Russia, immigration and politics

Sometimes when I mention how much I want to do the Trans-Siberian, I get a good bit of side-eye, which can at least half the time be interpreted as, ‘Ehhh, Russia? Really?‘ And I know. Russia is a big ol’ political and moral quagmire, at least from a Western point of view. I don’t claim to be up on all the issues or anything, but Putin is doing what the hell he wants, which is usually not agreeable, and the general consensus is that most Russians love him anyway.

On the recommendation of about 5 different people, I recently had a watch of the first two episodes of Reggie Yates’ Extreme Russia, which are on extreme nationalism and discrimination against the LGBT community. In both there are some pretty damning and disturbing views on immigrants and gay people which are in most cases backed up by the state, if not actively then by an obvious lack of action to support the victims.

But these are extremists, and extremists exist everywhere. It’s just they’re so much easier to see in Russia because it’s not against the law to act on your own horribleness there. Horrible people exist around the world – it’s just a matter of how much power they’re given. And I’m sure leaving them to it without even trying to get to know the people the extremists are shouting over is giving them more power.

I can’t get behind not going to a place because the views of the leader or the state are ones I do not agree with. (If I could I’d’ve had a hard time being home during the George W Bush years!) And if I judged all Russians on the fact that the Western media tells me What They Are and What They Believe, I’d be just as bad. I can absolutely see why there’s an attitude that ‘We are not going to be what the West decides we should be’. It’s just too bad that it often takes the shape of so much blatant hate and fear.

Reggie Yates did a fair bit of digging into where people’s radical views came from – particularly admirable because he was often being directly offended while he tried to do it. He was trying pretty hard to understand these people, and the state they feel they’re protecting by maintaining these views, despite vehemently disagreeing with them.

But he also talked to plenty of people who were NOT full of hate.

I’m not naive enough to believe everyone shares my modern peace-loving, tree-hugging views on the life and the world, but I do believe that, in general,  people with a variety of competing views are not actively bothered to make a fuss about it on a daily basis. No one can be an activist 24/7, and most people are, quite frankly, not that engaged. (You can see evidence of that EVERY DAY. I know I do.) People just want to get on with life. You’ve got to do your day job and eat your breakfast and get the fucking duvet cover on. No one, or at least, very few of us, care to be at war all the time, regardless of whether we agree with the dude next to us about gay people.

So unless there’s an actual war going on, none of this is going to keep me from going to Russia.

Interestingly enough, after the first episode of Extreme Russia, I was poking around iPlayer for something else to watch and ended up settling on a thing about the Glasgow Girls. It was a pretty crazy contrast, to go from how horrible it is that these extremist Russians treat immigrants like scum to our own country’s treatment of asylum seekers. (For anyone reading this who doesn’t know, the Glasgow Girls are a group of school girls who campaigned for the release of their friend who was taken in a dawn raid while awaiting a decision on asylum in the UK. They got the backing of the community AND cross-party support in parliament.) To watch something on Russia and say that could never be us when, in some cases, it has been and IS us, particularly in matters of immigration, is just a whole load of hypocrisy.

My first vote in the UK is swiftly approaching and it should come as no surprise that immigration policy has a very significant bearing on where my support is going. There’s a lot of very thinly-veiled racism in some party policies and quite a lot of people’s views on who should and should not get to stay here. Frankie Boyle wrote a brilliant piece in the Guardian about this, which is absolutely worth a read.

I AM actually an immigrant. It seems somehow easier for people to forget this because I’m a white girl from America. But this doesn’t exclude me from immigration law and it doesn’t exclude me from feeling offended when you go on about how we shouldn’t let THOSE people in here to take our jobs and our public money. Just because I don’t have an eastern European accent or a different colour skin doesn’t make me more valuable or legit than immigrants who do.

Anyway, I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent here but my point, I think, is that there are people in the UK (and the US) with beliefs just as disturbing as what we see on TV coming out of Russia. So it stands to reason that there are also plenty of normal, friendly, decent human beings who do not make the news, who DO make the country. I’m pretty sure if I keep my common sense switched on and I don’t go ambling into a protest or a war zone, I’ll have a lovely time and meet some fantastic people. Who can maybe then explain to me why everyone loves Putin so much (if they actually do).

1 Comment

Kate! This is a great ongoing topic I hope you’ll explore in future blogs. I’m referring, of course, to the expectations we have of the people and places you visit and your actual experience in those places. My students still think all of Africa is spotted with villages and plains of grazing giraffes and zebras. The continent is basically Lion King and the people are Heart of Darkness. I bet some smaller version of this ignorance applies to every place you visit. So, more!

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