The Modern Racism of the Post-Soviet States

Nearly three decades since the collapse of the USSR, the nation-building projects in the post-Soviet space remain tarred by their attempts to escape its shadow.
Post-Soviet space, former Soviet Union, FSU news, Ukraine news, Latvia news, Ukraine language laws, Ukraine nationalism, Ukraine nationalism, Latvia nationalism, Russia news

The Soviet Union flag in St. Petersburg, Russia. © Diego Fiore

It should be recognized that there is a significant difference between European and post-Soviet right-wing radicalism. The difference between these two strands of radicalism is that the post-Soviet radicals are a large systemic element in the political structure in many countries of the former Soviet Union, having affected the formation of the new state ideology and practice aimed at justifying the fact of the emergence and existence of the newly independent states.

Let us not forget that for many residents of the former Soviet republics, the collapse of the USSR was not welcome. The referendum on March 17, 1991, witnessed almost 78% of the population in favor of preserving the union. The decision to dissolve was taken by the leaders of the Soviet republics behind closed doors without a mandate from the people. Moreover, it should be emphasized that by 1991, in a certain sense a Soviet nation had actually been formed. The language of interethnic communication across society was Russian, and the number of mixed marriages grew. Even among families where neither of the spouses was ethnically Russian, the spoken language was still Russian, and children, as a rule, went to a Russian school.

Therefore, creating a new nation-state on this basis was a difficult task for the new leaders, because they had to explain to the people why they needed independence. The former Communist Party elite that remained in power in the newly independent states sought to create new nations through reducing the influence of Russian culture — and ethnic Russians as its propagators — and by developing local ethnic culture. The reduction of the influence of Russian culture was possible in two ways: by banning the use of the Russian language in schools and in the state service, and by replacing the pro-Russian heroes of the Soviet period by anti-Russian icons.

New Heroes

As a result, the number of native Russian speakers (read ethnic Russians) in the school and governmental structures was reduced, with hundreds of thousands of children from families of national minorities deprived of the right to study in their native language. Instead of the Red Army and Soviet partisans who fought against Germany during the Second World War, nationalists and those who collaborated with the Nazis and took part in the massacres of Jews, Poles and others were glorified. For example, in December 2018, Ukraine’s then-president, Petro Poroshenko, signed changes to the law on the status of war veterans, granting members of several 20th-century Ukrainian civil and military organizations social support from the state.

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The law targets, first of all, members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), though dozens of other organizations are also listed as having fought for Ukraine’s independence: the Polissian Sich, the Ukrainian People’s Revolutionary Army, the Ukrainian Military Organization, etc.

The director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee Eduard Dolinsky wrote: “The O.U.N. and its military wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or U.P.A., are now being glorified as freedom fighters. What is not mentioned is the O.U.N.’s xenophobic, anti-Semitic ideology, which described Jews as a ‘predominantly hostile body within our national organism,’ or that the O.U.N.-U.P.A. militia collaborated in the Holocaust and also massacred between 70,000 and 100,000 Polish civilians in order to create an ethnically pure Ukraine.”

Similar situations have arisen in Lithuania and some other countries of the former USSR. This choice of “heroes” was forced — all other options did not fit into the category of being “anti-Russian.”  

Thus, the opposition between the Russian minority and non-Russian majority was not only limited to culture, but also extended to the field of historical memory, which will inevitably affect the whole layer of traditional values. Objectively, the main goals of the governments of the new post-Soviet states in the 1990s were to revise history and pit the cultures of the majority and minority against each other, institute discrimination of national and linguistic minorities, and create a new society based on the ethnocultural values of the majority, including the forced assimilation of minorities and by encouraging the emigration of minorities.

These aforementioned trends suggest a radical agenda. This process undoubtedly contributed to the growth of the influence of radical right-wing organizations. The authorities either did not notice their activities or secretly promoted them. The goals of the radicals and state authorities were united. Post-Soviet countries tried to form a European ethnocultural model of the nation-state, which involves the creation of a nation based on the ethnic and cultural values of the ethnic majority.

Yet, unlike in Europe, this process did not take place in conditions of culturally homogeneous societies with the gradual rise of immigration. In the post-Soviet countries, these processes took place under the impact of multi-ethnic and multicultural societies and the failure of the ideological social model. This led to the division of society along ethnic lines and to the emergence of dangerous trends that can be described as modern racism.

Modern Racism

Back in 1954, an American psychologist named Gordon Allport noted that cultural racism arises when “one group declares its claim to determine cultural values for the whole society.” Modern racism is not about discrimination based on race: It has to do with cultural discrimination. In the discourse of modern racism, it is believed that different racial and ethnic groups with divergent cultural codes have no chance of getting along with each other. Thus, there must be limits on the influence of a minority culture upon the culture of the indigenous majority.

Three methods commonly used to implement the ideas fueled by modern racism involve limiting the flow of people of other cultures into the country. These include restricting immigration in order to limit the cultural influence of a minority; reducing the presence of representatives of another culture in the country — a number of economic, political or cultural-educational tools are used for this purpose, including forcing undesirable people of another culture to leave the country; and, finally, the cultural assimilation of minorities. Being a declared benefit for the national minority, assimilation is replaced by the word “integration” more and more often. Although integration is a two-way street, assimilation is always a movement in one direction — toward the majority.

It is necessary to distinguish between voluntary and compulsory assimilation. It is obvious that voluntary assimilation cannot be considered a sign of modern racism, due to the right of choice. It is absolutely normal when people have the right to choose their cultural identity.

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Forced assimilation, however, is a sign of racism, indicating policies aimed at involuntary change of identity. It includes depriving national minorities of the right to choose in matters of their education and culture, like in Ukraine or Latvia; no alternative to the obtrusion of the majority culture on minorities; the destruction of the educational infrastructure of national minorities, including private schools and universities, accompanied by a total ban on education in the languages of national minorities; and prohibiting the language of national minorities in communication with authorities and even in everyday life.  

For example, in April 2019, the Ukrainian parliament adopted the Law of Languages. This is a law of total Ukrainization, which mandates that only the Ukrainian language may be used in the realms of the state, local governments, state and municipal companies, the judicial system, the armed forces, law enforcement, elections and referenda, labor relations, education, science, culture, television and radio broadcasting, and print media. Attempts to grant official status to another language are equated with actions aimed at forcibly changing or overthrowing the constitutional order and can lead to 10 years in prison. Attempts to introduce multilingualism at the official level in Ukraine can also punishment with 10 years in prison.

So, modern racism involves violent acts aimed at limiting the influence of another culture. As a consequence of these actions, minorities are forced to abandon their own culture and to be absorbed by the majority culture. Again, this is presented as a boon to minorities. But, in this case, the right of choice is not granted to them — except for one thing: to leave their country.

Therefore, the classic racist openly says that he doesn’t like the representatives of a certain race, but a 21-century racist says, for example, that he doesn’t like mosques because they spoil the look of European cities, and also calls for another identity to be imposed on the neighbor “for equal opportunities.”

Racist States

This actually corresponds to the policy of building new nations in most of the post-Soviet space. Having chosen the right-wing radical way of building new nation-states, the new post-Soviet countries have embarked on the path of transformation into modern racist states.

Thus, while in the countries of Western Europe this was a trend characteristic mainly for the right-wing opposition political movements, such as the Alternative for Germany or the National Front (now National Rally) in France, in post-Soviet countries this is already a state policy that has completely divided both centrist and right-wing parties, which often form ruling coalitions, as was the case in Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia and Georgia (until 2016).

As a rule, post-Soviet countries from the Baltics to the Caucasus rushed to announce that they had made a “European choice,” implying that they refused to come closer to Russia. But they professed few European values. They needed to advance the discourse of this “European choice” because they believed that countries making this choice cannot be subject to criticism for violating minority rights.

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Thus, radical right-wing ideas became a systemic factor in the formation of new post-Soviet states. The ruling elites in these countries tend to actively adopt radical right-wing ideas. There seems to be a gradual merging of the ideals of state elite and radical right-wing organizations. Take, for example, the displacement of representatives of national minorities from the government structures on formal grounds or the creation of non-citizenship institutes in countries such as Latvia and Estonia, among others.

We can mention also the deployment of nationalist propaganda and the revision of the history of the Second World War. The best example is Ukraine’s 2015 law, On the Legal Status and Respect for the Memory of the Fighters for Ukraine’s Independence in the Twentieth Century. This law glorifies the members of right-wing militaristic organizations that collaborated collectively or individually with the Nazi regime. Article 6 of this law established that persons who publicly show “disdain for these fighters for the independence of Ukraine or deny their role in this struggle are criminally liable in accordance with the current legislation of Ukraine.”

Official glorification of the executioners of Jews means that Ukraine has revived the tradition of state anti-Semitism. All of that was the main points in the programs of the radical-right parties and was adopted by the ruling coalitions in the last 25 years.

The risks of interracial and inter-ethnic conflicts increase dramatically in countries that forcibly impose a majority culture on a minority. Today, about 30% of Muslim migrants in Europe and 85% of Eastern European irredentists, for example in Latvia, do not wish to assimilate. It is precisely in this environment that radical organizations are most effective, filling in the vacuum that has arisen after the state’s refusal to engage in educational issues, including religious and minority cultures. In this context, nearly three decades since the collapse of the USSR, the nation-building projects in the post-Soviet space remain tarred by their attempts to escape its shadow.

*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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