The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Putin’s Russia uses Soviet-era tricks to evoke racist white fears

Wearing Red Army uniforms from the World War II era, Russian soldiers parade in Red Square in 2014. (Agence France-Presse/Getty Images/Kirill Kudryavtsev.)
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Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He can be found on Twitter at @Russian_Starr.

Revelations of Russian-bought Facebook ads designed to gin up racial discord between white Americans and minority groups may have come as a surprise to many Americans, but it shouldn’t have. The Washington Post reported recently that Russia-backed entities spent at least $100,000 on Facebook ads designed to pit white, Trump-leaning Americans against Black Lives Matter activists and minorities in general. Those ads include one of a black woman shooting a gun, which was supposedly  conceived to spark racial fears. A troll farm connected to The Kremlin even bought ads on Instagram. Just today, The Post reported Russia also tried to manipulate Google during the 2016 election. These efforts were likely designed to sway public opinion in favor of Trump, whose own campaign rhetoric was imbued with racial fear-mongering.

We still don’t know exactly how any of these social media efforts informed Americans’ voting choices in 2016. But none of us should be surprised that Russia exploited American racism to achieve its own foreign policy objectives. As a Russian supremacist state, the former USSR understood very well how to weaponize racism. It wielded Russian homogeneity against its own minorities during its 70-plus years of existence.

At a basic level, the use of the word “republic” to describe Russia’s member states is problematic. “Republic” is wording that suggests agency and autonomy. In reality, they were nothing more than colonies of Moscow. One of the first things a colonizer does is center its ethnic superiority over the peoples it rules. During the early 1930s, Joseph Stalin waged “Holodomor” (or Holocaust) against Ukraine that enforced strict collectivization policies depriving its people of meats, grains and other food stuffs. The best numbers have the death figure at 4 million people, but some estimates have that figure upwards of 10 million.

The cause? Ukrainians refused to give in to Stalin’s collectivization campaign, which he read as resistance to Soviet rule. Experts have long argued that his collectivization campaign was genocide. While Stalin was, indeed, a Georgian, he presided over a USSR that centered Russians as the leading ethnic group. Indeed, one does not need to be Russian to advance Russian supremacy any more than someone needing to be white to advance white supremacy here in America.

Terry Martin, coauthor of “A State Of Nations: Empire And Nation-Building In The Age Of Lenin And Stalin,”told The Atlantic that Stalin’s initial attempts to build a united Soviet state soon transitioned into a one where the Russian identity was above all ethnic groups.

“In the mid-1930s you start to get the notion of Russians as being the first among equals,” he said. “And you get this kind of formalized under the slogan of the ‘friendship of the peoples.’ So, at this point, there is a friendship in which Russians are the big brother or the dominant player.”

In reality, the Kremlin’s Russian racist policies and propaganda began sooner than that.

During the early 1920s, while Soviet authorities were recruiting black Americans and Africans to study in the USSR and the country was branding itself as a partner of black liberation, it was busy producing anti-black messages.

Raquel Greene, an associate professor of Russian at Grinnell College, has written extensively on how Soviet children’s books depicted African children in blackface and Africa as an uncivilized continent. Robert Robinson a black U.S. resident, who lived in USSR for more than four decades, was regularly used as a propaganda tool. And when he realized Russians were just as racist as Americans, Robinson wasn’t allowed to leave and had to escape the country with the help of Ugandan diplomats.

In 1927, the Soviet Union engaged in a campaign demanding that women in Uzbekistan unveil. The move was supposed to prove that the proletariat revolution had arrived in Central Asia, but the real motivation was to homogenize the population, which the Kremlin viewed as primitive and backwards, with Russian values. Soviet propaganda from the time depicts clerics in Uzbekistan as menacing and primitive in a clear case of Islamophobia.

It was also very common during the World War II-years to deport ethnic minorities under the false charge that they were collaborating with Nazis. Between 1943 and 1949 alone, around 1.5 million Chechens, Ingushi, Karachai, Balkars, Kalmyks, Meskhetian Turks, and Crimean Tatars, who were mostly Muslims, were uprooted from their homes for this reason. They were often villainized in Soviet films and any trace of their culture was meticulously stamped out. (Even under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Crimean Tatars face persecution.) In 1988, when the Central Committee was deciding the fate of its ethnic minorities, 85 percent of its membership was Russian; despite the fact the non-Russian population was close to 50 percent.

Whether it was killing Ukrainians, “civilizing” Central Asian peoples or disparaging black peoples while pretending to treat them as equals, the USSR always centered the Russian slav. The Russian Federation is no different. It understands divide and conquer as well as its predecessor. And most non-Russians in former USSR republics will tell you as much.

While I was visiting the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, in 2010, a man who appeared to be at least 80-years-old approached me on a busy downtown street and asked if I knew the history of Ukraine. It was a broad question, but I welcomed his insight.

“Ukraine is a colony of Moscow and Russia wants to take it back,” he told me.

His fears were came to fruition four years later. Russia annexed Crimea and supports anti-government rebels in the eastern part of Ukraine. In the summer of 2007, I sat in a lecture at Indiana University as our a Georgian language teacher predicted that Putin would one day invade her country. One year later, it happened.

Residents 0f the former USSR states know all too well that the Kremlin functions very much as a successor state of the Soviet Union. That it would export tactics of ethnic division in the United States should shock none of us. Russian supremacy was the hallmark of USSR foreign policy and it continues to be under Putin. While the White House, whose policy of white supremacy dominates its domestic and foreign affairs, may be the Kremlin’s adversary (or, at least, theoretically), Russia and the United States are ultimately peers in their supremacist outlooks.

Once we begin to see Russia as a supremacist state, we will be able to identify its tactics. Racial propaganda was a hallmark of its supremacy during its time as the USSR. That Putin’s Russian Federation would deploy similar tactics against American interests should surprise no one.