The news tells us: Russia is racist and homophobic. Is this true – or is the Western media portraying Russia in a certain way?
Racism is prejudice and/or discrimination against someone of a different race. It’s the belief that your own race is superior to others. A study by the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia found that around 70% of Russians hold negative feelings about people of another ethnicity.
Back in 2009 research by the Sova Centre for Information and Analysis found that the number of victims of racist attacks had actually dropped for the first time in six years. However, the centre stated that “xenophobic violence remains alarming in its scope and extends over most of the Russian regions, affecting hundreds of people.”
In recent years many articles in the media have expressed concern about an increase in racist activity in Russia. The most recent example gaining a lot of media attention related to a football game. Emmanuel Frimpong is a footballer from Ghana in Africa, who plays for Arsenal. Frimpong claims he heard racist chants and monkey noises when playing against the Russian team Spartak Moscow. Not cool.
This isn’t just an isolated incident. Anti-discrimination group the Fare Network released a report on racist activity in Russian football. They list 99 racist displays in Russian football from 2012 to 2014, and 21 incidents of violence linked to racism. The Fare Network say these figures are “far from exhaustive”. It adds that they can “only be indicative of a wider problem”. Meaning that in reality things are probably a lot worse.
Many people believe Russia should not be allowed to host the football World Cup in 2018 due to this recent racist behaviour. The obvious question: why are things so bad?
Russia’s President Putin leads the United Russia political party. When he came into power in 2000, the country was not in the best of places. It had suffered a financial crisis in 1998 when the Russian stock market collapsed. The Washington Post describes how Putin, facing opposition from other parties, needed “an ideology of power” to inspire the country.
This new ideology included the values of nationalism and patriotism. Basically: Russia is the best, and we are becoming stronger.
Patriot Park is a good example of this “pro-Russia” approach. It’s a “military Disney-land” where families can explore military vehicles and weapons. Yes, a theme park for Russian military strength. You can’t make this stuff up.
Extreme nationalism is sometimes described as a far-right ideology. Extreme racist views are also described this way. The Fare Network believes that the rise in racism can be linked to the spread of a new far-right ideology, found in Russian football supporters in the late 1990s. It’s worth saying that not all far-right ideas lead to racist activity.
According to the Fare Network “the situation inside [football] stadiums reflects societal developments coinciding in certain periods with rise in nationalist rhetoric of the government.”
What this means: racist behaviour is on the rise and this could have a link to increases in patriotic and nationalist language used by the government.
Putin’s nationalist language seems to be working. The Pew Research Centre reports that the percentage of Russians with a very favourable image of their own country has risen from 29% in 2013 to 63% today.
However, Putin’s nationalism may not be to blame for an intolerance of diversity. Historian and journalist James Pearce believes racist attacks across Russia could simply be a response to what Russians see as a failure to integrate into their society. “Russians are also still ‘adjusting’ to foreigners, many have never even met one.”
Homophobia is the hatred or fear of homosexuals.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Russia, yet many gay Russians hide their true sexuality. They fear what might happen if they’re discovered.
Polling company Levada Center discovered 37% percent of Russians think homosexuality is a disease which needs to be cured.
An article in GQ is just one of many which details violent attacks on members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. Gay pride rallies are often hijacked by extreme homophobic groups. It has also been reported that homophobic groups trick gay men into meeting for a date then film the torture of their victim and post the footage online.
When many people celebrated the legalisation of gay marriage in America by changing their online profile pictures to a rainbow flag, many Russian users changed their picture to the Russian national flag. The Russian version of SIRI, the iPhone personal assistant, got caught making homophobic comments. The “system error” which led to this was corrected.
The Fare Network report points out that “although the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community are not the primary target of discriminatory abuse inside [football] stadiums, these spaces remain ‘no-go’ areas for them.”
Again, this isn’t just about football. This video seems to make a point in evidencing that even basic public displays of affection between a gay couple could be problematic;
New laws are making it more and more difficult for Russians to express their sexuality.
In 2012 the city of Moscow banned gay pride events. Was this ban for the year? No, it was for the next ONE HUNDRED years. The government said Pride events would spread disorder and that people living in the city didn’t want it. It’s not clear what they plan to do when the 100 year ban expires.
Then a 2014 law banned educational material about homosexuality for under 18s. The exact wording of the new law was:
“Propaganda is the act of distributing information among minors that 1) is aimed at the creating nontraditional sexual attitudes, 2) makes nontraditional sexual relations attractive, 3) equates the social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations, or 4) creates an interest in nontraditional sexual relations.”
Educating kids about homosexuality would mean you are guilty of breaking the law. Russians who break the law face a 5,000 rouble fine (£50). The penalty is even worse for schools at 500,000 roubles (£5000). Foreigners can also face a fine, jail time for up to 15 days, and even get kicked out of the country. Way to kill the mood, Russia.
The Russian Orthodox Church is Russia’s largest religion. 90% of Russians say they are Orthodox (though 75% admit only attending church only once a year, or not at all).
Writer Andrew Kornbluth comments that Russian homophobia is “a psychological coping strategy”. It’s a response to “a distinct trauma: the long-ago disintegration of the same ‘traditional values’ that the homophobes profess to be defending.”
As we mentioned above, President Putin is attempting to revive traditional values of nationalism across Russia. Forbes Magazine describes how Putin noticed how the Russian Orthodox Church played a “useful role in boosting nationalism and the fact that it shared his view of Russia’s role in the world”.
Putin strengthened the Church’s role in Russian society. The Church now teaches religion in Russian schools and is able to review legislation going before the Russian parliament. So, what are they teaching?
Recently Putin praised the Russian Orthodox Church for inspiring a “spirit of patriotism” in young Russians and for preserving Russia’s “rich cultural and historical heritage and in reviving eternal moral values”.
These moral values don’t seem to include homosexuality. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church says that gay marriage is “a very dangerous apocalyptic symptom” and that every effort should be taken to make sure “sin is never sanctioned in Russia by state law.”
President Putin’s push for a patriotic Russia isn’t to blame for Russian homophobia, but the power of the Russian Orthodox Church over Russia probably isn’t helping matters. As for the church, they believe they are protecting traditional moral values.
Speaking out against Putin and the Church will get you into trouble. Feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot often incorporate LGBT themes into their work. In 2012 they performed a song “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” This act of protest against President Putin was performed in a Russian Orthodox cathedral. Members of the band were arrested; the head of the Church said they were doing the work of the devil. Not exactly constructive criticism.
Western media has got a little fixated with Russia. But is the media biased against Russia? This year the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies launched a “mass media hostility index”. Sounds ominous; it’s actually quite clever. It measures the anti-Russia bias in the media, and aims to identify which countries are bad-mouthing Russia.
According to the study, throughout 2014 Western media increased its “anti-Russian propaganda”. The brains behind the study called this the start of an “information war” against Russia.
Of course, 2014 was the year Russia nicked a patch of land called the Crimea from Ukraine. Western countries especially, were not impressed by this. So, it might be no surprise that our media started bashing Russia for what it considers an illegal takeover. But, there are always two sides to every story.
This year the British presenter and DJ Reggie Yates traveled to Russia to film a documentary series: Extreme Russia. It covered the rise in Russian nationalism, homophobia and the modelling industry.
The documentary was praised for exploring the rise of extremism in Russia. Not everyone was a fan, though. Journalist and historian James Pearce wrote an article claiming that the documentary series only showed one side of the story.
Pearce wrote, “in simple terms, what Reggie Yates has done, is play on an existing prejudice and told a British audience ‘this is Russia’; a country full of neo-Nazi’s, homophobes and child models.”
According to Pearce the documentary showed off “the worst sides of some extremist groups” and did not explore why these groups have grown in popularity.
We asked him where he thinks the current racist and homophobic stereotypes come from. He believes it stems from small truths being blown out of proportion. “In Russia, it is not a crime to be homosexual – in India it is and seven African nations have the death penalty for it, yet people don’t seem to be discussing this… Moscow has gay clubs, as does St Petersburg. This isn’t to say homophobia is non-existent but by and large, Russia remains a conservative society.”
According to Forbes Magazine, Russia sees itself as “neither Western nor Asian, but rather a unique society representing a unique set of values which are believed to be divinely inspired.”
Pearce quotes Russian filmmaker Andron Konchalovskiy who said “It’s too bad we’re not blue, green or purple. That way they’d [the West] get off our backs… The West expects us to act like they act. They go after us all the time. Do you know why? It’s because we look like them. If we looked different they’d get off our backs.”
Pearce also argues that countries like China, Saudi Arabia and Qatar do not receive as much criticism for being undemocratic or living up to western standards. Do we think Russia should act like a Western country, because the Russians look like us? “Many Russians believe this is the problem too. Russians look like Westerners but in fact they’re not. They’re different.”
So, what we see in the media could be biased against Russia. It just confirms stereotypes we already have. If we’re hating on Russia for being “backwards” what about all the other countries that could be accused of the same thing?
We contacted the Russian embassy to find out their views on the report into racist activity; but so far haven’t heard back.
Yuri Boychenko (chief of anti-discrimination at the United Nations) believes that to stop racist behaviour the Russian government must understand how bad the problem is. “First comes recognition; that authorities here should recognise that there is a problem and I believe that the recognition is coming.”
But for the moment it seems Russia needs some positive press, to allow people to move past the stereotypes.
Is Russia racist and homophobic? Extreme Russia with Reggie Yates can be viewed on the BBC iPlayer.