Emily Couch – Journalist and Writer

The Russia-Sphere Has a Diversity Problem. Here’s Why That Needs to Change

If you’re a Russophile on Twitter, you probably saw the recent debate over gender imbalance in Russia coverage. It all started with a certain journalist’s claim that the Moscow correspondent scene is a ‘boys club’, which of course elicited numerous retorts from the many talented women writers based in the Russian capital. As a woman hoping to break into this scene, I was fully invested in this debate. As a person of colour, it got me thinking – once again – about the other glaring deficiency of ‘The Russia Sphere’: the bubble encompassing academics, journalists,and students who write about the country and, more broadly, about the Post-Soviet space.

I’m talking, of course, about Diversity.

The Disclaimer

The predominance of white academics is a problem in every discipline. According to these revealing statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, in 2016 just 3% of full-time professors were Asian/Pacific Islander women, and 1% or less were Hispanic or Native American/ Alaskan Native women. From the student side, the ongoing debate in the U.K. on university admissions has revealed that, in 2017, just 18% of all undergraduates were BME. Although better than my postgraduate experience, my undergraduate English Literature degree was overwhelmingly white in both its staff and student composition. Unfortunately there are no analogous statistics for journalism, but one can only assume that, with such a racially imbalanced university intake, people of colour are equally under-represented in related journalistic fields. In short, the purpose of this post is to start a conversation about this problem in a specific field, and not to claim that it is the only guilty party.

Yes, It’s Personal…

I’m currently finishing off a double MA in Post-Soviet Studies and International Relations with UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) and The Higher School of Economics (Moscow). The first year of the programme fanned my voracious interest in everything related to the region – essays were, dare I say it, a pleasure rather than a burden; I had fantastic professors who opened up whole new fields of knowledge to me. But at the end of the first semester, in the Christmas lull, it suddenly hit me that I had not read one newspaper article nor attended one lecture on Russia given by a person of colour. A year and a half later, that 0 has increased to maybe 2 or 3. When I look at my Twitter Follow List (comprised entirely of users with an interest in Russia and the ex-CIS), the picture is the same: I could not point out one Moscow correspondent from a major Western publication who isn’t white.

My undergraduate degree (English Literature) was hardly a multiracial utopia: I was one of perhaps 10 students of colour in a year of 200 (approx.) people, and the staff composition was little better. Nonetheless, my department’s emphatically ‘liberal’ identity ensured that we regularly read books by authors of colour, and that a Post-Colonial (Feminist, Queer…) perspective was the norm. My MA experience in the Russia Sphere has been markedly different. Post-Colonialism was only ever referenced as a ‘quirky’ perspective one could, but probably shouldn’t, take and any reference to a non-white perspective was considered uncomfortably personal, or even as irrelevant. This goes for both staff and students.

So, like a good social scientist I have laid out my personal bias. And, like a good social scientist, I will gladly acknowledge the unrepresentative nature of the data sample. This post is deeply informed by my own experience, and I have no doubt that another PoC in the same field would bring another perspective to the table.

Nonetheless, I hope that I am able to start a conversation to which other PoCs might relate, and which the predominantly white Russia Sphere will take on board.

The Background

It doesn’t take a sociology professor to guess why PoCs are thin on the ground. BAME young people – sadly, particularly those who are black – are more likely to come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds which are a) less likely to allow them to go to university and b) if they do go to university, there is greater pressure to study a subject connected with financial security. and/or social prestige. Let’s be honest: Russia Studies is hardly the magic gateway to either of the above. Being able to choose a degree without thought for how it will help you enter the job market is a luxury of the affluent. I’m ethnically Asian, but was lucky enough to have a comfortable middle class upbringing that afforded me the luxury of following my passion first for Literature, and then for Russia and the Post-Soviet states.

4 Reasons Why Diversity In The Russia Sphere Matters

Beyond the fact that it is simply wrong for a field to be dominated by one demographic, I’ve been mulling over why Diversity is particularly important in the Russia Sphere. The points below are not intended as a searing manifesto, but rather as tinder to spark further discussion. Think of something I’ve missed? Disagree with one of the points? Great – Leave a comment, post a tweet. Let’s get this conversation going.

Russia Is Diverse!

According to Minority Rights Group International, Russia is comprised of 193 ethnic groups and subgroups besides Russian. It seems that such a ethnically diverse region can only be accurately studied if the researchers themselves reflect this heterogeneity. Recently, I met a student at my university who was ethnically Korean but identified fully as Russian. Her family had emigrated three generations ago, and her parents did not speak Korean. She told me that her family’s situation was common, and that she frequently encountered insults that she was ‘not really Russian’. Of course, white journalists and researchers are fully capable of studying groups like this sensitively. However, I believe that PoCs from other countries could bring a new perspective to these fascinatingly complex ethno-cultural identities.

Contextualising Russophobia

In February this year, Franz Sedelmayer caused uproar with his New York Times article ‘The Putin I knew; The Putin I know’. Phrases such as ‘sharing is not the Russian way’ and ‘Corruption is in Russia’s DNA’ brought accusations of racism and Russophobia from academics and journalists alike. Now I am far from omniscient when it comes to Twitter, but what struck me was how all of these critics were white. Perhaps this is just the fault of those mysterious ‘algorithms’ but, even if one or two people of colour also joined the chorus, these critics were markedly un-reflexive in their accusations. I even saw one tweet that compared Sedelmayer’s article to the ‘scientific racism’ of the 19th century which posited African peoples as ‘biologically inferior’ to whites. This struck me as remarkably insensitive to the historical differences in oppression and experience. Undeniably, Russians have suffered from Western ‘Orientalism’ and grossly inaccurate stereotypes. A true understanding of anti-Russian prejudices, however, can only be accurately understood with reference to other racist paradigms. A greater number of academics and journalists of colour writing on these topics could bring the contextualising perspectives so desperately needed.

Unheard Perspectives on The Soviet Union; or, Breaking Away From That Cold War Paradigm

If you are reading this, you’re probably well-versed in a) the Soviet propaganda that espoused the ‘Brotherhood of Peoples’ and b) the struggle for influence over the ‘Third World’ by the United States and the USSR during the Cold War. Clearly, academic and journalistic discourse is still shaped by narratives of this era. The Realist ‘balance of power’ paradigm is still very much in vogue. Now, I am not saying that journalists and academics of colour have any obligation to write from the ‘perspective’ of their race or ethnicity. That would be as ridiculous. Nor am I saying that publications on, for example, black people in the USSR do not exist. They do, and they are extremely valuable. Nonetheless, I believe that a greater diversity of perspectives would help us paint a more nuanced picture of both the Soviet Union and its legacy. What was the African American perspective on the USSR, given that the latter so often included their oppression in its propaganda? How do Indian communities across the world remember the USSR given that their country was nominally non-aligned? Questions like these, that shift from the focus from War to Identity, are sorely needed in the field.

Methodological Development, Professional Support

In Sociology, the acknowledgement of researcher bias is essential. There are plenty of methodology books that explain how this bias can be harmful, and suggest means of mitigating it. What is less emphasised, however, is bias against the researcher (or journalist). The Russia Sphere has a fairly good gender balance, so the prejudices against women researchers/journalists are not unknown. When it comes to race, there seems to be little acknowledgement of how being a person of colour can impact one’s ability to conduct research. Both Sociology and Journalism highly value interviews as a form of evidence, but the conduct of these interviews – and even finding willing interviewees – can be influenced by racial prejudices.

As some of you may know, I have been writing for The Moscow Times. In a number of interviews, I have encountered uncomfortable questions regarding my race, language, and background. The same is true of academic interviews. Russia and Eastern Europe are not ‘Racist’, but it is undeniable that attitudes towards PoCs in the region is not as open as one might hope. Greater diversity in the field would, I hope, bring the difficulties faced by PoCs to light and serve as a starting point for addressing them and providing students and journalists with the appropriate support.

Conclusion: Ending the Vicious Cycle

The Russia Sphere – like many others – is stuck in a vicious cycle. As long as it is predominantly white, people of colour will be discouraged from entering it. Never underestimate the power of seeing someone who ‘looks like you’ as a motivating factor. Somehow, we must break this cycle. Perhaps starting points might be greater affirmative action from university departments, scholarships for BAME students, or outreach projects with BAME school pupils. Russian history is not an uncommon topic in schools, but most of the time the focus is Tsars, and Commissars, and General Secretaries – all of whom are white. Can, for example, a Muslim child of Pakistani descent from Birmingham, be blamed for not being able to relate to that?

I do not have the blueprint for how to fix this problem. My hope is that this blog post – however in-eloquent it may be at times – will at least raise awareness and spark that conversation. In short, I think that those of us lucky enough to be studying a region that we love have a duty to make our field as inclusive and accessible as possible.