Russophobia: Russians in the West complain as some consider them personally responsible for the conflict in Ukraine

20 Jun, 2022 08:36 / Updated 2 years ago

By Yulia Bokova, RT editor

RT talks to Russian citizens facing discrimination abroad and looks into the current situation for foreigners in the world's largest country

As Moscow's military operation continues in Ukraine, many politicians and ordinary citizens have noted a growing degree of Russophobia around the world. Back in late February, the country's Commissioner for Human Rights, Tatiana Moskalkova, claimed that Russian citizens abroad are being attacked because of their nationality or simply because they speak the language.

The Kremlin Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, has repeatedly expressed concern about the growing hostility to Russians in Western countries. “Our fellow citizens should be on the alert and exercise appropriate caution. Of course, we expect the authorities of all countries to cease making statements that fertilize the soil for this hatred and Russophobia,” Peskov noted in March.

In April, the director of the Department for Work with Compatriots Abroad, Alexander Nurizade, drew attention to the fact that “Russophobia... is becoming an ideology on which the policy of a number of states is based.” With the support of the authorities, monuments to Soviet soldier-liberators have been demolished and desecrated en masse in Poland, Lithuania, and Bulgaria.

In the Czech Republic, where relations with Russia have not always been easy, representatives of the older generation like to remind Russian tourists who are relaxing at resorts in Karlovy Vary, far from the political realm, how Soviet tanks entered Prague, while forgetting who exactly liberated the world from fascism.

Never-mind the fact that they are in need a history lesson. 1968 was very much a Soviet, not Russian invasion. The troops were ordered into Prague by two Ukrainians (Leonid Brezhnev and Nikolai Podgorny) & were under the authority of another Ukrainian (Andrey Grechko). They were commanded by a Belarusian (Ivan Yakubovsky).

“We moved to Prague 19 years ago,” says Vladimir. “During this time, we’ve put down roots and become almost native. Therefore, I couldn’t imagine that a huge part of my colleagues and, most offensively, friends, would just openly refuse to communicate with me.” 

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Vladimir, an ethnic Russian, found himself in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he met his future wife, Aliya. From there, he moved to the Czech Republic.

Today, Vladimir works as a machinist in Prague and knows the Czech language. He received citizenship a few years ago. “My wife and I don’t discuss politics with anyone. Everyone has their own opinion anyway. And most importantly, I don’t want to jeopardize our children, or risk the life and work we’ve established in a country I consider my second homeland.”

With indignation, he recalls an incident that happened this Spring: “We were walking around Prague with Aliya and saw how three Ukrainians put a Russian guy on his knees and forced him to kiss the Ukrainian flag, saying: ‘Ask forgiveness for your people.’ After that, my wife and I decided not to speak Russian in public. Only at home with each other. However, as an ethnic Kazakh, it is easier for Aliya to avoid suspicion of being connected with Russia.”

There have also been cases of Russians being denied service in restaurants in the Czech Republic. “We rarely eat out, as we like to cook, so we have not personally encountered this, but the manager of a cafe asked our friends to leave when he realized they were Russians. This, of course, is unpleasant,” explains Maria, who moved to the Czech Republic three years ago with her Ukrainian husband.

Even schoolchildren are feeling the anti-Russian sentiment. Maria Ivashova, who has lived in Prague for more than 20 years, went to a school director for an explanation after a teacher tried to force her ninth-grade daughter to tell the whole class how she could live with a clear conscience knowing that her country had “attacked Ukraine.” Another similar case occurred in an elementary school, where ten-year-old boys beat up a Russian classmate. “Most of all, I feel sorry for the children. Over many years, we have already got used to the fact that there is a negative attitude. Now it has worsened: every day, children sit at home listening to adult conversations and watching TV, where they hear about how bad Russians are. Children do not understand anything, but they begin to feel groundless hatred. Russian? It means the enemy.”

Russians in the UK are not much better off. Although, anticipating a wave of negativity, some schools sent letters to parents in advance, warning that expressions of hostility based on nationality would be met with punishment up to expulsion. Anna, who works at a London bank, received such a letter. “The relationship between children at school is already quite difficult, especially for adolescents. In a forum for Russian families in London, many parents complain that their children have been subjected to verbal and physical bullying more often,” said Anna, adding, “the classmates of my friend’s son, who she calls Vovka when picking him up from school, have begun to call him ‘Vodka.’”

It often seems that people who can hardly find Ukraine on a map, and often don’t even know the name of Russia’s capital, have become completely obsessed with the news, despite never being interested in politics before. Olga has been living and working in London for more than 15 years. She says she was unpleasantly surprised when the builders she called to repair the windows in her house asked if she was from Russia or Ukraine after hearing her speak Russian with her children. Olga now immediately cuts off such conversations and avoids speaking Russian on public transport. She recalls a blatant episode that was discussed on a Russian community forum. A passenger was talking to a child in Russian on the tube, and a stranger came up and asked if she was from Russia. On hearing a positive response, the lady demanded that the mother and child get off the train at the next station, just because of nationality. They did not resist the aggressive lady and left the car with the tacit consent of the other passengers.

According to Olga, everything is calm at work, where her professionalism is highly valued, and many colleagues support her precisely because they understand what kind of pressure is being exerted on people who aren’t openly political and “want peace."

However, not everyone has demonstrated such tact in the professional sphere. In the West, contracts with many Russian artists have been terminated. Elnara Shafigullina, an opera singer in the Netherlands, was not even fired in person; she was sacked by email. Conductor Valery Gergiev was offered a choice – either publicly condemn Russia’s special operation or say goodbye to both the Munich and Vienna Philharmonic. 

It seems Western companies cannot come to a consensus on how to handle the hate. Meta was forced to backtrack, saying they would no longer allow calls for violence against ordinary Russians. Earlier, the company had made a decision to temporarily allow Facebook and Instagram users in some countries to make violent statements against Russian military personnel. At the same time, Reuters notes that the tech giant's internal correspondence clearly stated that calls for violence were being directed not only against the Russian military, but also against Russians in general.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt has called on his country's authorities to take care of the country’s Russian community and speak out against incitement to hatred. Her Twitter post, published in Russian, stated that ordinary people are not responsible for current events in Ukraine, stressing that sanctions “are aimed at the government, not the Russian population.”

Alas, not all citizens of Western countries have embraced this concept. For many, if you do not publicly voice political views corresponding with the opinion of the West, it means you do not just hold a different position, but pose a threat to the established order of things.

Anastasia, who studied at a university in Poland and works as an architect, also says her colleagues are very friendly and have even promised to protect her from attacks. “I want to bring my mother over to live with me now, as she lives all alone in the suburbs. I understand that, because of the sanctions on Russia, things will get more expensive, and there may be problems obtaining medicine. It’s not an easy decision, but I can’t leave her alone.” Anastasia says her mother is still working, with retirement five years off, but she is very afraid of losing her job.

And her concerns are understandable. About 120,000 people are at risk of losing their jobs as a result of the withdrawal of Western companies from the Russian market. The result may be lower wages and greater competition stemming from an oversaturated labor market. Some older people will be especially vulnerable — as they may be reliant on their children.

On the other hand, new vacancies are opening up due to US calls for its citizens to leave Russia, as well difficulties arising from sanctions. However, it is not always possible to quickly find a suitable replacement for such employees. In a telephone conversation, the head of a private school in Moscow said almost all the expat teachers have quit since the end of February. And if it was hard to find a person who could teach mathematics or physics in English before, it is now simply impossible. Those who studied with native speakers online have also faced difficulties due to problems with payment systems, which have forced tutors to abandon their students in Russia. 

Irina, whose son is studying English with a native speaker from Manchester, says the teacher, fortunately, does not talk about political topics with her 12-year-old son. However, some international organizations responsible for conducting foreign language proficiency exams could not stay out of politics. Consequently, the ability to take the TOEFL or IELTS exams, for which Irina’s son was preparing, is now in question.

Kommersant reported on March 10 that the IELTS international English language assessment system had decided to cancel all exams in Russia. While the company has denied these reports, judging by the wording of its statement, it has not entirely ruled this option out either.

“In case of cancellation, we guarantee a full refund. Funds will not be frozen,” the organization stressed. Thus, for the time being, IELTS will continue conducting all scheduled English exams in Russia and function normally. Representatives of the language center added that they will inform customers of any changes in their policy.

But the American TOEFL International English Testing System has not followed suit. Russian and Belarusian citizens will no longer be able to demonstrate their level of language proficiency using this method. The test results are used by applicants to apply to foreign universities.

“To study at a Western university, of course, you need to know the language and pass an international exam. If we don’t pass this exam, we’re not going anywhere. But it still makes sense to prepare for such an exam, because everything can change, and people will probably find a way anyway,” Irina believes.

Not only do Russian students and schoolchildren have problems, but foreigners as well. Maria is studying at the Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow. Her mom is Russian, and her dad is Portuguese. Twenty years ago, her father flew to Russia on business, where he met his future wife and decided to stay forever. Maria dreams of becoming a dentist. She chose to stay in Russia to study because she believes Russian medical schools are top notch, and she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to study with real professionals. But her brother, a photographer, went to study in Western Europe.

“When events began to unfold, cell phones were simply ringing off the hook in the lecture halls,” Maria recalls. “I’m studying at the faculty for foreigners, as it was easier to do that. My classmates’ parents constantly called to ask them how they were here, begging them to fly home immediately. But they all answered that everything was calm here and, despite difficulties paying tuition fees due to Western sanctions, no one is complaining about anything. Nothing has changed.”

Finances are really difficult. Many Russian universities have shifted payment schedules for tuition and dormitory accommodation for foreign students, and some are even providing financial assistance. As a result of sanctions, many students can’t receive money transfers from abroad. The Far Eastern Federal University, in Vladivostok, where about 1,300 foreign students are currently studying, has assured its students that they will be provided with all necessary assistance to solve financial, residential, psychological, and other problems.