Beauty & the Beast? “Ethnic” Pageant Winner Enrages Russian Nationalists

Eighteen year-old Elmira Abdrazakova likely did not anticipate winning the Miss Russia pageant last Saturday, March 2, 2013. If she had, she would likely have made her profile on the Russian social network VKontakte private beforehand. Instead, she later ended up removing the profile entirely. Having grown up in the small Siberian town of Mezhdurechensk (located in Kemerovo Oblast’, a coal-mining region near Novosibirsk), Abdrazakova wasn't prepared for the amount of vitriol her victory would attract from the RuNet's nationalists, who inundated her page with racist messages.

Though her account is no more, plenty of vitriol still circulates the RuNet. When top Russian blogger Rustem Adagamov posted news [ru] of Abdrazakova's victory on his blog, along with some of her photographs, the announcement attracted comments like [ru] “Are there still Russian girls in the Russian Federation?,” not only implying that women like Abdrazakova aren't really Russian, but that foreigners are somehow taking over. (Russian society is no stranger to ethnic tensions, certainly. Indeed, there's currently an online initiative [ru] aimed explicitly at combating such “illegal immigrants.”) Nationalist ideologue and opposition Coordinating Council member Konstantin Krylov also lamented Russia's “changing face.” Posting a photograph of an elderly Asian woman to represent this “face,” he continued [ru] in a faux-folksy style:

Нам её таперича любить положено. Ну так и дочу её, значит, положено любить. И весь прочий выводок. Всех народцев-золоторотцев, в земле россиянской просиявших.

Nowadays we gotta love her. And her daughter, too, we gotta love. And the rest of the brood. All the ragamuffin peoples Resplendent in the Russian Land [ru].

Abdrazakova's name and dark hair are indeed classically Tatar, but in reality she is a Shor (a related Turkic people native to Siberia). Both the Tatars, Russia's largest ethnic minority with the eponymous Republic of Tatarstan, and the much less numerous Shors have been a peaceful part of the Russian “experience” for hundreds of years. Nevertheless, the modern crop of Russian nationalists views them (and really any other non-Russian ethnic group) with suspicion and animosity. To these nationalists, Tatars look “different,” although any foreigner would be hard-pressed to pick out a Tatar from a Russian crowd, while their traditionally Muslim faith is a reminder of the problems of the North Caucasus. Finally, Tatars are the remnants of the Tatar Yoke, the historic occupation of medieval Russia by Mongolians, which ended around seven hundred years ago.

An artist's depiction of how Russian nationalists may view Elmira Abdrazakova. Image remixed using Vereschagin's "A Bukharian Soldier", CC 2.0 Wikimedia Commons.

How Russian nationalists seem to view Elmira Abdrazakova. Image remixed by author using Vereschagin's “A Bukharian Soldier,” CC 2.0 Wikimedia Commons.

These opinions are clearly visible in how the unabashedly nationalist publication Sputnik & Pogrom has reacted to Abdrazakova's victory. Egor Prosvirnin, an S&P ideologue, went the extra mile in his tirades, drawing on rumors that Abdrazakova had plastic surgery performed on her lips (a rumor that has since been disproved [ru] by Elmira's acquaintances and childhood photographs), calling her a “darkie exploding from botox” [ru] and a “provincial tatarva [disparaging] with blown up lips” [ru]. The main argument [ru], however, concerned a plot even more sinister:

[…] нам начали прививать толерантность через эталонный образ женской красоты […] меняя наше представление о том, как должна выглядеть “мисс Россия”

[…] they've began to inculcate in us tolerance through a master image of female beauty […] changing our conception of how a “Miss Russia” should look

Abdrazakova's supposed Muslim faith also reared its head — S&P readers left comments like “Miss Pakistan and Azerbaijan 2013” [ru] and “Why wasn't she wearing a burqa or at least a hijab?” [ru].

In fact, Shors are largely Russian Orthodox (as is Abdrazakova, who attended Sunday school as a child), and are only tenuously related to the Tatars. However, people who are quick to defend Abdrazakova by citing her “real” ethnicity tend to undermine their own cause: claims that “it's okay for her to win because she's not really a Tatar” are rather weak tea, as far as defense goes. This is especially dangerous in Russia, where people unironically write things like [ru] “out of the three runner-ups, Abdrazakova is closest to the europeoid racial type,” and are later surprised when this sparks a racist discussion about which of Russia's ethnicities are most European-looking, replete with mentions of Aryans and genetics. Blogger Alexander Nemirovsky, a historian, explained [ru] why, for some, Shors may be an attractive alternative to Tatars:

Шорцы – православные + сибирские аборигены. А татары – этнические мусульмане и не “хорошие индейцы отдаленной земли Сибирской”. Кроме того, шорцы не ассоциируются с властью, бизнесом и т.д., и их вообще мало кто видел, а татары – ассоциируются, и их как “чужих” себе представляют много лучше […]

Shors are Orthodox + Siberian aboriginals. Tatars on the other hand are ethnic Muslims and not “good Indians from the far away land of Siberia.” Besides, Shors aren't associated with power, business, etc., and they are in general not well known, while Tatars are associated with that, and are much easier to “other” […]

Generally, this case is reminiscent of the outpouring of nationalist hostility last summer [ru], when several North Caucasian wrestlers won gold medals competing for Russia. Few things annoy the nationalists more than “unworthy” minorities enjoying some form of success.

Meanwhile, one blogger did pen a successful defense of Abdrazakova. Anastasiya Karimova, a journalist at Kommersant and the young lady who famously brought oranges [ru] to the FSB Lubyanka office back in 2005, frankly talked about the banal racism she has had to deal with as a half-Tatar, ending on an impassioned note [ru]:

Я очень хорошо вижу разницу между национализмом и нацизмом. У меня не вызывают ужаса националисты, я даже разделяла в своё время многие предложение ДПНИ по изменению миграционной политики. Мерзкое цепляние к фамилиям и к чертам лица – это переход через черту, разделяющую два разных понятия. На Эльмиру Абдразакову вылились и продолжают выливаться потоки ксенофобского дерьма, но она может утешаться хотя бы тем, что её победа в очередной раз вскрыла старый гнойник […] Держись, Эльмира!

I see a very clear difference between nationalism and Nazism. I am not horrified by nationalists, at one point I even supported many DPNI proposals for changing immigration policy. The disgusting fascination with surnames and facial features crosses the line between two completely different notions. Streams of xenophobic crap have been, and continue to be, poured out over Elmira Abdrazakova, but she can console herself with the knowledge that her victory once again opened up an old abscess […] Be strong, Elmira!


  • lalalabomba

    In my opinion it’s great to see a non-slavic miss russia, and I wish her the best. Russia really needs to face up to its multinational heritage and stamp down on racism. This whole situation reminds me of the similar scum here in the US that just can’t deal with the fact that their president is black and keep asking for his birth certificate.

    • agoodtreaty

      The Obama comparison is an interesting one. Abdrazakova’s case—because she’s a woman in a beauty contest—is even more loaded, though, I think. The fact that she technically entered a competition where it’s “acceptable” to judge her appearance has opened doors (in the minds of some nationalists, anyway) to what has become a very nasty conversation about racial aesthetics.

      • lalalabomba

        I read some of the discussions in the russian blogosphere about the racism she faced in social media. One person mentioned that there are many famous “ethnic” people in russia such as the gymnast Aliya Mustafina who haven’t really been subjected to such attacs. While I personally don’t agree with this person’s perspective, they stipulated that Abdrazakova triggered such a reaction because some viewers felt she wasn’t “legitimately” the most attractive of the trio finalists (regardless of her ethnicity) but still won, which was interpreted as some sort of artificial “affirmative-action” type decision that was “dictated down” by the establishment (they also felt that way because the winner of Voice this year was also an ethnic minority). I personally find this argument to be bogus, because I highly doubt people with such an emotional (and vicious) reaction would be able to separate in their mind her ethnicity and her level of “attractiveness”. Also, while there is a tendency in the rightwing natzball portion of the russian opposition to blame “the kremlin” for russia’s immigration issues, I think the judges chose her for purely pragmatic reasons -she has stunning cheekbones from her asian heritage and large blue “russian” eyes, a rare combination of facial features that would be a very strong competitor in the miss universe pageant.

  • tcnjstudentDF

    Growing up in Atlantic City where the Miss America began and is returning, I am not surprised by this article. Although we live in a time where there should be equality for all it is still very obvious all over the globe where racism is still alive. She will now be placed as an outsider within in Russia.

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