A lot of what I do with respect to the issues of Russia and U.S.-Russia relations is intended to educate an English-speaking audience about Russia in a fair-minded and fact-based way. That includes encouraging citizen diplomacy and writing about what Russia is really like as opposed to all the misinformation the average American is bombarded with. In my writing I try to explain Russia’s history, geography and culture in order to give Americans an understanding of what shapes Russia’s worldview and perceived interests. A huge portion of that writing involves critiquing and countering US/UK writers who say uninformed things about Russia, thereby contributing to inflammatory rhetoric and unnecessary conflict with the world’s other nuclear superpower. So I feel compelled to point out when a Russian writer does something similar with an English-speaking audience that is just as unhelpful.
On August 2nd, Alexander Lebedev published an oped at RT discussing incidents of anti-Russian bigotry that he has encountered while traveling and working abroad. Given that he chose to publish this piece in an English-speaking outlet, his audience and the people he is making his case to are presumably those in the English-speaking world, a significant chunk of which will be Americans.
At one point, after relaying a list of incidents (including the denial of a proposal to make modern electric ships in coastal Italy and having to drop the idea of a lawsuit against a baker in Britain whom he accidentally overpaid by $300,000), he makes a comparison to Black Lives Matter (BLM): Russia Lives Matter:
So, I have been thinking: perhaps it’s time we started our own movement called Russian Lives Also Matter! Sure, you could say that measures taken by the West against Russian tycoons (some have sanctions imposed on them, some are denied citizenship or kicked out of countries, others had their legally acquired Cyprus citizenship revoked) are partly compensated by their massive wealth – but shouldn’t they enjoy the same rights as everyone else?
This reference to Russian Lives Matter was also included in the headline. This was an unfortunate misstep by Lebedev. The examples of bigotry cited in the article, while they are unfair and should be called out, are not by any stretch of the imagination comparable to black Americans being murdered by the police.
There is debate within the US about the direction BLM has taken since it started out in response to the police killing of an unarmed black man named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. However, it was still a hugely disproportionate analogy for Lebedev to make.
There clearly is bigotry against Russians in US media, politics and culture (and elsewhere in the west) – which I have written extensively about – and I think Lebedev’s larger point about it being a problem that needs to be addressed is valid. But disproportionate and exaggerated comparisons are not helpful and will make some of the Americans – who are a part of the intended audience he’s clearly trying to appeal to – think that he’s an out-of-touch billionaire trying to compare his travails to that of low-income minorities who are being killed by police. Consequently, they will be a lot less likely to take him seriously and undermine the cause he is trying to bring attention to. In that case, I’m not sure what the practical point of his piece was.
We need to do everything possible to encourage diplomacy and programs that will pave the way for mutual understanding between the world’s two nuclear superpowers – which gives both countries and both peoples a special responsibility in the world. Uninformed and/or inflammatory rhetoric on either side is a huge obstacle to this goal. It would help for everyone on both sides to take this responsibility seriously and be more thoughtful about what they say publicly.