New Ethics, Same Old Reality

Discussions about “new ethics” online and discrimination in real life

The results of two different sociological studies on racism and the “national question” were published recently. One of the studies was a traditional survey conducted by the Levada Center, which has researched the level of xenophobia in the Russian Federation for many years. The second study, by Mikhailov & Partners, posed the vaguer question of “Tolerance: Is Russia for it or against it?”; the survey results were presented as part of a discussion about whether or not the time for an “ethical revolution” has arrived. There was also much talk about “new ethics,” which are much more apparent on social media than in the real life of Russians. As it turns out, ethical news includes the ideas of rejecting racism and sexism (including workplace harassment and domestic violence) and recognizing the rights of LGBT+ people, ethnic minorities, and “socially vulnerable groups,” to which researchers ascribe persons with disabilities and multi-children families.

Given this approach, it’s no surprise that the older generation of respondents were more inclined to support “socially vulnerable” people, while younger people, who are active on social media and knowledgeable about Western trends, #MeToo, and #BLM, were more likely to acknowledge the rights of minorities, although they weren’t prepared to take any positive measures to overcome discrimination (benefits, quotas, and so forth). Participants in the Mikhailov & Partners study, who learned about the terms used by the sociologists in focus groups, recognized to some degree that discrimination exists in Russia (almost one-third of respondents), but their personal experiences showed that it is almost impossible to combat it (the majority of victims did not try to complain, and of those who did, over half received no response at all, while 12 percent stated their complaints had a negative result). We don’t know exactly what types of discrimination the respondents suffered from, but we do know in quite some detail which groups respondents believed face discrimination: The study showed that Tajiks and Uzbeks ranked first (22 to 23 percent), followed by Russians (12 percent), while only three percent of respondents believed that Tatars and Romani people are discriminated against (this figure stood at two percent for Jewish people and four percent for African people).

These numbers in no way reflect the true picture of discrimination; in fact, the survey’s goal was to show if residents of Russia are “for or against tolerance,” or, in other words, to measure the subjective impressions of people about a topic they only vaguely understand. The question of “who faces discrimination” is more a question of how people perceive legal inequality: Some noted the problems of migrant workers (but not all migrant workers, for some reason—only a small percentage of respondents viewed Kyrgyz people as a target of discrimination), and many considered themselves victims of injustice (I think that’s why a whopping 12 percent responded that Russians are discriminated against in Russia). At the same time, very few agreed that African people, Romani people, Jewish people, and indigenous peoples of the North and Siberia are affected by discrimination.

The results published by the Levada Center, whose poll was the latest in a series on xenophobia in Russia, were entirely different. This survey’s results are of interest because it has asked questions on attitudes towards various ethnicities (Jewish people, Romani people, Chechen people, Chinese people) or groups of nationalities (immigrants from Central Asia and Africa) for the past 10 years, which gives us the opportunity to look at changes in public opinion. The Levada Center’s work is also good because the questions are very specific: In responding to them, people do not “assess discrimination,” but instead state whether or not they are willing to live with these people, work with them, or welcome them into their circle of friends and family. Sociologists then use these responses to measure “social distance” in relation to most of these groups, which naturally provides a much more objective picture of reality. And it turns out that while respondents in the Mikhailov & Partners poll were not prepared to acknowledge discrimination against Romani people, respondents in the Levada Center poll expressed reluctance to live with, work with, and befriend Romani people. Moreover, almost half of the respondents in the Levada Center survey once more supported “not letting them into Russia.” It’s unclear exactly how residents could not be let into their own country, but that’s how people have responded year after year; in the last three years, over 40 percent of respondents have adhered to this surprising opinion, and the number of such responses is only increasing. Interestingly enough, 11 percent of Ukrainian respondents supported “not letting them into Russia,” a position also held by 26 percent of Central Asian respondents. Similarly, 13 percent of Jewish respondents did not want to let “them” cross the border at all, while 14 percent were in favor of temporary stays; the percentage of respondents who rejected foreigners of Asian descent was comparable to the percentage for Chechen people, who are citizens of the Russian Federation.

For many years now, first place in “social distance,” or, to put it simply, level of racism, has gone to Romani people. Second place has gone to Africans.

Possibly the most significant thing here is how stable this survey’s results have been—over the past 10 years, they have changed slightly, but not considerably. The pattern of xenophobic behavior against various groups has hardly changed at all. For example, in 2010 10 percent of respondents would have accepted Ukrainian neighbors, while only three percent would have wanted Romani neighbors. But what of 2020? After the war, after the Russian aggression, after all the hatred of Ukraine spewed out by the state-controlled media… 11 percent of respondents had no objection to Ukrainian neighbors and four percent would not mind having Romani neighbors. Tolerance of both groups grew by one percent over a decade, and it appears that no foreign-policy events had any impact on attitudes towards fraternal peoples. Five percent of respondents did not object to African neighbors 10 years ago as compared to six percent today. So there’s “new ethics” for you, there’s #BLM!

In light of this data, experts’ arguments about an “ethnic revolution” and even “ethnic evolution,” as Marina Maksimovskaya, the head of Mikhailov & Partners, proposed toward the end of the discussion, seem far from reality to me.

And reality is even more terrifying than the Levada Center data: Even though this data precisely measures public sentiment, it still concerns opinions; in real life, everything is much worse.

For many years (no fewer than the Levada Center has been tracking xenophobia in the country), ADC Memorial has been monitoring manifestations of actual discrimination, wholesale discrimination or, as human rights defenders say, structural discrimination, against the Romani population of Russia.

This structurality lies in the fact that all aspects of exclusion, deprivation of rights, and racism are interconnected. You end up with a knot no matter which thread you pull. The easiest is to start from early childhood, with education. If people do not get a good education, they will not get a good job, they will live in poverty, which will make others despise them, exclude them, and trample on their rights even more, and they will not be able to provide their children with a good education, thus setting off another vicious circle. Many well-off residents of Russia have no idea that thousands, tens of thousands of children in our times are being deprived of the right to even an elementary education because schools frequently simply do not accept Romani children. When schools do accept them, they put them in separate Romani classes, where they are taught almost nothing, as illustrated in the graphic story Alyona, which is based on real events (I myself am very familiar with the people and situation described in this story). The girl known as Alyona in the story became a mother herself long ago, but the situation in the school that she and her mother attended and that her children will attend, has not changed. In some places the situation has even worsened; we discovered a sad scene this fall near Samara. We have been tracking the problems in this tabor, which is located next to the city, since 2006. We knew that children from the settlement, which is typically called Mekhzavod, did not attend school, but that at one point an agreement was reached for them to be accepted into the local school. People were very happy, even though the learning conditions were far below standard conditions.

Here is what former students told us about their happy school years. One room was allocated for Romani children; children in first to fourth grades attended classes in this room in two shifts. All four grades had the same teacher—Sergey Aleksandrovich, a retired colonel and veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He taught them Russian, math, and gym. According to the children, an English teacher came, but very rarely. Sergey Aleksandrovich always travelled on the school bus with the children to maintain discipline and control the number of students. None of the children were in a mixed class. In terms of food, the Romani children received free meals, but they were not allowed to visit the cafeteria with the other children. They were only allowed in after the children from the “Russian” classes finished eating. Prior to classes, they arrived on the school bus and immediately went to the “Roma” classroom; after classes, they walked with their teacher to the school bus in an orderly manner and were driven back to the tabor.

In spite of all this, the children still have happy memories about school; the school, however, did not take them back for a second academic year. This fall about 10 small children escorted us through the tabor, asking with sad faces, “Will you take us to school? We really want to learn, but they won’t take us. We attended first grade, we really liked it, but then they kicked us out.” Two women nervously asked, “Please, tell us, why aren’t our children being accepted at school? Why is everyone accepted but them? Is it because we’re Roma? Our children went to school for five years, they loved everything. They brought books home, read to us, and then they were all kicked out of there as if they were lepers!” A man around the age of 40 who was walking nearby joined them and said that “only fascists treated the Roma” the way that the school did.

Members of the tabor were summoned to the Department of Education of the Administration of the Municipality of Samara, where, in the presence of the department head, the school principal unexpectedly informed them that all Romani children would be excluded from school beginning September 1. When questioned about the reasons why 78 children from the neighboring settlement were being excluded from school, the principal responded, “Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to find a teacher who would want to work with Romani children. Our enrollment was down when they attended because parents didn’t want their children at the same school as Romani children, so they sent them to different schools. That really impacted our rating.”

Thus, almost 80 children (and many more in reality, because we are not counting children who should be in secondary school and children below school age) were deprived of one of their fundamental rights—the right to an elementary education (no one ever offered a secondary education there) only because the parents of other children at the school did not like the very fact of their existence. For that matter, neither did the principal, who said: “Even if I wanted to,” meaning that he himself did not want to see Romani children at the school. And neither did his colleagues, for example, the secretary, who met our question about excluding Romani children with the words: “We haven’t had them here for a long time, and, for God’s sake, don’t bring them here.” The Department of Education of the Administration of the Municipality of Samara also participated in this criminal violation of the rights of young students. One of this Department’s direct responsibilities is to create an opportunity for learning for all children in the region, which means that officials can exert pressure on the school’s principal, who decided that “they didn’t want” to teach these children there anymore, and can induce another school to accept these children if they for some reason believe that the conditions in the first school are unsuitable. But none of this was done. The school drove the children off into nowhere, depriving them of the chance to learn how to read and write and offending and degrading these small citizens of Russia and their parents.

“Ethical evolution” may be observable on social media, but in reality this is the same “oppressive vileness of uncivilized Russian life” that Maksim Gorky wrote about 100 years ago.

Stephania Koulaeva, expert, ADC Memorial
First published on the blog of Radio Svoboda