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Putin, a Rainbow Flag, and Discrimination in Russia

RUSSIA – People demonstrate as they hold a Nazi flag displaying a swastika at the stands of the Spartak Moscow supporters during the Russian Cup 1/16 soccer match finals.
Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Russian President

“In Russia, there has not been, is not, and will not be anything that is associated with restrictions on rights based on race, sexual orientation, nationality, or any religious grounds. This has never happened in Russia and never will.”


On July 3, following a national vote that took place from June 25 to July 1 and approved 206 amendments to the Russian constitution, Vladimir Putin held a virtual meeting with the members of the group that drafted the constitutional changes.

The changes included an amendment that removed legal obstacles to Putin remaining president until 2036.

At the meeting, Putin thanked the working group and asked the members to share ideas on how to safeguard and popularize the new constitution. The changes in the constitution require rewriting more than 150 federal and regional laws, banning gay marriage, mandatory studies in schools to emphasize “our moral values” and using foreign policy to project those values as a tool of soft power and influence abroad.

JUNE 11, 2020: Citizens vote in the 2020 Russian constitutional referendum in Priuralsky District of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area as early voting starts in remote Russian regions.
JUNE 11, 2020: Citizens vote in the 2020 Russian constitutional referendum in Priuralsky District of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Area as early voting starts in remote Russian regions.

Alexey Pushkov, chairman of the Federation Council’s foreign affairs committee, protested the fact that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow flew a rainbow flag the day voting on the constitutional changes began. To many, the flag is an international symbol of tolerance and diversity, especially toward the LGBTQ community.

Pushkov said the U.S. embassy’s flying of the flag signaled an “aggressive offence in the sphere of ideology and morals.” Noting the results of the vote, he added: “We gave them a very clear answer: That we are becoming a world leader in the fight for traditional values.”

Putin followed up by asking Pushkov: “I am sorry, Alexey Konstantinovitch, but who works in that building?”

Pushkov answered that he was referring to the U.S. embassy. Putin repeated the question: “I am asking who works in that building?”

“Americans, American diplomats,” Pushkov replied.

“Well, this revealed something about the people who work there,” Putin said, a comment that Reuters said was meant to mock the sexual orientation of the embassy’s staff.

“Those who attack us in this direction are banging on an open door,” Putin continued, uninterrupted. “In Russia, there has not been, is not, and will not be anything that is associated with restrictions on rights based on race, sexual orientation, nationality, or any religious grounds. This has never happened in Russia and never will.”

The claim that there is no such discrimination in Russia is false.

In fact, Russia’s recent history is replete with examples of violence, persecution of and discrimination against minorities. Below is the breakdown.

‘Striking Change’

The nature of racism in Russia does not fit into U.S. definition of black vs. white. Rather, scholars say the issue is “Russianness” – ethnic Russians’ putative genetic supremacy over “lesser” people.

A “wide dissemination of ideas of racial hierarchy, practices of racist exclusion, and racist violence” are among “the most striking changes” Russia has undergone during the last 20 years, wrote Nikolay Zakharov of Sweden’s Sedertorn University in his book, “Race and Racism in Russia.”

“There has been a genuine renaissance in Russia of ‘scientific’ racism,” Zakharov wrote in his book. This revitalized “science of race” based on biological concepts goes under a new name - “rasologiya” (a rough analogue of Nazi Germany’s Rassenkunde, or “racial science”), a bogus belief in racial hierarchy that supported Adolf Hitler’s genocidal anti-Semitism.

Black people who went to Russia to study or work, along with those born there to mixed-race families, describe racism in Russia as “casual.”Their skin color means they face an “everyday” struggle to prove they are “normal” and “human,” two young people told BBC this past June.

Racism has festered in Russian sports. In 2018 FIFA, the international governing body for soccer associations, fined Russia for racism and Russian soccer fans’ violence against black players. A year earlier, the United Nations urged Russia to “vigorously combat” neo-Nazi racism in its sports.

During his first decade as president, Putin was accused of building political capital through relationships with militant right-wing groups like the nationalist Night Wolves biker club and the Kremlin-created youth movement Nashi (Ours).

Some said Putin ignited racist violence in 2010 by publicly displaying support for neo-Nazi soccer fans. On national television, Putin visited the grave of one such fan, Yegor Sviridov, who had been killed the previous December in a street fight with men from the North Caucasus who claimed they acted in self-defense.

Sviridov’s death sparked nationwide race riots against “Caucasians” – people from Russia’s North Caucasus region who are often referred to as the “Russian blacks.” (In Russia, the term Caucasians is a reference to ethnicity rather than complexion.)

Large crowds in cities took to the streets chanting “Russia is for Russians!” Mobs attacked - and, in some cases, killed - passers-by believed to be Caucasian. Rioters in Moscow chanted and raised their arms in a Nazi-like salute.

Jewish Purges

Ethnic racism has existed throughout Russian history, Walt Richmond, a Russian studies professor and writer, told

There has been “endemic Anti-Semitism of the Russian government” beginning with Catherine the Great, the 16th Century Tsarina and continuing through 19th and 20th century pogroms (anti-Jewish purges), Richmond said. "During World War II, there were mass deportations of more than a dozen ethnic groups from their homes in the Caucasus region to prison camps in Central Asia."

Under Putin, Russian law has been amended to allow the criminalization of ethnic movements and prosecution of rights activists. This past April, for example, the Russian Prosecutor General banned the U.S. think-tank the Jamestown Foundation over its reporting on the Circassians, an ethnic group native to the North Caucasus.

LGBTQ Rights

Putin himself reportedly proposed some of the new amendments to the Russian constitution, including the one defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Gay marriage was not banned under Russia’s post-Soviet constitution.

A Russian law adopted in 2013 bans the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” and allows the government to strip parental rights and remove children from homosexual families.

Putin and other Russian officials claim the law’s sole purpose is to protect minors from potential sexual offenders. However, rights groups say the law has been used to shut down websites, force young people into mental institutions and persecute LGBTQ people.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2017 that the law is discriminatory and reinforces homophobia.

Social stigma and physical violence are targeted against people suspected of having a “non-traditional sexual orientation.” In Chechnya, gay purges led by the head of that republic’s government have resulted in the disappearance, suspected torture and execution of dozens of people.

In a move contradicting Putin’s claim about there is no discrimination against sexual minorities in Russia, two Russian nationalist groups responded to the U.S. embassy’s rainbow flag with a flash mob demonstration.

On July 1, a group called “40x40,” which believes God and Putin will raise Russia to a position of world dominance, placed a rainbow flag on the walkway in front of the American embassy in Moscow, inviting passers-by to wipe their shoes on it. Most did.

On the evening on June 29, the self-described art group “Re:Vansh” projected a video onto the facade of the U.S. Embassy. The video showed the cover of the Russian constitution, then photos of former U.S. and Russian presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin embracing and laughing. The caption in Russian read, “In 1993, it was yours.” Subsequent images in the video showed Russians voting for the constitutional reforms, with a caption reading: “In 2020 it will be ours …. No more American bookmarks along the pages of our constitution.” The video then called on Russians to vote in favor of the constitutional changes.

Re:Vansh had no online history, media citations or website prior to it flash mob action at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Its YouTube channel was created in April 2018, with a profile picture of the Russian constitution and a slogan similar to the one it used in the embassy video projection: “It was yours. Will be ours.” As of the time of this writing, the video of the U.S. embassy flash mob was the only one ever uploaded to the channel.

Attacks on Religion

Russia has a long and well-cataloged history of government persecution of and atrocities against various religious groups.

The Russian government has branded the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) an “extremist organization,” and law-enforcement agents have raided the group’s offices across Russia, confiscating their texts as evidence. JW adherents have been arrested and jailed.

In December 2018, Putin told reporters he knew nothing about the situation with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Labelling the group extremist was “complete nonsense” that should be “looked into carefully,” he said.

However, persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses has only escalated since then, Human Rights Watch reported in January. At that time, at least 313 people were facing charges, on trial or convicted of criminal extremism, the rights group said.