MOSCOW — In the United States, days of rioting in Ferguson, Mo. over the police shooting of African American teenager Michael Brown are a troubling reminder of how deeply racial tensions still divide the country.
In Russia, they provide an opportunity, in this era of sanctions and new Cold War-style sentiments, to accuse America of being a giant hypocrite.
In the United States, “which has positioned itself as a ‘bastion of human rights’ and is actively engaged in 'export of democracy' on a systematic basis, serious violations of basic human rights and barbaric practices thrive,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Friday, in a special commentary on the situation in Ferguson. “We would like to advise American partners to pay more attention to restoring order in their own country, before imposing their dubious experience on other states.”
Such ministerial-level tongue-lashing might not seem out of place at the present moment, as the United States and Russia trade everything from vitriol to sanctions over their competing stances on Ukraine -- and more generally, are experiencing the worst diplomatic unraveling since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
But the riots and protests in Missouri aren’t just registering with diplomatic officials: They are also prime-time gold.
Ferguson, Mo. is second only to eastern Ukraine among global hotspots commanding the attention of Russia’s influential state television broadcasters right now. Correspondents have been dispatched to the scene, and state news channels are airing not only scenes of demonstrations on the ground in Ferguson – which is being compared to the battlefields of Iraq – but filing reports showing how the “anarchy” in St. Louis is spreading to protests as far afield as New York to San Francisco, how looting is driving more Americans to buy more guns, and how journalists, including a Washington Post reporter, were arrested by police and fired on with gas canisters.
Little in the state television reports is left to conjecture, save for an addendum offered as a tip to President Obama: that the Ferguson riots may not just be local, but have already become a national problem.
The United States' problems with racism have long been a favored topic for Russians, dating back to the heyday of the Soviet Union.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Soviet leaders pointed to the existence of Jim Crow laws in the United States as a way of asserting the moral superiority of the Soviet Union. Racism, which was illegal in the Soviet Union, was deemed a systematic byproduct of capitalism.
In the civil rights era, especially, the Soviet Union used American anti-black racism as fodder to challenge the United States’ claims to leadership of the “free world.”
Soviet and modern-day Russia alike have had their own problems with racism as well, of course – to the point where Russia was recently rated by one publication as one of the worst countries for people of color to travel in.
But that stigma doesn’t cause the Russian government to pull any punches with the United States over the situation in Ferguson – or to refrain from using it as an opportunity to highlight America’s race problems to their fullest extent.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the “police murder of an African-American teenager in the city of Ferguson” had happened in the context of the United States' generally “inhumane” treatment of black Americans, listing medicinal testing and forced sterilization of inmates who are “mostly black,” as well as police abuse of non-whites.
"The low level of American participation in international treaties on human rights does not contribute to solving these often long-standing problems," the ministry added. "Notwithstanding this, in Washington, they don't hesitate to declare their own 'exceptionalism' and leadership in the fortunes of the world."