Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Window on Eurasia: A Buryat’s Cri de Coeur about Russian Racism

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 19 – “I am a Buryat. Not a [non-ethnic] Russia. And not even a Buryat-Mongol.” Thus Marina Saydukova begins her heart-rending essay about racism that infuses Russian attitudes toward her, her people and other national minorities and that both Russians and non-Russians lack the capacity to face up to and overcome.

            Entitled “You are so beautiful: You’re almost a Russian,” Saydukova’s 2100-word essay explores this most sensitive issue by recounting her own experiences growing up and as a professional journalist in Moscow and considering the serious injuries many Russians are inflicting often unconsciously on non-Russians like herself (

            Saydukova, 40, who currently teaches social anthropology at Cambridge, earlier worked as a journalist in Moscow and as an instructor at Mongolia’s diplomatic academy in Ulan Bator.  After insisting that as a Buryat, she recognizes that Buryats and Mongols have a common history and some similarities, Saydukova insists that the two nationalities are very, very different.

            But in this essay, she focuses not on those differences but rather on the ways in which she learned to recognize herself as a Buryat, “to accept this and to feel all the pluses, minuses and nuances of [her] own ethnic identity” in terms of her relations both with other Buryats and with ethnic Russians.

            “As in a complex computer game,” she writes, she in the course of her life has “had to pass through several levels of tests. At each new level, after victory over monsters of the first circle, [she] opened a box with abilities and habits, applied them to [herself], learned how to use them in order to deal with still more dangerous monsters at the next level.”

            But “as life showed,” Saydukova continues, “the most powerful and dangerous monsters at any level are the monsters which are given birth by your own mind. And the battle with [these] internal] monsters, with fears and doubts, is the most difficult of all.”

             She says she was fortunate to grow up in a good family, one which had relatives who were not Buryats but who were never treated differently because of their ethnic background. “Neither in [her] childhood not as an adult did [she] hear from her parents words of ethnic or racial hatred toward anyone” regardless of how they behaved. 

            Sydukova says she believes this is the case because her parents also came from good families. One of her grandmothers, she recalls, saved a Russian boy from hunger during the war. And she suggests a third reason was her parents “own experience” as and with what the Russians calls “natsmeny” or “national minorities.”

            “But we grow up not only in a family,” she continues.  Children go to school, and “unfortunately, many of [her] teachers like [her] classmates grew up and were raised under conditions of perfectly wild racism which so filled up their world” that they felt it to be something completely “natural” and no one seemed to notice it.

            “I am now speaking about [ethnic] Russian racism” which is sometimes called in the French manner chauvinism,” Saydukova says.  “While living in Mongolia,” she says, she saw “manifestations of Mongolian racism chiefly with respect to the Chinese and to cosmopolitan Mongol.”  But it had, she says, using the English expression, “the same face.”

            With regard to Russian racism, she says, it is important to remember that in Soviet times, no one called it that. Racism existed in “distant America, the capitalist West or in South Africa with its apartheid, anywhere one could imagine but not in a Soviet school.”  But in fact, Saydukova points out, it did.

            “You cannot call the words of certain of my school teachers anything but racist,” she says and recalls how she felt when one Russian language teacher berated a Russian student for not doing better than a Buryat.  “’She isn’t a Russian, but what has happened with you, Nastya,’” the teacher said without thinking.

            Saydukova said those words “remained in [her] ‘non-Russian’ memory for a long time.”

            She describes a number of other incidents she experienced as one of a tiny group of Buryats in a predominantly Russian school in southern Yakutia (Sakha).  But Saydukova says that her worst experience as a child in this regard when one Russian teacher said to her “’Marina, you are so beautiful, almost like a Russian!’”

            But such comments didn’t end when she graduated and realized her “childhood dream” of becoming a political journalist in Moscow.  While working at the television center in Ostankino, one Russian engineer praised her for the quality of her Russian given that she was a Buryat and commented that somehow “all you non-Russians are so talented!”

            She says that she is sure the man thought he was giving her a compliment, especially when he compared her to Aleksandr Buratayeva, with whom he sometimes confused her.  Buryatayeva, Saydukhova points out, “was the favorite news host of all non-Russians of Russia” because she was “the first and only non-Russian woman” in that role.

            Her experiences and those of other non-Russians show that “racism in Russia is so widespread” that both Russians and non-Russians have become “accustomed to it,” however much it may hurt the latter.

            Just how serious things are in this regard, Saydukova continues, can be understood by the following analogy. If there is a spot on a coat or even three or four, everyone will recognize that it needs to be removed. But if the entire coat is covered with spots, it is “as if” they don’t exist and that nothing needs to be done.

            Whenever she has raised this issue with either Russians or non-Russians, she says, they don’t like it.  And there is a reason for this: “BECAUSE IN RUSSIA THERE IS IN PRACTICE NO OPEN DISCUSSION OF THE QUESTIONS OF RACISM AND ITS TERRIBLE CONSEQUENCES.” [emphasis in the original]

            As a result, Russians and non-Russians alike remain inclined to identify and treat people on the basis of their ethnicity or skin color, she says, in large part because no one can talk about this openly. Instead, members of both groups continue their “mantra in the style of ‘in Baghdad everything is peaceful!’”

That those doing the oppression or even killings should do so is perhaps not surprising, she suggests.  But what is disturbing,  Saydukhova concludes, is that the situation in Russia has reached the point where, because no one can face up to this issue in public, even those who are discriminated against or even being killed are often inclined to do the same.

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