Russia Jumps on George Floyd Killing as Proof of U.S. Hypocrisy
Russia Jumps on George Floyd Killing as Proof of U.S. Hypocrisy
MOSCOW — Smarting over decades of American criticism of its human rights record, Russia is now getting some payback.
The Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, sanctioned by the United States as a violent brute responsible for torture and extrajudicial killings, said this week that he was “horrified” by the brutality of the American police.
Russia’s foreign ministry, for its part, lamented “a real tragedy, an American tragedy” and demanded that Washington protect the rights of its own citizens instead of constantly finding fault in Russia.
“By taking measures to prevent looting and other illegal actions, authorities should not violate the rights of Americans to peaceful protest,” Maria Zakharova, the foreign ministry’s spokeswoman, said on Thursday. Speaking earlier on a TV talk show, Ms. Zakharova said that because of the chaos, the United States “simply cannot have any questions for others in the coming years.”
The host of the show, Vladimir Solovyov, suggested that Russia commemorate George Floyd, the black man killed last week in Minneapolis, by blacklisting American officials for human rights violations — just as the United States did to selected Russian officials following the 2009 death in a Moscow prison of Sergei L. Magnitsky, a tax lawyer for the American-born financier William F. Browder.
Ivan Kurilla, an expert on Russian-American relations at the European University in St. Petersburg, said the Russian authorities were “enjoying” the opportunity provided by the unrest in the United States to get their own propaganda message across.
The turmoil on American streets and the sometimes overly aggressive response of law enforcement officers, Mr. Kurilla said, has served two important Kremlin goals.
For one, it has deflected criticism of Russia’s own security services.
For another, videos of buildings ablaze and of sporadic looting have helped drive home one of the Kremlin’s favorite messages: that protests, even if initially peaceful, invariably risk violent disorder and so need to be nipped in the bud, as happened in Moscow last summer when the Russian police used force to break up peaceful street gatherings by opponents of President Vladimir V. Putin.
“The Kremlin line is that peaceful protests always escalate into riots. They want to portray all peaceful protesters as criminals. This is why they use all these pictures from the U.S.,” Mr. Kurilla said, referring to saturation coverage of riots in the United States on state-controlled Russian television.
Also shown repeatedly on television has been video of Mr. Floyd’s brutal death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis.
Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security services, said he had monitored Telegram channels used by Russian law enforcement officers and found them “full of expressions of horror at the behavior of the American police.”
Russian police officers, he added, are not averse to brutality but are “shocked by brutality that goes beyond what is useful or necessary.”
The killing of Mr. Floyd and scenes of police aggression directed toward peaceful American protesters and journalists, particularly those of color, has also given new life and legitimacy to a longstanding Russian critique of the United States that dates to the early days of the Soviet Union.
Criticism of American racism formed such an important part of Soviet propaganda that the phrase “And you hang Negroes” was widely used in the Soviet era as an official retort to the West’s Cold War claims of moral superiority.
And some black intellectuals favorably compared Soviet race relations to what they knew in America.
The writer and social activist Langston Hughes marveled during a trip to the Soviet Union during Stalin’s brutal rule in the early 1930s, at the height of a man-made famine that killed millions, that “I have at last seen a country where the dark peoples are given every opportunity.”
Contrasting the often openly racist treatment of blacks in the United States with his own treatment as a guest of the Soviet authorities, he wrote a small book published in Moscow, “A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia,” that praised what he saw as the absence of racism.
Others became less convinced that communism was the answer. Richard Wright, the author of “Native Son,” joined in 1933 the Moscow-funded Communist Party USA, believing that the Soviet Union was working to uproot racism. He quit after white members of the party withdrew an offer of housing upon discovering that he was black.
While officials have mostly avoided gloating over America’s agonies, they have nonetheless seized on the opportunity to demand that the American pot stop calling the Russian kettle black.
“I’m watching with horror the situation in the United States, where the authorities are maliciously violating ordinary citizens’ rights,” Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, who has presided over a violent pogrom against gays in his territory, said on social media. “Police officers are carrying out lynch law right on the streets of American cities.”
Insisting that she “took no delight” from the unrest in the United States, Ms. Zakharova, the foreign ministry spokeswoman, threw down the gauntlet to Washington over its claims to champion human rights: “Of what leadership in this direction by the United States of America can we speak after what we have all seen — after the actions of the police, and the actions against journalists,” she said.
Official outrage over Mr. Floyd’s death and its stark exposure of America’s racism problem, however, has been offset by the authorities’ strong desire to avoid encouraging protests or justifying violence.
While the Kremlin is disappointed that President Trump has not delivered on his repeated pledges to “get along with Russia,” state-controlled media outlets have generally avoided attacking his handling of the crisis and sided with his demand that protesters be “dominated.”
Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a government newspaper, however, came close to mocking Mr. Trump as a coward with the headline: “Trump hid in a bunker during riots in Washington.”
And while state-backed media has denounced American racism, it has also shown some support for American law-enforcement officers.
One report on Rossiya-24, a television news channel, even suggested that some American officers had been inspired to stand their ground against chaos by Russia’s example. It broadcast footage of a burly American policeman with a tattoo in Cyrillic lettering on his arm reading: “Rossiya!”
Sympathy for the police has sometimes taken an ugly turn.
Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of RT, a state-funded television network aimed at foreign audiences, forwarded an openly racist message on social media that suggested protesters were drug addicts and criminals.
The message, dripping with sarcasm and cast as statement of support to “the Negroes of Minnesota,” urged protesters to copy the tactics of Ukrainians who, cheered on by Washington, took to the streets in 2014 to topple their pro-Kremlin president.
“Good luck, friends,” the message said. “All progressive humanity is with you! Hit the whites until they turn black!”
Perhaps the biggest source of dismay and outrage, at least among Russian officials, however, has been a suggestion by President Obama’s former national security adviser, Susan Rice, that Russia might be responsible for the chaos. In an interview with CNN early this week, Ms. Rice acknowledged that she had no evidence but said: “Based on my experience, this is right out of the Russian playbook.”
That claim has met with widespread mockery and fury, including from pro-Western liberals who despair at what they see as America’s turn, since President Trump’s 2016 election, toward a Soviet-style mind-set that blames all domestic problems on foreign machinations.
This, said Mr. Kurilla, the St. Petersburg scholar, has added to a steady disillusionment with many aspects of the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991.
“Viewed from behind the Iron Curtain, America had no flaws, but after the Cold War we saw that it had lots of problems,” he said. “Reality showed that America was not as good as we thought. It has been painful.”