From Russia with Love?

In Commentary, FILM, THEATRE & TV, HOME by Hannah Oliver

Recently BBC 3 has aired a three part series of investigative programs exploring various aspects of Russian society, and their impact on youth culture. The topics varied from prejudicial standpoints such as homophobia and racism, to somewhat bizarrely the world of professional modelling. Perhaps these episode themes were chosen as representative of the characteristics the British viewer most commonly associates with the largest country in the world – and this in itself is perhaps cause for concern.

As the program’s frontman, Reggie Yates, so assiduously points out, Russia is often perceived as a ‘baddie’ – a threat, a danger, a cause for concern. So I would like to take this opportunity to firstly congratulate the program makers on actually spending time in Russia. Simple though it seems, too often is the Western portrayal of Russia generated by media outlets outside of the country, perpetrating an ill-informed negative stereotype. Even more insidious, is the exportation of Russian media in to the international spotlight, which tends to be just as maddeningly biased in favour of the Motherland. Following the annexation of Crimea and the sanctions implemented by America and many European powers, tensions are running high. Now more than ever it is crucial to attempt to understand this complex and diverse society, as opposed to writing it off as some kind of dangerous interloper, fuelled by archaic Cold-War stereotypes.

Reggie in Russia.

It goes without saying, I am not Russian. If my traditional Gaelic name, Aisling, hadn’t tipped you off already (it means ‘Dream’ in Irish, or so my commemorative key ring would have me believe) my unintelligible Belfast accent definitely will. Nor am I considered to be a member of an ethnic minority. Why in heavens name have I taken it upon myself to write about these issues? For the past year I’ve been living in St Petersburg, as a foreigner in Russia’s second city. Like Reggie Yates, I’ve had the opportunity to explore this country for my self – and I can assure you the ‘experience’ hasn’t been one to disappoint. This makes me three times the outsider, but as Zooey Deschanel so aptly puts it ‘I’m the outsider who’s on the inside’. I am not blinded with a patriotic love of country, but have developed a certain fondness for this corner of the world which has helped to dull the edge of my Western outlook.

Reggie arrives in Moscow, the Russian capital and seat of governmental power, in an attempt to get to grips with the ever growing right-wing movement. This came as a surprise to me, as based on the Great Patriotic War, as it is known here, and Hitler’s notorious hatred of Slavic people, right wing views tend to be regarded suspiciously. It soon became apparent that what lay at the heart of this section was nationalism – a strong desire to play the patriot and promote all things traditionally Russian. Even the term “nationalist” has all sorts of subtle implications of extremist views. However, sometimes Russian nationalism is completely harmless and for a foreigner absolutely hilarious. The wide and diverse range of memorabilia with Putin’s face emblazoned on it literally has to be seen to be believed. Can you imagine any British nanas buying plates with David Cameron’s face on them? Aspects of this hilarity are included in the program as Reggie innocently asks ‘why do you have so many pictures with animals?’ There could have been any number of ways to deflect this inquiry – Putin cares for the environment, he does a lot of charity work, he believes mankind has a responsibility to care for the powerless…the answer:

‘The animals of Russia love him. They can tell he is a kind and good man.’

Wow – I’m speechless. Examples of this devotion are apparent even on the most basic linguistic level – Putin is always referred to, almost exclusively as ‘Our President’ – as opposed to David Cameron as ‘The Prime Minister’. This might seem like a minor and inconclusive detail, but it demonstrates how a love of country and respect for Putin and the concepts he embodies, are instilled on even a lexical basis. In terms of world leaders, the appointment of President Obama in 2009 led to an ever greater surge in anti-American feeling. This stems officially from his tough stance on Crimea, but it does not seem unrealistic to suggest that racial prejudices are also a contributing factor, especially when Russians seek to validate their President by displaying how he pales in comparison to ‘the competition’.

A pop song for your perusal.

Despite a wide variety of political differences between the UK and Russia, the topic of immigration is currently one of political concern. It is important to point out that on certain levels, Russian society is tremendously multicultural. Recent studies suggest that the Russian 140 million-strong population encompasses 185 different ethnic groups. However, Russian attitude is definitely more aligned to conformity as opposed to individuality, partially stemming from the Communist legacy of the USSR. Which begs the question – how conformist can 140 million different people actually be?

In theory, anti-immigrant views and propaganda present in both nations stems from an influx of foreign workers from less economically developed countries (think Big Nige and ‘the immigrants are stealing all the jobs.’) Immigration from all over the world has been an element of British society for decades, and experienced a slight increase following a group of former USSR countries joining the EU in 2004. Russian immigration has experienced a slightly different trend. As the USSR, the country encompassed a variety of central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan). Following the collapse of the USSR, huge numbers of immigrants from these countries came to Russia in search of greater economic stability. However, due to the former Soviet system, these individuals tend to have been educated in the Russian language and share cultural touchstones with traditionally Russian people. Despite this, they’re often seen as competing with working class Russians for jobs, with immigrants proving the cheaper workforce. This has caused great social upheaval and led to a lot of anti-immigrant views.

In recent years in the UK, questions have been raised as to the selection process concerning the Metropolitan Police and their ‘stop and search’ procedure, with the implication that they’re racially determined. The case would seem to be the same here in Russia, but on a far more explicit scale. Central Asian immigrants, particularly young men, are routinely asked to produce the necessary legal documents, and to pass through a metal detector at the entrance to the underground. There are many who attempt to live in Russia illegally, sometimes due to carelessness concerning the numerous protocols necessary to ensure compliance. However, all foreigners are not treated in the same way. White Europeans appear different from Russian youths in a million subtle ways, which stares and looks of inquiry have suggested are apparent to even the most uninterested passer-by. When speaking English especially, it’s not unusual to have total strangers approach you to ask who you are and why you are in Russia. This is rarely done out of hostility; most people are just shocked and surprised to learn that English speakers want to learn their language. On an official level, white students go undisturbed, suggesting that the need to display official documents to a camouflaged individual on every street corner is purely racially motivated.

This BBC 3 program was designed with a didactic purpose in mind, to educate and entertain. In line with this, they spoke to Russians very extreme in their views. One example was 19 year old Masha who posed for a photo shoot wielding a series of weapons to promote ‘traditional Russian culture’. Whilst entertaining, these people serve as caricatures – whilst there is a strong sense of national pride and patriotic feeling in Russia, not everyone is swinging an axe about in a photo studio. Aside from the flamboyance, this young woman’s views turned out to be chillingly hostile towards foreign governments. She outlined two key points when questioned as to her motives – encouraging the growth of a stronger anti-West Russia, whilst showing people that it is not shameful to be Russian. It begs the question, where does this feeling of dishonour originate? And is the foreign media not in some way responsible for disseminating this culture of shame?

Extremely shocked Reggie, in Russia.

The anti-immigration basis of the program stepped up a gear as Reggie attended a nationalist march. Needless to say, the results were terrifying. The atmosphere of hostility and violence was palpable. These extremists came across not only as threatening, but uneducated, ignorant and thuggish. Thankfully, this accounts for only a very small percentage of Russians, with such distasteful and unacceptable views. However, it would be both grossly unfair and wholly inaccurate to boldly declare that all Russians hold racist viewpoints – this is not the case. Rather, I’d argue that there is a racially insensitive mindset in existence, which seems to be becoming increasingly popular in the face of economic hardship. What may have originated as wariness and ignorance of foreigners following decades behind the Iron Curtain is escalating in to a strong feeling of anti-immigration. Furthermore, to hallmark all Russians as racist encourages the kind of sweeping generalisations based on nationality that precipitate prejudices in the first place.

It’s safe to say, that we can learn a lot from Russia. In the past year the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have generated worldwide outpourings of rage (and rightly so), as people protest against inequality in modern American society (see archived material celebrating Black History Month – plug, plug). Atrocities such as these attract world-wide media attention, becoming catalysts for racial discourse between members of society. The institutionalised attitudes of racism which prevail in Russia are an example of the other end of the scale. These are not considered news worthy incidents. People don’t tweet the hashtag #someonejustshoutedracistabuseatamaninthestreet or #foreignlabourersgetpaidghalfwages but these evils in society are no less prevalent or harmful.

It is the insidious, under the radar, quotidian type of racial prejudice that is the most damaging, and at times it is so subtly nuanced that it takes the outsider to notice it. Football chants, complaints about new neighbours, choosing the white shop assistant – everyday incidents that absolutely should not be happening every day, in any society. Being able to trace some of the more extreme anti-immigrant opinions recorded in this program in an attempt to learn about their origin is all fine and dandy from an academic point of view. Using this social and cultural context as an attempt to justify prejudice, discrimination and bigotry is unacceptable. We can only hope that as time passes, a more dynamic mix of faces will begin to appear on St Petersburg’s streets, and negative perceptions will slowly begin to change.

11187483_10205949110502543_316780849_oNext Episode: ‘Gay & Under Attack’.

So look to Russia, look to this program, and witness the repercussions of seemingly inconsequential interactions and snide comments snowball into a force capable of instilling fear and horror the world over and an atmosphere of aggression and hostility. Learn from their example, and do not make the weakest members of society the scapegoat for a wider set of more complicated problems.

Aisling Press

Aisling moved from Disney summer internship Orlando to year abroad St Petersburg within the space of a month, leading to much suitcase, very confusion. When not obtaining visas she studies English Lit and Russian at good ol’ Edinburgh. Currently she is methodically working her way through a sack of 600 British tea bags which were smuggled across internationally waters. Hobbies include cats, onesie cuddles and cheese with peanut butter in a variety of combos – try to have an open mind. 

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(Images sourced from: here, here and here)