The Curious Case of ‘Russian Lives Matter’
In Moscow, the Kremlin attacks U.S. racism while the liberal opposition ignores it, or worse.
As Black Lives Matter protests spread across the globe, Russia has proven a notable exception. There have been solidarity demonstrations and localized movements against racism and police violence in Helsinki; Almaty, Kazakhstan; and Vilnius, Lithuania; but no such scenes in Moscow. Instead, Russia has used the civil unrest in the United States to continue its history of reflecting the United States’ most unbecoming aspects on itself. The Russian government and its liberal opposition alike have used their platforms to discredit the relatively peaceful spirit of the demonstrations and project ideas of U.S. weakness. And in doing so, the opposition stands to harm its larger fight against Russian state oppression.
The development of the “Russian Lives Matter” social media movement is perhaps the strongest example of how the liberal opposition in Russia has unwittingly aided its government in subverting a global anti-racist effort. Russian Lives Matter started after police raided a home in Yekaterinburg and killed a resident on May 31. Since the police shooting, members of Russia’s libertarian movement, including Libertarian Party leader Mikhail Svetov, have used the hashtag to shed light on Russian police violence against citizens. The hashtag is not a show of solidarity with the internationally known Black Lives Matter movement. Instead, #RussianLivesMatter has been used to undermine the American fight against systemic racism by downplaying the impact of racism against African Americans, by suggesting police killings of Black Americans were deserved, and by framing empathy towards victims of police violence in Russia as a zero-sum game.
The hashtag itself hints at the exclusionary undertones of the movement’s participants. In a recent podcast interview with the independent Russian media site Meduza, Svetov made clear that his concern was not racism, but police violence against ethnic Russians (a point he drove home by using the word russkie, meaning ethnic Russian, rather than the more all-encompassing rossiyane). Asked whether policing in Russia is influenced by race, Svetov demurred saying it depended on the region, noting that in Chechnya, for example, police violence is focused on Russians. In truth, much Russian police violence is targeted at ethnic minorities and migrants from Central Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, as can be seen in recent cases such as the September 2019 police torture of two Uzbek migrants and the June interrogation of Afro-Russian blogger Mariya Tunkara.
The omission of minorities from the Russian Lives Matter movement coincides with outright dismissals of Black Lives Matter, as Meduza noted, with supporters on Twitter saying things such as “I don’t give a damn about blacks in America when they’re lynching Russians in Yekaterinburg.” Prominent Russian journalist Oleg Kashin added to the racist imagery online by posting a meme of Martin Luther King Jr. surrounded by shoeboxes and cellphone boxes with the text “Martin Looter King.”
Such racist sentiments have placed members of the Russian opposition in strange proximity to the government. Russian liberals who have vociferously opposed President Vladimir Putin’s regime are now silent at best and parrot Moscow’s messaging at worst. Russian liberals such as Ksenia Sobchak, who ran against Putin in 2018, and the high-profile journalist Yulia Latynina have gone a step further, writing articles and creating social media posts that focus on looting, property damage, and a perceived lack of law and order in the United States—a near mirroring of government media, which portrays U.S. society in a state of chaos. Sobchak recently lost her job as a spokeswoman for Audi after posting a racist tirade on Instagram describing Black Americans as stupid and lazy. Latynina’s recent op-ed in Novaya Gazeta compared the Black Lives Matter movement with Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests to undermine African American complaints of racism. “That is why it is ridiculous and shameful to regard these pogroms as ‘rebellion against the system,’ and to equate the rioters and even peaceful protests with those who really risk their lives when they go to the Maidan or Tiananmen Square.” The protests, she wrote, were “pogroms” and the protesters “hooligans.”
The language echoes that of Russian state-controlled media. News sites such as RT and Sputnik have published articles decrying the “woke mafia” and focusing on an alleged rise in crime following demands to defund the police. Even the famous film Brother 2 received a new ending—Russian viewers of state-controlled Channel One were surprised to see images of looting and police violence at the U.S. protests juxtaposed with the song “Goodbye America.”
Moscow, meanwhile, has used the opportunity to undermine U.S. legitimacy at home. In a recent interview, Putin pointed to the U.S. protests and Washington’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic to contrast Russia’s rigorous law-and-order response.
This instance is hardly the first time Russia has sought to exploit U.S. racial issues, particularly police and civilian violence towards African Americans, for domestic and geopolitical purposes. During the 2016 presidential election, Russian operatives targeted African American communities with disinformation, including posts on police mistreatment of African Americans and posts on Instagram promoting Black women and beauty. The Internet Research Agency also created content on YouTube that focused on the Black Lives Matter movement.
These well-documented efforts demonstrate how systemic racism and police brutality against American civilians and specifically African Americans present a national security problem for the United States. Of course, the genesis of the threat is not Russia’s meddling, but the United States’ failure to address centuries-old systemic racism, which hands authoritarian regimes such as Russia’s an opportunity to undermine U.S. foreign policy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. When Russia uses state-sanctioned violence against ethnic minorities and political opponents, can the United States project itself as a counter to this regime? As U.S. policymakers learned in the competition against the Soviet Union for influence in the newly independent African states during the 1960s, they cannot successfully promote democratic values abroad when U.S. citizens are denied their rights at home.
With the 2020 election on the horizon, Ukraine’s pivot toward the European Union, and an impending revision of the Russian Constitution that would extend Putin’s term limit, it is a critical moment for U.S.-Russia relations. And the failure of Washington to uphold fundamental rights within the United States will endanger the opposition in Russia and elsewhere.
Russia’s opposition, for its part, has missed a critical chance to build transnational solidarity against police brutality. In using the notoriety of the United States’ Black Lives Matter slogan and American white supremacy logic to shed light on Russian police brutality and promote ethnic Russian nationalism, opposition members have undermined their own cause. In its eagerness to ignore the role of racism in Russia, the Russian Lives Matter movement has inadvertently stumbled on the same messaging as Putin’s regime. In the long run, this can only hurt its cause. Putin has no problem using the police and accusations of hooliganism to stop public demonstrations against his regime. Now, Moscow can point to the very logic of the opposition regarding the protests in the United States amid any accusations of state oppression.
Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon is a doctoral student in history at the University of Pennsylvania focusing on Black experiences and ideas of race, ethnicity, and nationality policy in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet space. She has written on these topics in various publications, including the Moscow Times, Krytyka (Ukraine), and the Kennan Institute’s Russia File blog. Her digital curriculum vitae can be viewed at www.kstjulianvarnon.com.