Tolerance Versus Fear and Exclusion

This marks the 25th year that the UN Declaration of Principles on Tolerance, which was adopted at the UNESCO General Assembly in 1995 to “generate public awareness and emphasize the dangers of intolerance,” has been in effect. The first article of this Declaration states the following about the concept of tolerance: “It means accepting the fact that human beings, naturally diverse in their appearance, situation, speech, behavior and values, have the right to live in peace and to be as they are. It also means that one’s views are not to be imposed on others.” The concept of tolerance is juxtaposed with the failure to recognize the right to preserve individuality and identity. The text also references a different UN declaration—the Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice (1978), which states that “all individuals and groups have the right to be different.”

Tolerance signifies the right to be equal and requires states to provide “equal opportunities to all groups and individuals.” The declaration’s authors also expressed alarm about the problems of marginalization and discrimination that frequently target national, ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities, refugees, migrant workers, immigrants, and vulnerable groups, and called on states to adopt special measures to protect their rights, ensure respect for culture and identity, and promote integration. The authors also mention the need to conduct research to better understand the problem and find the correct solutions.

The declaration is most often spoken about in the context of education, even though this clause is not the only clause or even the first clause, since the declaration primarily concerns the obligations of states and their governments. In terms of education, the Declaration states that it “should aim at countering influences that lead to fear and exclusion of others.” In essence, the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance—which is perceived as a positive and unifying “moral value”—is protective in nature, beginning with the words of the preamble concerning alarm about discrimination and ending with the last article proclaiming November 16 the International Day for Tolerance to emphasize the dangers of intolerance.

The call to take measures to protect against xenophobia (“fear and exclusion”), rights violations, and persecution of minorities (discrimination and marginalization) does not appear to have been absorbed everywhere. In Russia, if any measures at all have been taken to support tolerance, they have been temporary and fragmentary in nature. The Saint Petersburg Government Program on Tolerance, which was founded in 2015, was reduced to school dances and festivals held just for show, where support for national cultures and friendship of the peoples finds its expression in country-western dances and songs about peace on Planet Earth. Built into this program’s implementation plan were studies on the causes of intolerance among young people. This complicated scientific work was for some reason assigned to the Main Department of Internal Affairs, and the fate of these studies (if they were ever even conducted) is unknown. The program also suggested working with journalists and even providing support for NGOs working with refugees.

Even given its weak attempts to promote tolerance and overcome xenophobia, this long-expired program can be viewed with a certain nostalgia. In fact, a description of its undertakings can still be found on the city administration’s website. For example, there was this suggestion for a “discussion with a group of students at a residential school”: “How are people similar? Regardless of appearance, ethnicity, religion, or race, they all have the same bodies, needs, and aspirations. So find courage in yourself. Be tolerant!”

Unfortunately, no measures aside from police and festival/education measures were ever taken or planned, even at a time when the word “tolerance” was not a bad word in Saint Petersburg. The government has done nothing to support excluded and discriminated groups, like Roma communities. For decades now, Roma children in the village of Nizhniye Oselki, Vsevolozhsky District, Leningrad Oblast have only been receiving an elementary school education, and in segregated classes, at that, where they barely manage to learn anything. Similar schools where Romani children are separated on the basis of race and denied their right to a complete secondary education are common in other oblasts of Russia as well. Romani families often live in homes that are unfit for human habitation, but these homes are under the constant threat of demolition. Hundreds of people may find themselves without a roof over their heads, even in Siberia, so what is there even to say here about providing housing to the most vulnerable groups?

Representatives of minorities who attempt to stand up for their rights, as the Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North (which fought for the government to implement its obligations in relation to indigenous peoples of the Russian North and Siberia), face relentless persecution. Minorities have been assigned an exclusively decorative role (dances and costumes at festivals), and even these symbolic displays of “tolerance” are gradually disappearing. Russia does not and never has had “equal opportunity for all groups,” forget about “countering influences that lead to fear and exclusion of others.” Instead, children and adults are now being taught to fear and hate others, and intolerance, animosity, and hatred are being tolerated. A “Day of Tolerance” now sounds like a bitter joke.

Stefania Kulaeva, expert of the Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial

First published in Russian on the blog of Radio Svoboda