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Russia's Culture of Racism

July 19, 2002

Russia has just adopted a new legal code that enshrines the principles of habeas corpus and the presumption of innocence. Capital has stopped fleeing the country and investment has begun to trickle in. Ford Motor Co. recently opened what is believed to be Russia's first foreign-owned large industrial facility.

Yet as Russia finds its economic footing, a problem of a different sort is growing. When Leonna Griffin, an American student in Russia, "comes in contact with a [Russian] guy," she either gets "hit on or spit on," she says. Griffin is African American, and her situation is indicative of what many foreign students, Chechens, Jews, even foreign embassy employees face.

Since May 2000, beatings by racist thugs have sent 104 foreigners to hospitals. There are nonviolent humiliations as well. One African graduate student and teacher was lecturing when his students raised a large, hand-painted swastika. Many young neo-Nazis sport swastikas and have made Jews a target of attacks. That's especially pernicious in light of the millions of Russian Slavs slaughtered at the hands of the Nazis.

Things have gotten so bad that most foreign ambassadors in Moscow joined in a protest to the Russian foreign minister. Some diplomats are considering leaving the country.

President Vladimir V. Putin and the lower house of parliament, the Duma, recently passed an anti-extremist law, which legislators contend will crack down on racist skinhead gangs. But there are already laws to combat the skinheads. They just aren't enforced. The new law, critics of the Kremlin fear, will be more useful as a tool for the government to shut down political dissent.

As Andrei Zdravomyslev, a representative of the Moscow-based Institute of Social and National Issues, said, "Tolerance and cooperation need to be learned.... " Zdravomyslev and other experts favor a countrywide, anti-racist educational campaign.

Russia can start by changing what it teaches its schoolchildren. If Putin is really serious about pulling up the growing weed of racism, he must cultivate tolerance in Russia's public schools.

Instead of emphasizing past military glories to fuel Russian nationalism, which only encourages the extremism, state-approved textbooks should stress acceptance of the many ethnic groups that inhabit the world's largest country.

Reforming cultural norms, though it will take longer, will have a more enduring effect than passing redundant laws.

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