Jonathan Wilson’s Guardian article on Brazilians playing for Ukrainian team Shakhtar Donetsk is a fascinating read. Wilson primarily focuses on Douglas Costa’s journey from Brazil to Ukraine and the struggles that Brazilian players endure when they uproot from familiar surroundings and head to new frontiers.
But perhaps just as interesting as the article are the exchanges in the comment section about racism in Ukraine and Russia.
While I have noted my concerns on Russia’s race problem in an earlier piece, Wilson’s commenters raise questions about Ukraine, specifically wondering why Ukraine is seemingly able to steer clear of some of the race problems that face Russian society. One commenter, Antoshka, offers the following explanation:
Modern Ukrainian society shares many common features with Russia but it lacks the nationalist fanaticism which drives Russia’s racial violence. Ukraine is too ethnically diverse for the kind of ethno-nationalism which has taken hold of Russia, and too mired in an ongoing national identity crisis to become a breeding ground for chauvinism and xenophobia.
Modern Ukrainian attitudes towards race will often shock Western audiences which have grown unused to such bluntness (see Blokhin’s comments), but to Ukrainians multiculturalism has been a way of life for centuries and is not something they see any need to be squeamish about. Locals in Shakhtar’s home region, the Donbass, like to claim that there are over 100 nationalities living in the area. The miracle of Ukraine is that it exists at all – somehow avoiding bloodshed and Balkanisation these past 20 years.
Responding to Antoshka’s comment, another commenter, Colchonero, challenged his premise:
Antoshka: you are obviously not black. Every non-white friend I have in Ukraine has either been beaten up by pissed up locals or hassled by the coppers. And some of the comments I hear from so-called educated people here really beggar belief when it comes to talking about Jews and Muslims. Did you see the police targeting Bangladeshi traders in Troeshchina Market a few weeks ago? Bangladeshis who have actually lived here long enough to take out Ukrainian nationality. Interesting that the white market traders weren’t hassled. Add to that the monkey chants I’ve heard in a few stadiums here and it makes me wonder what planet you are on.
I love living here but the racism f**** me off.
These are two views on the same country that seem perfectly reasonable on their face, but reflect polar opposite realities. So which perspective is more accurate?
Discrimination discussions are inherently complex, partially because perspectives are often firmly rooted in personal experience. While it is perfectly reasonable that Antoshka’s world view allows him to see one Ukraine, the daily reality of others, who are often the targets of abuse and don’t have the ability to escape their skin color, reveal another experience that is hard to access and fully appreciate if you don’t spend time in that world. Reasonable, well-intentioned people may not fully comprehend the reality of targeted groups in countries where the press routinely ignores or under-reports such activity and where immigrant communities are often stuffed in the trunk of mainstream life. It’s in these places where immigrant and minority groups without champions in the media and in politics get routinely overlooked. And what remains are the diametrically opposed views of Anoshkas and Colchoneros, both seemingly looking at the same country.
This leaves outsiders in a challenging position of decoding the reality on the ground. Thankfully, there are other voices to help fill in the gaps. Human rights organizations suggest that serious racial and ethnic violence exists in Ukraine, just as it does in Russia, contrary to Antoshka’s reasonable-sounding views. Consider the words of Charles Asante-Yeboa, President of the African Center of Kyiv, a Ghanaian immigrant who has been living in Ukraine for over a decade:
In January 2008, I was returning home from a meeting with a Nigerian man who had been a victim of a violent racist attack a few days earlier. Standing at the bus stop near Shuliavska metro station, I was suddenly attacked by a group of young men. One of the attackers first hit me with a metal bar in the back of the head, as others–up to 15 persons–joined in kicking and beating me with a variety of objects. I was also stabbed in several places, including one deep wound in the back of my head. The attackers shouted “let’s slit his throat” and “no, let’s cut his head in two.” I kept struggling for my life until a minivan approached, causing them to flee. I am yet to recover fully from the wounds that I suffered, and the memory of that evening still makes me cautious as I walk down even busy city streets. Furthermore, I am still waiting for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. Like in most other cases of racist violence in Ukraine, there is a general climate of impunity for those who commit these brazen acts of discrimination. (via Huffington Post)
Russia is not Ukraine as Antoshka points out. But the stories that come out of the two countries regarding the treatment of foreigners by segments of the population are eerily similar. Yet, we repeatedly see diverging perspectives on what is really happening on the ground. Some frame the problem as out of control, while others are borderline dismissive.
Which brings me back to the 2018 Russia World Cup, media coverage and reporting.
Given what seems to be the reality of many foreigners in these countries and the absence of serious coverage, it’s easy to wonder whether we can rely on local media to adequately detail the realities of foreign-looking communities. But then again, I don’t speak Russian. Maybe they already do. What we have heard are voices associated with the Russian bid team downplaying intolerance, providing little acknowledgment of what others see as a serious problem. Representatives have shown a tendency to shift attention, highlighting the fact that Russia does have some issues, but nothing that would distinguish it from other countries. Russian Prime Minister Vladamir Putin has told us that racism is a worldwide problem. We’ve been told that there are black players playing across these regions as if that sheds light on the ultimate issue.
These are all evasive responses. The fact that racism is a worldwide problem or that black players exist in Russia doesn’t tell us whether foreign-looking people face a legitimate threat of violence that should raise concern. An NGO report with a methodology, however, and the words of long-time residents, like Asante-Yeboa, do.
Let’s quickly revisit South Africa. You couldn’t read an article on the South African World Cup without a reference to crime. But let’s not forget that the South African crime statistics were, and still are, readily available. People quoted them left and right. That’s because the government was already concerned about how crime affects its people. They had to be concerned because the topic was already a fixture among South Africans and the South African media. The area of concern was visible for all to see.
Can the same be said for Russia? How much attention do the general population, media, and government pay to the treatment of marginalized people? From the outside, it seems that the answer is: “Not much.” And that matters, especially if Russia is presumably inviting all of us to come and celebrate with them.
As we move towards 2018, it is imperative that someone begins to seriously report on the reality of what is happening on the ground in Russia. The safety of the foreign-looking public that may descend on Russia in 2018 depends on it. It’s a factor that people deserve to understand before making such an expensive decision.
But this shouldn’t solely be about foreigners interested in traveling to a World Cup for a few weeks in eight years. The safety of those who live in Russia now deserve the spotlight. Those living there now need others to actually understand their plight rather than just continue using their struggle as a pawn in a political catfight that seems to be more about bruised egos than genuine outrage at the treatment of other human beings.
From what we’ve seen thus far, we shouldn’t expect parties aligned with the bid to give us an honest, accurate assessment of what is really a public safety issue. Instead, we should probably expect a continued, information-free deflection strategy that reeks of public relations-trained professionals staying on message if the past year is a signal of things to come.
So who do we turn to for information?
Hopefully, as we move closer to the World Cup, the international media steps up if others are unwilling. Questions need to be asked repeatedly until informed, satisfactory answers are given. Providing satisfactory answers should be a host’s responsibility. But in the absence of a host taking on that responsibility, it becomes the media’s responsibility. The BBC has taken several in-depth looks into the issue. But countless other outlets seem content waxing lyrical about infrastructure and bribery, only touching on the race problem in the most cursory of ways. When it comes to discussions on racism, one can only hope that this doesn’t become an eight year exercise in generic racism rhetoric, because enough is on the table for us to demand facts, figures and anecdotal evidence, not only from Russia, but from the international media.
Now you wouldn’t know this by reading the major English media outlets, but covering Peter Odemwingie’s thoughts isn’t the only avenue to cover this issue. For those who don’t know Odemwingie, he is a Nigerian international (Nigerian father/Russian mother), who was born and raised in the former Soviet Union. He recently left Locomotiv Moscow under interesting circumstances, moving to West Bromwich Albion of the English Premier League. Since his move, Odemwingie has become the English media’s poster child for ‘otherness’ in Russia, while simultaneously becoming a symbol of lazy journalism. I mean how many articles can be written about Odemwingie and his views on race in Russia? There’s this one (Goal.com), and this one (The Guardian – UK), and this one (Sports Illustrated), and this one (ESPN). Unfortunately, these days, if racism in Russia is the topic, your choices are probably going to be Peter Odemwingie or silence. Sadly, it’s journalism at its most lethargic by professionals outlets that seem to recognize the outrage, but have shown little effort to dig into the substance.
If there’s a problem (and there’s enough evidence to suggest there is), Russians voices aren’t the only one’s to blame for the silence. There’s plenty of blame for those who seem to recognize the issue, but can only get as far as Peter Odemwingie when plenty of other informed sources are available.
It’s time to move past Odemwingie, vague complaining and finger pointing. It’s time to figure out the reality between the divergent views. Otherwise, spare us the repetition. We all get the surface story about what’s supposed to be there. It’s time to probe into what lies beneath it.
(Note: It’s worth noting that a lot of the anecdotal evidence I’ve come across is geographically focused in urban centers — e.g. Kyiv, St. Petersburg, Moscow.)