Category Archives: Politics

Time to light one up

The sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day. But there’s one nasty little cloud that’s casting a shadow my way.

Neo-nazism appeared in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Origins? The west, of course.

In the US, April 20th is the subcultural pot-smoking holiday. But in Russia, or in particular, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhni-Novgorod, it’s time for the Neo-Nazis to celebrate Hitler’s birthday. Every year, there’s an increase in violent acts leading up to his birthday. But hate crimes are not solely concentrated on April 20th — last year, about 70 people were killed in race-related hate crimes. Skinheads gang up on darker skinned foreigners and post videos of their attacks online, mainly to demonstrate that all foreigners are unwelcome in Russia. Last year, they posted a video showing the decapitation of a Ghanian man. Their time in jail? 23 years for one man, 9 years for a couple of others. The racism situation is somewhat exacerbated by the fact that there are Neo-nazi sympathizers in the Duma. It is horrifying that, in about 20 years, Neo-Nazism has grown to such ridiculous proportions. Before 1992, there were maybe two Neo-Nazis in Moscow, and five in St. Petersburg. And now, especially during the economic crisis and education collapse, the numbers are steadily increasing to ridiculous proportions. And with the numbers growing, the hate crimes are growing, too.

Thus far, I’ve been lucky — nothing’s happened to me, not even one strange look has been cast my way. But lately, I have been more on edge and much more self conscious. I apparently have a somewhat Asian-ambiguous face — as in, I could hail from China, Southeast Asia, or Central Asia. Unfortunately, all of those areas fall into one lump category that skinheads target: the foreigner.

To be honest, I can’t distinguish between skinheads and regular hooligans — which is even more frightening. I’ll ask myself, “well, was that a skinhead, a punk, or just another balding Russian with a bad sense of style?”  And I know I’m overreacting, and I am pretty sure that nothing will happen to me if I do decide to wander outside on Tuesday. Even so, I’m not taking any chances — it will be an all-day, indoor party at home for me.

Here’s a fun little video on Russian Neo-nazis for your viewing pleasure.

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Filed under Politics, Rambling thoughts

Conversation with a Marshrutka Driver

Earlier today, I had the misfortune of dozing off on my marshrutka ride home, and by the time I realized that the driver had passed my stop, he had driven to the last stop and it was too far for me to simply hop off and walk home.

“Excuse me, did you drive past Angliskii Prospekt?” I asked.
“Yes, yes, a long time ago — here, come sit up in front with me, I am going to drive back soon.” So I awkwardly sat in the front seat, as the marshrutka driver put the van into idle and smoked a cigarette.

“Where are you from?” he asked intently, blowing smoke out of the corner of his mouth.

“I’m from America.”

“America?! America! You don’t say. Do you have pictures? What is it like there?”

Since I was feeling particularly bored and slightly adventurous, I decided to test out my conversation skills and talk about the current economic crisis. I told him how living in America was not that great right now, because of the economic crisis, and that I did not know when things would get better. He sat up a little more in his seat and looked me straight in the eye.

“Da, it is the same here. Only Allah knows when the economy will get better. Under the Soviet Union, everything was better. There were always jobs. When Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union, the factories there always worked — it was not hard to find a job,” he said, somewhat wistfully. “We need a strong leader again — like Lenin, like Stalin,” he added seriously. I sat there silently. Yes, there were jobs under the Soviet Union, but at what human cost? Jobs versus the high death toll from the purges, gulags, population transfer, collectivization, etc? “Yes,” he said again, taking a final drag on his cigarette, “everything was better then. Now we have to pay for everything — university, apartments, everything. Terrible.”

Lenin and Stalin

Even post Khruschev’s de-Stalinization, it is fascinating to me that people still regard Stalin with such high reverence. ( In 2008, in an internet poll, Stalin was in the running for most influential Russian. ) The marshrutka driver’s response also made me think of how after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian babushki were at their wit’s end, because, for the first time, they had to pay rent and they couldn’t afford to. Things were better under the Soviet Union, they wailed. Same sentiment today, because of the current economic crisis in Russia — things were better under the Soviet Union.

As I was pondering in silence, he sighed, threw out his cigarette, and then turned the conversation to a dreaded topic.

“So, a pretty girl like you must have a boyfriend (molodoi chelovek), da?” he said, smiling at me and taking my hand. Thank you, Uzbeki marshrutka driver, for not only creepily hitting on me, but for also painfully underscoring the fact that I am single.

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Stay at home in the kitchen where you belong, and make me my borsht.

On Thursdays, ACTR holds a 90-minute Russian-American student conversation group. My current strategy of latching onto my tutor is not exactly working out – as in, I’m not successfully leeching her friends – so I saw this group as a window of opportunity to find out more potential Russians to ambush. The topic of the first meeting was Love, in honor of good ol’ St. Valentine’s Day. Discussion was split into 2 parts – 1st 45 minutes in English, and the 2nd half in Russian. For the English- speaking portion, it was mainly the American students politely discussing the general trend of marriage, how many marriages dissolve into divorce, tradition, etc. When it became our turn to ask about Russian custom, two opposing factions quickly emerged. First off, there were people there who definitely were not students and must have been well into their 50’s (at least, that’s how old they looked. For all I know, they could just be really leathery grad students.) The question of “are there stay-at-home fathers in Russia?” came up and one particularly scrappy, weathered old curmudgeon looked around indignantly at the preposterous idea, scoffed, and said that he only saw stay-at-home-fathers in American movies…basically implying that in America, men are obviously wimps and that Russian men are robust, strapping bucks. The younger girls, who I’m assuming were more around my age, were simply not having it and vehemently disagreed, claiming that because women were getting more and more successful, it was not so strange to see a man helping out around the house. Scrappy old man seemed quite offended at the idea that women could be as successful or even more so than men, and said something along the lines of, “Men are strong in Russia,” or at least, that’s what I think he muttered under his breath.

This somewhat heated discussion in broken English forces me to ask why feminism, or at least a stronger sense of self among women, isn’t stronger in Russia. Surprisingly, the women’s movement in Russia has a longer history than the western feminist movement, with the first wave appearing right after the abolition of serfdom in 1861. The Soviet era squashed things for a bit (60 years), but feminism came back after Glasnost and Perestroika. And now, there are nearly 600 women’s organizations, with human rights, reproductive rights, and access to education as their goals, just to name a few. Unfortunately, as witnessed in the small debate at Discussion group, stereotype and tradition are difficult to overcome, not to mention the fact that gender equality officially disappeared in early 2000 (no more formal government structure to protect women’s rights). While more people might be aware of what rights there are among women, this awareness remains mainly in the educated, upper class.

All for victory.

I have no conclusion, and I am not terribly optimistic either. What brought about the western feminist movement won’t necessarily work here, because, not to be obvious, Russia isn’t the west. However, things are improving, albeit at a snail-slow pace…kind of fits into the general pattern of Russian life that I am beginning to notice: everything here takes much longer than it normally would.

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Filed under Cultural differences, History, Politics