Olympics, Oligarchs, and Orientalism

The Olympics are underway in Russia right now. With countless people flocking to the southern city of Sochi, the internet has been transformed into a discussion about the current state of the Russian Federation.

People are buzzing with the talk of Pussy Riot, Mikhail Khordokovsky, LGBTQ issues, terrorism, Russian corruption and despotism, and the relationship between Russia and the West.

Most importantly, however, is the fact that Sochi doesn’t look like what journalists and athletes anticipated.


Look at this mud! We don’t have mud like this in America!

This is evidenced by the brilliant, five-star reporting done by hard-hitting investigative reporters like those at CNN and the Washington Post.

Lack of hot water and internet? What is this!? Russia is awful!

At first, I too thought it was a little funny. I lived in Russia a few years ago and I’m also guilty of laughing at the seeming irrationality of the place. It’s certainly different than other countries I had seen. And those differences can be a little difficult to get used to.

But after the first 5 or 6 posts laughing at the unpreparedness of Sochi, I noticed something much more sinister about this collective Russia-bashing. It wasn’t situational. This is a very classical general attitude towards Russia – Europe’s stupid, backwards cousin.

The stereotypes of Russians abound, but the stereotypes of Russia are just as malevolent.

The stupid, backwards people can’t escape their stupid, backwards culture. And the worst part is that they don’t see how stupid and backwards they really are!

That’s why we, the Enlightened West, need to show them!

This attitude amounts to nothing less than Orientalism. Russia is a perfect case of Oriental despotism and savagery. Their government doesn’t look like ours, act like ours, or talk like ours. The people may look like us (white people), but they certainly don’t act or talk like us!

Therefore, we carry this disposition towards Russia that paints it as the embarrassing family member.

You know, the one you never want to talk to, but has a lot of money and influence. Your cousin Vladimir, drinking excessively and insisting that homosexuality “just isn’t natural”.

Sochi Olympics is Russian

“Extremely Russian” is code for the Huffington Post. It means “We’re about to make some stereotypical generalizations that if we said about People of Color would be considered incredibly racist.”

The worst part about Vladimir though? He doesn’t share your sacred values. He doesn’t appear to love democracy in the same way that you do. He doesn’t talk about free speech in the same way that you do.

After all, that’s what the whole Pussy Riot situation was about, right? Freedom of speech!

Despite the fact that Pussy Riot has said explicitly that the point is to actively break the law: “Our performances are always illegal, staged in unpredictable locations not designed for traditional entertainment.”

I’m not defending the Russian law, which I find absurd, but this outcry from the West over Pussy Riot is so overblown when compared with all the people who didn’t break the law and were still convicted of crimes.

It’s also interesting that the West is so quick to jump on the “lack of free speech” in Russia, but so quiet when “free speech” rights are transgressed by the United States. Why does everyone know about Pussy Riot, but no one knows about Tarek Mahenna?


Thank God that Madonna, who has a totally consistent record of speaking out against human rights abuses, stood up for Pussy Riot!

What about LGBTQ rights?

This is one of the gems of the Enlightened West today. Russia is a den of homophobia, whereas Europe and America are shining beacons of equality for queers and transpeople! Of course, we ignore the fact that 8 U.S. states have basically the same anti-LGBTQ laws.

Coincidentally, no one wants to mention that while industrial capitalist Europe was getting over the first World War and fascist movements were growing, the Soviet Union was the first state in the world to decriminalize homosexuality.

God forbid we talk about history. That might require us to think about our stereotypes and how we focus on hot-button issues without talking about larger narratives.


This leads to a more interesting point: our narratives, the stories we tell about ourselves and others, are one-dimensional and ridiculously unhelpful.

Why is that? Why is it that you can probably tell me a bunch of bad things that the Soviet Union did, but not one good thing? Really? 70 years and not one good thing?

But we like to have these hot-button issues. Pussy Riot, Queer/Transphobia, and Mikhail Khordokovsky are wonderfully convenient lightning rods. If you don’t know who Khordokovsky is, then you should probably be warned that he’s characterized as a “pro-democracy business tycoon.”

If you don’t see the silliness of the label “pro-democracy business tycoon”, allow me to explain.

Khodokovsky wants power in Russia and he’s against Putin.

This qualifies as the perfect West’s wet-dream of “democracy in Russia”. The same West who showered praise upon Boris Yeltsin, who was “responsible for the violent deaths of more Russian citizens than any Kremlin leader since Joseph Stalin.

Khordokovsky is one of the people known in Russia as the Oligarchs. These people received huge amounts of private property after the collapse of the USSR simply by having it given to them by their friends. The Oligarchs have subsequently amassed huge amounts of wealth and basically run things along with the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country is still, 20 years later, languishing in the backlash of the dismantling of the Soviet Union.


Funk. Soul. Brother.

Despite all of this talk about human rights and freedom, most Americans actually didn’t want the Olympics in Russia because of “security concerns” (although 4% simply answered “Don’t like Russia”). Sochi isn’t all that far from Chechnya and Dagestan and Americans are worried about separatists performing some spectacular terrorist act.

Before we talk about the prospects of terrorism, we should probably talk about the context.

After Yeltsin dissolved the USSR with two men in a forest (super democratic, by the way), the former Soviet Republics were given independence from Russia (or Russia was given independence from them). Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the rest of the Stans all became sovereign nation-states.

When this was happening, the people in the Caucasus saw a possibility to achieve victory in their centuries-long struggle for independence from Russia.

Yeltsin’s response was to invade and kill over a hundred thousand people (80% civilians). Putin, not to be outdone, escalated the second Chechen War immediately after being appointed president in 1999, killing 100,000 more people (and yet again about 80% were civilians).

Isn’t it interesting that the liberals who are so concerned with human rights aren’t calling for the independence of Chechnya?

Yet in 2008, when China hosted the Olympics, they were just oh so concerned with the independence of Tibet! Because the Dalai Lama remains the darling of the West. Of course, no one wants to talk about its brutal, theocratic past, because that would require a challenge of a standard narrative that all Tibetans are Buddhists.

And, unlike those barbaric Muslims, Buddhists are all passive and non-violent!

Why was no one talking about independence for Xinjiang in 2008? Why was no one talking about Canada’s occupation and repression of American Indians in 2010?

Those don’t fit nicely into our narratives.


This doesn’t look like Tibet so I don’t care about it.

So are Americans justified in having security concerns about the Olympics in Sochi? Totally.

I’ve been saying that there should be security concerns since I saw Putin’s stupid speech about how great Sochi is. Terrorism is a real threat to any large event, because that’s how terrorists function. And terrorism does in fact occur in Russia.

But my question is this: where are all these Enlightened liberals calling for an end to the occupation of Chechnya and Dagestan? They seem to care more about Gay Pride Parades than the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

Not that I don’t love a good Gay Pride Parade!


Is “Blood-Lust” a double entendre here?

Ultimately, however, I think it’s obvious why American and European liberals aren’t talking about Chechnya. Chechnya happens to be a place more foreign to us than Russia itself.

It’s a case of competing Orientalisms.

Russians are stupid, backwards white people, but Chechens are Muslims.

Vladimir might be our drunk, homophobic cousin, but he’s still our cousin.

So all the liberals can go on watching the games and rooting for their respective national teams. Enjoy the games while the most expensive Olympics ever leads to more money in Putin’s silk pockets. Go ahead and continue to accuse Russia and the Russians of being backwards.

But don’t forget that Europe and the United States are no better.


Let’s Talk About Race, Baby


I’m going to break my usual rule and tell a personal story. When I was 13, I was ticketed for smoking a cigarette in Lansing, Illinois. I struck up a cigarette and walked into an alley. Moments later a cop car drove up and I was busted. The cop reminded me that it was a crime for me to smoke (especially five years under the legal age) and wrote me a nice little yellow ticket.

A month later, my mother had to drive me to the courthouse in order to deal with the situation.

For about an hour we sat in a crowded room as the district judge read off sentences for petty crimes. Finally, he came to what he called his “favorite part“: underage smoking. One by one he called off names in reverse alphabetical order. And one by one young men stood in front of him as he ordered them to pay $100 fines.

My name was one of the last he called. I walked to the front and he asked me if I was indeed smoking a cigarette. When I replied in the affirmative, he nodded, said that I looked like a “decent young man” and slapped me with a $50 fine.

This was my first conscious experience with racism.

You see, all the other boys who stood up in front of him were different from me in only one way – they were black. They were young black boys who received no kind words from this white judge. None of them looked like “decent” young men. They were all dressed as nicely as I was. They all walked up with their mothers like I did. They all stood there with their heads down, knowing the trouble they were in. But they received totally different treatment.

I was a misguided boy. They were criminals.

And even this first moment of recognizing racism was a moment of absurd privilege. Not only because I received clemency, but also because I was 13 years old. All of these other boys had experienced racism their entire lives. They were already conscious of race. It took me 13 years to see racism and that, in and of itself, was based on structural privilege.

The reason I’m telling this story is because it’s February again. Black History Month has begun and already the white people in America have shifted from talking about the Superbowl to talking about how black people don’t deserve a month to remember their history.

Why isn’t there a White History Month?

As if this wasn’t the single dumbest question on the planet.

Let’s pretend for a second that this question isn’t the most racist thing you could possibly ask.

I’d like you to think about 5 famous white Americans who lived before World War 2.

I bet that wasn’t too difficult.

Now, I’d like you to take a moment and think about 5 famous African Americans who lived before World War 2.

I bet you’re having a hard time coming up with five.

This is why we need Black History Month.

Black History Month traces its roots back to Carter G. Woodson in order to keep the history of African Americans alive. In order to show that black people have helped weave the fabric of the society from the beginning, despite being relegated to the status of slaves and second-class citizens. The sacrifices and struggles of black people is totally white-washed (pun intended) and glossed over in the classrooms of the United States.

Especially in predominantly white schools.

Now, there are some interesting critiques of Black History Month, but I can assure you that none of them are coming from white people. Why is this? It’s because white people today don’t understand racism. In fact, my experience at the courthouse has been one of my only personal encounters with such obvious racism, which wouldn’t have occurred if I had gotten ticketed in a predominantly white community.

Why isn’t there White History Month?

Because we don’t need a White History Month. All the history you were taught up through high school was white history.

And it was certainly His-story, because not only was it racist, but it was absolutely biased with patriarchy as well.

Let’s run through the standard curriculum of high school history classes. You start in Egypt with “the birth of civilization” and then you switch over to Mesopotamia for a week or two. And then by the end of the first month, you’re smack-dab into European history. Greece, Rome, Byzantium. But wait, what happened to Egypt?

Ah, you see, this is the beauty of it all. “Civilization” only refers to Western civilization.

Subsaharan Africa is never discussed. Central Asia is never discussed (meaning the Mongol Empire is almost totally ignored). East Asia is barely discussed (The Chinese invented paper!). And the pre-Columbian (that is, before Columbus) Americas are barely discussed, except to say that they were brutal and savage, but were also in tune with nature like Pocahontas and stuff.

After the fall of Constantinople (not called “the rise of Istanbul” for some reason) in 1453, the Reformation is briefly covered without mentioning the terribly bloody wars that ravaged the European continent. And then we have the heroic, round-earthed Columbus “discovering” America (actually Hispaniola!) in 1492 and then the birth of America with Jamestown!

No mention of the Ottoman Empire in this period. No mention of South Asia. No mention even of the Europeans and Africans who came to America between Columbus and Jamestown!

We’re left to our own devices to discern that there was history happening in this period, because the textbooks don’t bother covering it.

And neither do the teachers (with a few exceptions).

After Jamestown, we have the “Founding Fathers” (who were all rich, white men who just happened to enslave black people and own women). Then we have a brief discussion on slavery, which is solved with Abraham Lincoln saving all the black folks. Then a glossing over of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. A line or two about how we used Chinese slaves to build the transcontinental railroads. And on to World War 2, which is going to take up a good month and a half.

No mention of the Plains Wars. Nothing on the peonage system that basically kept African Americans enslaved in huge parts of the South. Definitely nothing on the African American struggle for equality during this period, because that doesn’t start until Rosa Parks sits on a bus.

I’m not slandering Rosa Parks here, I’m just pointing out that the history that is taught is so contrived and demarcated so poorly that it’s almost not even worth talking about. And after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there’s no discussion about the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, or the Nation of Islam.

God forbid we talk about any level of radical movements for equality!

Meanwhile, all the white kids at school are wondering, “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”


Just as African Americans are part of the tapestry of the history, culture, and society of America, so is the racism that has attempted to neutralize and destroy the African American struggle for equality. White people don’t see that, because they haven’t experienced it. And they haven’t experienced it, because they haven’t learned about it.

Why isn’t there a White History Month?

Because the history of the United States isn’t centered on the systematic oppression and subjugation of white people.

It wasn’t black slavemasters whipping white slaves for centuries.

It wasn’t black mobs lynching white men less than 100 years ago.

It wasn’t a black judge giving white boys inflated fines for smoking cigarettes.

Black History Month doesn’t “divide us”, racism does.

So why don’t you use this month to learn about it?