Friday, June 12, 2020

Watching Events in US, Russians Identify with White Americans But Should See Black Lives Matter Cause as Their Own

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 9 – “The overwhelming majority of Russians following American protests associate themselves with white Americans and treat the revolt of the black minority with hostility and indignation when they talk about it,” commentator Andrey Nikulin says (

            But they are making a mistake, another Russian commentator, Pavel Pryanikov, says who point s out that “Russians up to now have not been able to recognize that Black Lives Matter is their movement,” not because it weakens the US but because the demands that movement is making are demands they should be as well (

            In general terms, Pryanikov continues, “Russians have even fewer rights and possibilities than blacks do in America.” Almost everything has been taken from them not just for the benefit of the one percent in Russia but for the global system.  They are suffering like the blacks, but they are unwilling as yet to stand up for their rights.

            Yekaterinburg analyst Aleksey Shaburov highlights what he calls the “unexpected consequences” of Russian attention to the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, consequences that are likely to be all the greater because in their country even more than in the US, “the past often defines current policy” (

            In the US, the Black Lives Matter movement has been struggling not only with statues of leaders of the Confederacy but also with the glorification of the Southern way of life in such movies as Gone with the Wind, which the movement has managed to force off the HBO listing service, the writer and editor says. And he suggests that this won’t be the end of this process.

            Such efforts inevitably raise some questions: “How far should one go into the past and make demands on it from the point of view of the contemporary world? Or at one moment do events of the past cease to be current policy and become only history, lines in some textbook or other?”

            These questions are “extremely important for Russia because with us, the past is always more than simply the past. Often it is the only source of the present-day political agenda” as in the case of the celebrations of the Great Victory in the Great Fatherland War, almost the central event of Russian life today.

            But those in Russia who make the past the center of attention often forget that “in the history of Russia there was not only the Victory.” The powers that be may want Russians to look only at that event, but “when they consider the American protests, Russians also may begin to recall that we had something very much like slavery.”

            First of course, there was serfdom; and after that, there was the system of collective farms “when residents of the villages also were in fact tied to the land and received a passport only in the second half of the 20th century,” Shelin says. But so far, Russian society hasn’t incorporated this into its understanding of the past or come to terms with it.

            If Russians began to, he argues, this would not be such a good thing for those in power. “If there is too much talk about the situation in the US and the struggle of Americans with the heritage of slavery, then sooner or later they may be faced with an analogous struggle with the heritage of serfdom.”

            That is all the more likely and all the more likely to be explosive because “the powers themselves have made history current policy.” What is now happening in the US may be the start of a larger trend, Shelin concludes; and Russia is likely to be swept into it, not to whitewash the past but to face it honestly and change the present and future as a result.

            Many years ago, even before the collapse of the USSR, the author of these lines gave a talk at Georgetown University entitled “Russians as White Southerners,” arguing that Russian regionalists and nationalists in the RSFSR of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were developing many of the themes that American southern agrarians had in such works as I’ll Take My Stand (1930).  

            Russian officialdom, especially under Vladimir Putin, has promoted such a stance; but the comments of Nikulin, Pryanikov and Shaburov are reminders that there is an alternative and very much opposed tradition as well – and that those who believe they can suppress those memories and those people forever are almost certainly going to be proved wrong.

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