Russia’s racism problem

Russia needs to address a growing, violently xenophobic movement in the country…


© beggs


Last week, thousands of far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis marched through Moscow calling for Russians to “take backRussia,” and chanting racist slogans. The so-called “Russian March” has taken place every year since 2005 on a national holiday created to replace celebrations of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. It is accompanied by smaller marches in other cities.

Over the past 2 decades, violently xenophobic groups have grown. The chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union caused uncertainty and insecurity about Russia’s place in the world, and resentment about the perceived threat of immigration. The groups have denounced the influx of migrants from the Caucuses and Central Asian countries that once formed part of the Soviet Union, and non-Slavs and anti-racism activists have been beaten and killed.

The UK Government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) warns visitors of Afro-Caribbean and Asian descent to take extra care inRussia because of the risk of racially motivated attacks. Whilst FCO travel advice can be a little alarmist, this does demonstrate the presence of a very real problem.

The SOVA Centre, a Russian NGO, documents racist and xenophobic incidents in Russia. It reports that up until September, at least 16 people had been killed in racist attacks in 2011, with 90 injured and seven people receiving death threats. The attacks were recorded in 25 regions of the country, with seven killed and 16 injured in Moscow. In addition, the organisation describes numerous instances of xenophobic vandalism, usually against non-Russian Orthodox religious buildings. These figures are extremely worrying but are actually lower than 2010, when 37 people were murdered and 368 injured.

Many have expressed concerns that the prevalence of racism in Russiawill have a negative impact on the 2018 World Cup which will be hosted there. Racism remains a problem in Russian football, and there have been numerous reported incidents. The most high-profile of these involved Roberto Carlos, the Brazilian football legend who at 38, is playing out what will presumably be the remainder of his career at Russian side Anji Makhachkala. In June, a banana was thrown at him by an opposition fan. Visibly angry, Carlos walked off the field in protest.

This was the second incident of its kind involving Carlos, who previously had a banana waved at him by opposition fans in an away game at Zenit St Petersburg, the 2008 Europa League Champions. Zenit is one of Russia’s most high-profile clubs, but one of the most engulfed in the scandal of racism. They are the only major Russian club that has never had a player of African heritage. Previous managers have complained that the club wouldn’t allow them to sign black players, and that the supporters wouldn’t accept it.

Their most fanatical fans are the Ultras, a 5,000 strong group of Zenit supporters that have made it explicitly clear that non-white players would not be welcome. Many have links to far-right groups. Worryingly, they actually form a very influential element of the club’s support. They give the team the kind of loyal and substantial fan-base that is rare in Russian football, and in return receive access to discounted tickets in a section of the stadium reserved for them.

It’s worth noting that there has been some backlash, and many Slavic Russians have taken part in anti-racism demonstrations and campaigns, often risking their own safety in doing so. In addition, a number of foreign nationals in Russiahave written extensively on life there and reflected positively on their experiences. Jonathan Fianu, a British entrepreneur, has launched an impassioned defence of the country as a home for migrants, urging us to look beyond the stereotypes.

It’s also worth reminding ourselves that EDL marches in English towns and cities are demonstrative of the growth of ultra-right movements throughout Europe and current allegations involving Liverpool’s Luis Suarez andEnglandcaptain John Terry have shown that even in 2011, the English Premier League cannot be complacent.

What’s clear however, is that what’s happening in Russiais more deeply entrenched and even more sinister. It’s an impossible thing to accurately judge but Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the SOVA Centre has made the alarming claim that inRussia, “more than 50% believe that ethnic minorities should be limited or even expelled from their region.” The violent and abusive actions of a small minority appear to be symptomatic of something more widespread. In addition, the voices that speak out against racism inRussia are not loud enough, and are often intimidated into silence.

The worst fears are that racist abuse towards players on the field will accompany violence towards fans in Russian cities when the country hosts the most multicultural of global events in 2018. The Russian Football Union has insisted that a few isolated incidents aren’t evidence of deep rooted racism in Russian society, and aren’t demonstrative of the wider public mood. It has also introduced a seven point memorandum on fighting racism and fined clubs for the abusive actions of their fans, albeit haphazardly.Russia’s Government has provided additional assurances that it will crack down on racism and punish perpetrators.

Let’s hope the World Cup acts as a catalyst for lasting change, and that rhetoric is accompanied by action. The Russian authorities will surely be eager to prevent embarrassment in front of the world‘s media.Russiais a fascinating country and if this action is effective, 2018 can be a great opportunity for it to highlight all the fantastic things it has to offer visitors.


Paul Hunt writes on subjects including international relations, human rights and international development, you can find him on Twitter @PaulJ_Hunt