In a two-part series aimed at tackling the past and present of race relations in Russia, the Russian Studies Workshop organized and convened two panels via Facebook to ask, “Do Black lives matter in Russia?”
Moderated by Maxim Matusevich, the first panel considered the historical experiences of African-Americans and Africans in Russia, as well as the ways the Soviet Union treated its own ethnic minorities in the context of a nation that was explicitly anti-racist.
While the world was saturated with images and news stories of racist violence in the United States in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Soviet Union tried to uphold the narrative that racial animus within its borders had been resolved. But to what extent was this true? Raquel Greene provided some nuance to this debate, using popular culture to show how the concept of race evolved in the Soviet Union in the 20th century and how especially in the 1990s stereotypes of Africans became prevalent.
Black Lives Matter was front of mind for panelist Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, having just published the article “Russia as a mirror of American racism.” Writing for the Conversationalist, St. Julian-Varnon pointed to the striking and paradoxical ways that Russian dissidents and critics of Putin draw inspiration and language from the Black Lives Matter movement while simultaneously borrowing alt-right, racist arguments about the need to protect white Russians.
During the panel, St. Julian-Varnon also explored the ways Black Americans who travelled to the Soviet Union experienced that nation, including Langston Hughes. Asked St. Julian-Varnon, “What does it mean to be Black in a place that doesn’t technically see race?”
These Black American “travelers” had different experiences of the USSR, with some noticing its dearth of economic power but others feeling liberated by its lack of explicitly racist institutions. Paraphrasing Hughes, St. Julian-Varnon said, “When I am here, I do not have to worry about the threat of violence” due to skin color.
Maxim Matusevich echoed the ways that the USSR attempted to show off its anti-racist global message, as the nation tried to paint itself as the “guarantors of freedom and emancipation of non-white populations and colonized populations.”
Yet actual Black Russians may not have agreed with such an assertion, even if it was supported by Black American travelers. He said, “What people found in the Soviet Union and the United States did not always map onto the experiences of those who lived there.”
As previous installments of this speaker series also argued, domestic racism is not merely a national issue but central to international relations. The anti-racist message of the Soviet Union contrasted sharply with the racism of the United States, affecting how those nations were viewed and how they were able to interact globally.
During a Q & A after presentations, panelists considered the extent to which the Soviet Union’s anti-racism in the 1960s was a genuine expression of solidarity, and how it was an anti-capitalist and anti-American strategy to argue for the moral superiority of the Communist system of government. Russians’ idealization of Angela Davis gets into this murky water of solidarity and hypocrisy, especially considering the Soviet Union’s crackdown and false imprisonment of its own dissidents.
The Q & A extended into the present, with panelists considering Russia’s harsh treatment of its LGBTQ population, going so far as to deny and erase its existence. Another concern today, Matusevich asked, is, “What will Russia do to stem the very frightening rise of white supremacists and alt-right groups that are very connected to ethnic nationalism?”
The second panel picked up where the first left off, focusing on contemporary realities of Blackness in Russia, with a particular emphasis on popular media and the public response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Providing a local perspective, Dmitry Dubrovsky explained how different groups are responding to BLM, from the state to ultra-right conservatives to liberals and the Russian left. Racist language in the US, he argued, is “very actively translated into the Russian context.”
Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon joined again to explore Russian criticisms of BLM that significantly overlap with right-wing critiques of the movement in the US. Both groups argue, for instance, that Martin Luther King took part in “an appropriate kind of protest,”without contextualizing King’s larger social message or the violence against him.
The concept of race can help understand Russia’s response to BLM, she said. “Why can Russians see and support the Belarusian protests, which are always portrayed as positive, versus the protests in the United States?” she asked.
Journalist Amaliya Zatari provided the perspective of ordinary Russians, having conducted long interviews with diverse individuals about racism in Russia.
The panel concluded with an audience Q & A, moderated by Eliot Borenstein, which expanded on how racism operates differently in Russia, particularly regarding Russia’s Central Asian community, which faces significant discrimination. Would a Black Lives Matter movement in Russia involve protests from Central Asians demanding equal treatment?