A Spicy Borscht: Nationality, Mathematics, and Russian Police

By Innokenty Grekov

Russia’s internet is fuming over a story out of Chelyabinsk, a city in the South Urals, where police officials have been sending official inquiries to schools seeking information about pupils of “Caucasian nationality.” The tangentially racist term is loosely applied in Russia to anyone from the Caucasus, including numerous Russian citizens from places like Chechnya and Dagestan. The term’s use in Russia is dwindling (especially in the press) because of the racist connotations, so you can imagine how surprised Alexander Popov, a school headmaster, was to receive such a request from the police.

“There’s only one nationality in our lyceum—mathematics,” was Popov’s laconic response, which he put online, along with the police inquiry. The resulting avalanche of criticism (the inquiry may violate several Russian laws) is making a difference already: “There is an ongoing internal investigation as to why the request was issued in such an incorrect form and what its aim was,” police spokeswoman Anzhelika Meshcheryakova told Interfax. The investigation should be studied in Moscow, where this week the Ministry of Internal Affairs is welcoming its new chief, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, whose team is tasked with moving forward the much-needed police reform in Russia.

The clerical misstep in Chelyabinsk may look relatively innocent next to recent torture allegations against police in Kazan. Public officials all over the world make racist remarks, but in Russia stories evoking national identity and nationality are particularly resonant. The incident in Chelyabinsk may bring to mind another high-profile case from 2011, when an official spokesperson for Russia’s Federal Migration Service was fired after making a plea for “the survival of the white race” in an interview to the BBC. The national identity debate will be waged in the coming decades, and Russia’s in for serious trouble if the thinking demonstrated by the police in Chelyabinsk is prevalent.

Russia’s response to hate crime too, needs much improvement. Hate crimes persist across the country despite significant advances in the criminal justice system, which is gradually getting better at addressing racially motivated attacks. Neo-Nazi gangs—the primary perpetrators of such violence—are closely monitored across the country and law enforcement authorities have improved their record in investigating cases. Earlier this year, for example, the Supreme Court of Russia rejected Alexei Voevodin and Artem Prokhorenko’s appeals for clemency. In June 2011, these members of the Voevodin-Borovikov gang received life sentences for committing some of Russia’s highest-profile hate crimes, including the murder of ethnologist Nikolai Girenko, nine-year-old Tajik girl Khursheda Sultanova, and African student Samba Lampsar.

While the response to violence is improving, the Russian government is using those same laws and the very same police units to clamp down on fundamental freedoms of speech, religion, and association, by targeting ‘extremism’ in nonviolent dissent. Following the December 2011 peaceful protests in Saint Petersburg, Human Rights First raised concerns over the persecution of activist Philip Kostenko, who was closely monitored by the police unit responsible for combating extremism and hate crime. We’re currently following the case of Maxim Efimov, who is prosecuted for posting allegedly extremist remarks about the Russian Orthodox Church and who has gone missing this week. Both Kostenko and Efimov are well-known activists working to confront racism, homophobia, and bigotry in Russia—and facing persecution by the authorities tasked with combating the same phenomena.

The Russian government should double-down on what works: going after violent attackers, and stop wasting resources on harassing human rights activists, journalists, and religious groups. The government should work on a comprehensive strategy to confront racist violence and intolerance, which must include special diversity training for the police.

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Published on May 29, 2012

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