in businesses owned by ethnic Georgians being vandalized (need I compare this to Kristallnacht?), and ultimately caused a large portion of the town’s ethnically Georgian population to flee to the regional capital. Or if you followed the news about the Moscow market bombing in August, you know that it wasn’t a result of warring between the Chinese and Vietnamese merchants there (as was first suggested), but was planned by a group of Russian nationalist university students. I also heard something about a Spanish student in Western Russia having recently been murdered, but I don’t know any details about that.

Russians give various explanations for dislike of immigrant groups; one excuse I’ve frequently heard is that Caucasian immigrants are involved in shady business dealings. I don’t buy it. Maybe it’s true, but I don’t think it’s the real reason for the hatred. I don’t have a clear answer for what the real reason is, but I think it has a bit to do with the instability caused by the fall of the Soviet Union, a bit to do with the continually poor economic situation for the average Russian (sure, the ruble’s gaining strength, but it’s all oil), and a bit to do with a long history of xenophobia here. (Alas, even Dostoevsky, one of my favorite authors, had some issues with xenophobia.) Perhaps it also has something to do with the “demographic crisis” (a hot issue here). The birthrate is critically low, and at least here in the Far East, immigrants are pouring in, which leads to the opinion I’ve heard both here and in Moscow: Vladivostok is being overrun by Asiatic peoples.

I have no solution for the situation, besides time and increased socioeconomic stability. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling almost daily outrage about it, along the lines of, “Good grief, people, shouldn’t we be DOING something?!?” This now strikes me as funny; until I came to Russia, I didn’t realize that the tendency to want to fix everything that’s wrong is a uniquely American trait. But a Russian once remarked on this to me. The exact quotation was, “You Americans are always trying to save the world.” I think there’s some truth to it; Americans are certainly conditioned to believe that they can change things they don’t like. Righteous indignation is like a national pastime for us. We write letters to the editor. We start movements and protests. At the extreme end of things, we invade other countries and try to bring them democracy (although I realize that many Americans would take exception to being included in that “we”). Essentially, just seeing that something is wrong or unjust is, for us, a call to arms.

You could of course contrast this attitude with that of the Russians, especially ones who grew up in the Soviet Union. But I find it more interesting to contrast it with the attitude of one of the Japanese girls here: “Это не моя страна. Я – гост. Поэтому надо терпеть." ("This isn't my country. I'm a guest here. I've got to put up with it.") It's probably better for your blood pressure and a lot wiser than my Lone Ranger reaction, really. It strikes me as especially funny that she, a potential target for violence, said this to me, who is at much less risk of ever being seriously harmed by xenophobia.

I like the American attitude. I think that in most cases it's one of the better ways in which we differ from other nations. But for now, надо терпеть.

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