Putin Critics and the Racist Discourse on Ferguson

From the beginning, the tragic events in Ferguson have been a blessing for the Russian media. How dare America talk about human rights violations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine while police brutality occurs within its borders? It’s a perfect distraction from events in Ukraine and harks back to the old days of Soviet propaganda, which pointed to racism and prejudice in America to claim the moral high ground. State-controlled media and pro-Kremlin supporters on Twitter have kicked up a storm on social media using Ferguson as proof of America’s hypocrisy with a series of memes and racist jokes that have gone viral among Putin supporters.

But whereas the Soviet Union expressed consistent solidarity with anti-racist movements in America as part of larger class struggles, the Russian media shows no sympathy for the actual demonstrators on the ground in Ferguson and other American cities. The goal is to discredit the US, Obama and the entire West in the eyes of Russians and Ferguson perfectly fits the bill. While the Russian media shamelessly exploits the protests surrounding Ferguson as part of the Kremlin’s strategy of “weaponizing” information, the response from Russia’s so-called liberal opposition has also been quite disturbing. Putin’s staunchest political opponents also took to Twitter to express their views on the protests.

Mark Feygin – a prominent lawyer and politician famous for representing Pussy Riot in court – tweeted: “As always in America criminal movements like Ferguson are supported by freaks and good-for-nothings of all sorts”.

Feygin goes on to make a comparison to last year’s Maidan protests by tweeting that the Maidan expressed legitimate “legal demands” whereas dismissing the unrest in Ferguson as “lawlessness”. That’s right, Russia’s leading human rights lawyer currently defending Ukrainian captured pilot Nadezhda Savchenko thinks people protesting against police brutality in America are nothing but petty criminals.

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most well-known anti-Putin activist, also appeared to express his approval of the Ferguson ruling as an example of the independence of America’s judicial system.

Looking at the US through the lens of Russia’s vertical of power, Navalny admits being impressed by the legal proceedings and the powerlessness of the White House to influence the court by tweeting the following: “Obama’s response to the grand jury ruling on the innocence of the police office. He’s obviously unhappy with the decision, but it’s the verdict”

Influential Russian blogger and Putin critic, Rustem Adagamov also chimed in with some sly remarks.

“Unhappy with the grand jury’s decision, Ferguson’s black residents started their protest by robbing liquor stores”

“Ferguson resident disgruntled by the grand jury decision”

Pavel Senko, a Russian-American blogger based in California with a large Twitter following says that “Ferguson’s problem is one of poorly educated and uncultured residents, who are predisposed то violence and crime. Despite society’s best efforts”.

The anonymous Ukrainian Twitter account @sranysovok, which usually posts sarcastic memes and tweets about Putin and Ukraine’s breakaway regions, took a break from events in Ukraine to poke fun at Ferguson protesters in New York.

“Homeless hippies always blame capitalists for everything”

Numerous other examples illustrate this tendency among pro-democracy activists and Putin critics – in both Russia and Ukraine – to express their disdain for the Ferguson protests. This is partly a knee-jerk reaction to Russian propaganda’s coverage of Ferguson. If the Kremlin seeks to use Ferguson to discredit America and liberal democracies, Russian opposition leaders jump to the other extreme by expressing their unequivocal support of America’s judicial system. But this is only part of the answer. The more disturbing reality is that racism and xenophobia permeate Russian society regardless of political affiliation and one’s attitudes towards the Putin regime. Whether in the eyes of the vast majority of Russians, the events in Ferguson are framed as a “black” problem – whether they are generally pro- or anti-American.

More bizarrely still, Putin opponents are increasingly equating the Russian-backed rebels with protesters in Ferguson. The scenes of looting in Ferguson are immediately associated with the looting that took place by rebels in and around Donetsk earlier this year. In the minds of many Russians opposed to the war in Ukraine, poverty and backwardness are intrinsically linked to specific racial and class backgrounds, creating a very skewed, prejudiced and inaccurate generalizing view of the outside world. The voices of Ferguson protests and their demands are drowned out by the disinformation of state-controlled media in Russia and the predominance of explicit and implicitly racist views among Russians of all walks of life.

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