Is It Racist to Call Russians Racist?

Since Barack Obama was elected president, one of the most popular jokes in Putin's Russia is: "Obama's election as president - the black humor of Americans." Would it be racist to argue that a cultural group which embraces such a joke is a group characterized by clear racist tendencies?

Dmitry Shumsky
Dmitry Shumsky
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Dmitry Shumsky
Dmitry Shumsky

Since Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008, one of the most popular jokes in Putin's Russia - and its cultural diaspora around the world, including in Israel - is: "Obama's election as president - the black humor of Americans." The question is: Would it be racist to argue that a cultural group which embraces such a joke is a group characterized by clear racist tendencies or would such an argument in fact be anti-racist, since it diagnoses a worrying trend of racism among a population with a shared past of sorts?

Such a question could also be asked of Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On's comparison between Yisrael Beiteinu's leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and Russia's leader, President Vladimir Putin. Would it be racist to postulate that there is some common denominator between two politicians who come from a single country that no longer exists, who rose to greatness thanks in no small part to the former citizens of that country, and who have both demonstrated loyalty to that country's tradition of suppressing civil rights? Or perhaps the opposite is the case; maybe such a theory demonstrates the post-Soviet phenomenon of racism in a broad context.

The Soviet state carried out an unprecedented human experiment. On the one hand, the concepts of enlightenment and equality, morality, human dignity and human freedom flooded the public space ad nauseam. On the other hand, in the absence of an open society and without any possibility of public oversight, the most despicable of human drives were awakened and ran wild.

All you need to do is see the tormentors in the somewhat subversive Soviet movies from the end of the Soviet era to get an impression of the extent of the social Darwinism, the deification of belligerence in relations between groups and individuals, and the contempt for the different and the weak - categories that included many Soviet citizens in the 1970s and '80s. Those who did not live in the Soviet Union of that era, or have not researched it thoroughly, will find it difficult to imagine the low point to which the ethics governing civil and political life plummeted as the result of that experimentation.

The inconceivable gap between the rhetoric of civil and national equality and the reality of social Darwinism gone crazy and institutional discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin caused many Soviet citizens to see the concepts of enlightenment, humanism and equality as the culprits. They thought the ideas themselves, rather than those who corrupted them, were inherently false and hypocritical.

And so the average native Israeli is wrong to say, as Ari Shavit did in his opinion piece last week, that "the immigrants from Russia sought to escape a tyrannical political culture and not replicate it." Most Lieberman voters, like most Putin voters in Russia, want to live in a country that will not make use of the corrupted version of equality and humanism and that will not, even for the sake of appearances, futilely fight discrimination among various groups, since they see such discrimination as the legitimate expression of human nature.

Putin voters in today's Russia have, in large part, succeeded in fulfilling this political and social vision. Lieberman voters in Israel are likely to do so in the near future. As such, a comparison between Putin and Lieberman is not racist. On the contrary, it is an expression of the protest against a wave of post-Soviet racism, on the part of those who do not want a joke like "Obama's election as president - the black humor of Americans" to take root in Israel as well.



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