Russia's multicultural myth

When a spokesman from Russia's migration service spoke about the purity of the white Russian race, he was summarily dismissed. But while his quasi-Nazi whistle chimes ill with official rhetoric of multiculturalism, it is alas in tune with much of Russian society, says Mikhail Zakharov.

In the course of an investigation into racism and abuse at detention centres where people seeking asylum in Russia are kept, the BBC Russian Service recently asked Russia’s Federal Migration Service (FMS) to comment on the situation at the Ochyor Immigration Centre, near Perm in the Ural mountains. The response from Konstantin Poltoranin, the official spokesman for the Service, took everyone by surprise. “What is at stake is in principle the survival of the white race, which is an issue of particular importance in Russia”, he said.

In his opinion, European migration policy is set up to favour immigration from Africa, adding “relations should be organised in such a way as to ensure that interbreeding happens in the right way”. As if to prove this was not an isolated slip or a quote taken out of context, Mr Poltoranin then spoke to a correspondent from the Internet news site Gazeta.ru. While assuring the journalist that he was neither a racist nor a nationalist, and couching his views in terms of demographic data, he re-iterrated a feeling that the survival of the white race is at stake.

Russian society is not well disposed towards immigrants. 11% of survey respondents say they would happily take part in a protest against immigrants similar to the infamous Manezh Square riot of December 2010

The official’s racist statement could have been put down to bad taste or a stupid mistake were the topic not so high on the current political agenda. At the official federal level, racism is not tolerated in any form, and every single federal official publicly has critcised racism. Indeed, at a recent State Council meeting on the issue of inter-ethnic relations, President Medvedev devoted a significant amount of time to develop an idea that while multiculturalism is currently being consigned to the scrapheap in Europe, it finds a natural home in Russia. When it comes to positive action, the federal plans are weak – the proposal for inculcating racial tolerance in Russia tends to amount to sending the Bolshoi Theatre on tours round the North Caucasus – but the sentiments expressed are generally strong.

The response from the FMS was therefore inevitable. Heads were clutched in horror and Poltoranin was instantly dismissed.

It is certainly remarkable to find the spokesman for the department responsible for immigration talking about preserving racial purity. It harks back to Nazi theories that deemed racial interbreeding to be unnatural and degenerative to the “superior” Aryan race. Of course, there’s a big difference between wanting to preserve “the purity of the white race” and Goebbels’ fully-formed ideology of “blood and soil” (Blut und Boden): the refugees in the Perm Krai may complain of brutality, but at least they're not in concentration camps.

Despite the officially anti-racist postion of the Kremlin,
many Russians prefer a “Russia for the Russians”
slogan and do not hesitate to resort to violence to prove
their commitment to this idea. Photo: Ilya Varlamov

Poltoranin's comments should not be seen as an isolated slip, but rather symptomatic of societal trends more generally. Officials don't operate in a vacuum and on the whole society is not well disposed towards immigrants. After the December 2010 race riot in Manezh Square, the National Centre for Public Opionion Research (VTsIOM) carried out a survey to explore attitudes to xenophobia. 11% of respondents said they would take part in a similar protest action themselves. Meanwhile a Levada Centre survey in December 2009 found that 18% of Russians are in complete agreement with the idea of “Russia for the Russians” (results from various surveys in the period 1998-2009 give a range of 14-21%). Another 36% agreed with the idea, but “within reason”. Only 32% described the idea as fascist.

Racism and xenophobia emerge in the views of Russians more strongly when they are confronted by specific issues, as opposed to the issue of immigration generally. For example, they overwhelmingly disapprove of marriage between Russians and those they consider to be of a different race. The 2010 VTsIOM survey showed that the highest rates of disapproval were reserved for the hypothetical possibility of marriages with Chechens (65%, 2002: 67%); Arabs (63%, 2002: no figures); Kazakh, Kyrgyz or Uzbek (60%, 2002: 57%); Georgian, Armenian or Azeri (54%, 2002: 58%); Jews (46%, same in 2002).

These sentiments appear to be shared by the populations of Russia’s ethnically diverse autonomous republics. Madina Shakhbanova's research project “Attitudes to mixed marriages in the Dagestani ethnic consciousness” found that while 81.1% of respondents would be prepared to accept a person of another nationality as a citizen of their republic, the figure fell to 67.8% who would accept a non-national as a neighbour, 50.7% as an immediate boss and 39.9% as a spouse.

Representatives of Russia’s Orthodox Church have also revealed attitudes similar to Poltoranin's. In his 2007 interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda, Deacon Andrei Kurayev described mixed-race marriages as “genocide”: “When our women marry men from the Caucausus, their genes are enriching other nations and the Russian nation is weakened!” Meanwhile statements from other non-federal officials (for example the Mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin) often feature thinly-veiled nationalist slogans.

In this context, then, there is little need for Mr. Poltoranin to worry about the future of the “white race” in Russia. Despite the efforts and claims of the federal authorities, there is little chance of multiculturalism taking hold.