Sunday, July 26, 2020

‘Racism without Races’ in Russia or ‘Becoming Black in Moscow’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 24 – Nearly 50 years ago, Hungarian émigré scholar Paul Lendvai published his remarkable book, Anti-Semitism without Jews (New York, 1971), in which he described the ways in which that form of bigotry has stayed alive and evolved despite the absence of the group that is supposed to be necessary for its appearance.

            Seven years ago, UK scholar Madeleine Reeves talked about “racism without races” in Russia in an article entitled “Becoming Black in Moscow” about a similar process (

            Now, Vladimir Malakhov of Moscow’s Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences has developed the idea of “racism without races” and considered the way it is developing in Russia despite the fact that races in the conventional sense as groups viewed as biologically distinct do not exist (

            Racism today, in the broadest sense, is about distinguishing among groups variously defined and opposing any mixing of them, Malakhov says. After the Holocaust and apartheid, it is “not comme il faut” to speak in the language of the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazis; but the drivers behind racism are the same, “a fear of mixing,” the Russian scholar says.

            The Russian situation is quite different from that in Europe or “even more in America,” he continues, largely because the Soviet state not only did not institutionalize racism as some other countries did but promoted a “multi-cultural” society. But despite that, there were widespread social stereotypes among Russians about people from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

            These arose in the USSR but became far more widespread after the government’s ideological censorship was lifted.  And such attitudes were more than a xenophobic reaction: they too were based as racism typically is on the feeling that one’s own group must not “mix” with another.

            There is anti-black racism in Russia, but there are few blacks and so this is less important. But “our ‘blacks’ in the first instance are migrants from the former Central Asian republics (and in the 1990s Azerbaijanis as well).” And this terminology and view is based not on viology but on “social roles and positions.”

            What this highlights is the more general proposition that almost any individual can depending on context become “’black,’” Malakhov continues. What matters is less skin color than status in social and economic hierarchies. 

            “No one views as ‘blacks’ those people from Central Asia or the Caucasus who head oil companies or own hotel chains,” he says. “At the same time, their compatriots with low social status are in the eyes of the majority ‘blacks.’”  That is because they are viewed as undesirable not so much because of their appearance than because of their ranking economically.

            That makes the Russian situation somewhat different from the ones in the West, but it does not mean that there is no racism in Russia as many Russians continue to believe, the Moscow scholar says.

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