“England pays for its tolerance,” ran the headline in one leading Russian daily, as rioting swept the UK. There was a similar gleefulness to other reports here in Moscow of the disturbances, many of which focused on “immigrant rioters.” But these articles perhaps said much more about Russian xenophobia than the real situation in London and other cities.
When I spoke to family members and friends in the cities hit by rioting, it was notable that not one of them mentioned the racial make-up of the rampaging mobs. Russians, however, were obsessed with the theme.
"The foolishness with which Europe regards its historical past has led to the filling of its cities with migrants from the Third World, many of whom do not give a damn about European values," Mikhail Margelov, a Russian senator and head of the State Duma's international affairs committee, said.
Or, as a colleague put it, "You let these people in to your country and this is what they do."
The Komsomolskaya Pravda paper went even further, putting forward the view that the disturbances would sweep over “all of England and lead to genuine chaos in the country.” It even suggested that “radical Islamists” would team up with the looters.
“And then,” the piece went on, positively foaming with the anticipation of more schadenfreude to come, “the disorder will spread to the continent…”
The reports of “immigrant violence” also saw Russia’s wanna-be Breiviks flock to internet forums to give vent to their pet racial supremacy theories. Many of them were undoubtedly among the thousands here who subscribed to a now deleted site formed in honor of the Norwegian psycho.
But CCTV images released by police and media footage indicated that the looters were a fairly multi-racial group, united only in their desire to blag a new pair of trainers or a nifty laptop. Indeed, one report spoke of white children as young as 10 looting shops in Enfield.
There were, of course, Russian voices of dissent.
“This disorder isn’t connected in any way with skin color!” one reader commented on the article. “Just look at the photos and videos! There are blacks and whites there.” “England has a massive underclass – of all colors,” another pointed out.
Whatever the riots are a sign of, it’s probably wrong to say they reflect racial tensions in the UK. The initial spark may have been the shooting of a young black man by police, but it’s likely that a fair number of the “feral rats” tearing the country apart were entirely unaware of the incident that led to Britain’s summer of discontent.
So why did so many Russians get so worked up about the ethnicity of the rioters?
Well, for a start, it was the lazy way to report the story. With a few notable exceptions, Russian journalists are generally extremely reticent to do any real reporting. The foreign correspondents for many Russian media organizations generally shy away from actually going out and talking to people on the streets. The “immigrant angle” is by far the easiest to write up, and also has the advantage of pandering to widespread racial intolerance at home.
But there was something else, too. The bizarre and unpleasant subtext seemed to be that Britain was somehow wrong to even try to embrace multi-culturalism, that it would be much better off following the example of Russia, where people of a “non-Slavic appearance” are regularly beaten and killed on the country’s streets.
It’s odd to compare all this casual, off-hand racism with the official line during the Soviet period.
In his 1985 book “Britain Without Fog” (a play on the common Russian belief that the UK is covered in perpetual fog), Soviet journalist Vladimir Simonov saw race relations in London and elsewhere in quite a different fashion.
“For the British police, black skin is damning evidence. Are you an immigrant? The descendent of an immigrant? Then your place is behind bars,” he wrote under a photo of leering cops detaining a terrified black youth. “There is no limit to the cruelty of the guardians of law and order when dealing with black citizens.”
Or this, the caption to a photo of inner-city disturbances.
“A house in a region for ‘coloreds’ burns. Or is it British democracy that has driven its black citizens to desperation?”
Even more poignant – and prophetic – is the caption under the photograph of a scowling skinhead, his middle finger raised as the cops lead him away.
“‘Made in London’ the tattoo on his forehead says – but more precise would be ‘Made by unemployment, and an atmosphere of violence and racial hatred.’ We fear for your future Britain!”
Of course, all this was perhaps more the result of Soviet ideology rather than any real sympathy with immigrants in the UK. Still, the difference in tone is startling. I can’t help but wonder what the very same journalists spewing out stories about “immigrants” would have written had the Soviet Union not collapsed.
But if the disturbances weren’t all the fault of immigrants, then what caused them? There are no easy, glib answers. The thrill factor is one that shouldn’t be ruled out, though. People love a bit of excitement, something to relieve the everyday monotony. And rioting provides a genuine adrenalin high. For both blacks and whites.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).