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Jan 27, 2014

Russians and Racism

We are looking for an apartment, and Svetlana has to do the heavy lifting. When she calls about an apartment, there is always an interrogation, which starts with a question – are you (ethnic) Russians? This is perhaps the most uncomfortable question to answer. What they really want to know is that we’re not Central Asians or from the Caucasus. If you answer that you’re French or Estonian, there will be no problem, I am sure. It is all about the race, or, rather phenotype (peoples of the North Caucasus are of course, Caucasians, just with slightly more Mediterranean facial features; one has to live here to develop the fine art of discerning who is from where). In Russia, the racial discrimination in housing is open, blatant, and goes completely unchecked. I don’t know if there are laws against it, but they are certainly not enforced. It is uncomfortable, because we happen to be ethnic Russians, and the discrimination benefits us by narrowing the pool of potential competitors. And if we refuse to answer, well, we need a place to live.

This is sad, because the majority of Russians I know are fairly tolerant, who like the French or the Turks are keenly aware of their own very mixed ancestry. Ethnically distinct individuals used to be well-integrated into the cities, dominated by ethnic Russians. It all seems to change since the large-scale economic migration from Central Asia and from the Caucuses began. It is not that the in everyday life people became harsher. Muscovites are a still a fairly reserved, but friendly bunch. In six months, I have not heard one confrontation or harassment in the streets. We know there are racist thugs here, but I have never seen one. But I cannot remember housing discrimination in the Soviet Union.

The same problem exists in the United States, see for example, an excellent exposé by This American Life. The difference is that in the US, landlords are a lot more careful about expressing their preferences. But in both countries, unfortunately, the real estate makes racism worse than it could have been. Why? Because people begin to discriminate on the basis of someone else’s perceived racism, not on their own beliefs and sentiments. They think their neighbors or potential buyers will feel uncomfortable around diverse people. It is both more sinister (you don’t have to own your racism) and more powerful, self-perpetuating form of racism. I am sorry to say that the dynamics of it is the same.

But if Russians learned the American – much older - lessons, they would know that racism is not just ugly; it is also very costly, and creates huge long-term social and economic problems. Once you allow ghettoes to emerge, you pretty much guarantee crime, weak educational outcomes, and self-perpetuating cycle of poverty. You create large underclass, not just a few disadvantaged individuals. If anything, the governments should actively fight residential segregation by any means necessary. Whatever the cost, it is immeasurably lower than the potential cost of a racially divided society. As long as White and Black, poor and middle class, Slavs and Tajiks live in a close proximity, and send their kids to the same schools, there is hope. They may not like each other very much, and complain about each other, but they still live in the same world. Once they separate, you’ve got a problem. 

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