Out of Russia: A sense of superiority fans flames of racism

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - This has been an unusually hot and dry summer. Tempers are beginning to fray, and Russian anger often boils over into racial hatred that seems invariably directed at swarthy people from the Caucasus.

Here are a few incidents. A large Russian woman stands up in the Metro and starts haranguing four young men who look like the Azeris you see in the market selling fruit and vegetables. 'What are you doing here, you bastards? Why don't you go back to your own country?' she demands. 'We don't need you here, we can grow our own vegetables.' She stood over them with her hands on her ample hips until the next stop when she stormed out, still swearing, and got into another carriage.

Last weekend, Moscow's paratroop veterans held their annual parade and some of them went on the rampage. At the Kiev railway station they 'expropriated' melons from Caucasian street vendors and redistributed them to beggars, alcoholics, the homeless and anyone who passed by. Some of their comrades got into knife fights and 45 were arrested.

In Novgorod, in north-west Russia, Vassili Dubov, the chairman of the local flower-trading company was at a state auction of a large flower store, which he bought for 233m roubles. He did not have such funds in his bank, and the auction sponsors were furious because it was their first privatisation project.

Asked to explain his behaviour, Mr Dubov said it was 'sheer patriotism'. At the auction he was bidding against a man from the Caucasus who was as determined to buy the store as Mr Dubov was determined that he should not get it. 'That store has to have a local owner,' he said.

Russian racism, especially in connection with people with darker skins, is well known. It's not unusual to have highly educated Russians volunteer that they don't like blacks because of the colour of their skins. Their frankness can be startling for anyone coming from the West. Mr Dubov says his objection to 'foreigners' is purely for patriotic reasons, a sentiment which raises a related but different question about the future of the multi-racial Russian state.

The woman on the Moscow metro told the Azeris to 'go home' to their own country because, presumably, she easily recognised them as foreigners and she felt cheated. But within the vast Russian federation itself, which is 82 per cent Russian, there are more than 100 nationalities spread over 16 autonomous republics, five autonomous regions and 10 national areas. The question, as Russian nationalists assert themselves, is whether relations between Russians and non-Russians within Russian borders will reach an equally ugly level. And what then? Will Russia eventually suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union, and split into different independent states?

Russians used to dominate the indigenous peoples in most republics, both socially and economically. In the Sixties, the level of a Russian's education was generally twice as high as that of the indigenous peoples, according to the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology. By 1990 however, the situation had been reversed in some regions. Upward social mobility of indigenous groups has also been high.

In most republics Russians still hold the high-status jobs in industry and dominate positions in science and the arts, and thus consider themselves both superior and progressive. But the Russians no longer dominate the elites. For example, in Tatarstan, 500 miles from Moscow with a population of 3.5 million, Russians account for 56 per cent of the scientific workers as opposed to the Tatars' 35 per cent, but more Tatars hold scientific degrees.

The criteria governing social status are also changing. Property, income and access to power are becoming more important status symbols, replacing power and status through the Communist Party. In 1990, for example, the Tatar representation in the region's parliament rose from 48.5 to 51 per cent. In Yakutia, the far-eastern gold and diamond-mining region now called Sakha, the representation of indigenous people in district government rose from 50 to 57 per cent. Three-quarters of the heads of government of all levels in each region are local Tatars and Yakuts. These changes are especially significant because Russians still constitute a majority.

Perhaps the most important reason why the Russian autonomous regions are wary of breaking free is still the domineering force of the conquering Russians. More than half of Muscovites in a recent poll feel the regions should have no right to secede - and Moscow still has the tanks, the planes and the nuclear weapons.