The Czech republic is home to close to 50,000 Russian citizens. Following Russia’s war in Ukraine, their fate is uncertain as Prague no longer delivers visas to Russia, all air and train communications between the two countries have stopped, and some people in the Czech Republic have conflated Putin’s aggression and all Russians a bit too quickly.
On February 24, Russians woke up to the news of a war on Ukraine. Besides experiencing shock, desperation, fear, disappointment, and shame, some of those living outside of Russia have also become targets for anger from non-Russians who do not differentiate between the Russian leadership and Russian people.
Take the discrimination or even exclusion of Russian students during lectures in universities, or the case of a Czech professor calling for a boycott of Russian students and implementing his “own personal sanctions.” The professor in question posted on social media and later deleted the content, saying it was an emotional reaction. Prague's Charles University also apologized to its students for the discriminatory behavior by some of the faculty.
Some Russian speakers living in Europe, including in the Czech Republic share stories of Russophobia: a group of hotels has declared a boycott on holders of Russian and Belarusian passports, and some real estate companies have stated they will no longer sell property to Russian citizens. Russian pupils have been bullied at schools, someone spat in the street at a student speaking Russian on the phone, someone shouted “May you die soon, Russian bitch!” to a journalist of Russian origin, someone humiliated Russian speakers of Ukrainian and Armenian origin, and a taxi-driver threw a woman out of her car because she was speaking Russian with her child. As it turned out, the client was a journalist from the Russian opposition internet TV Dozhd that has been one of the most vocal critics of Putin.
Most of these instances of discrimination are shared on social media, with a call to stop Russophobic behavior, and to make a distinction between Russians and Russian-speakers, and between Russians who support and oppose Putin. In some cases the authors of such posts have to turn off the comment sections, or delete them because of the hateful comments.
The dangers of Russophobia
Despite the participation of Russian citizens in pro-Ukraine demonstrations, financial and other volunteer support to Ukrainian refugees, despite calls from Czech officials not to equate Russian citizens to Russian government decisions, waves of discrimination towards Russians and Belarusians are spreading through the Czech Republic, as well as other states of Europe.
Some Czech activists have commented on posts that this Russophobia is justified, and, while in some cases they apologize, but they don’t seem to think it can be avoided; in some comments, there are also proposals of a Russian-free Czech republic.
Russophobia also extends to renaming products and places. For example the famous “Russian ice-cream” which was a cult product for generations, could soon be renamed “Ukrainian ice-cream” by its producers. Similarly, the street where the Russian embassy is located could be partially renamed Ukrainian heroes (Ukrajinských hrdinů), as has happened in Lithuania.
Despite the fact that there are close to 200 ethnic groups living in the Russian Federation, with different views and political choices, or the fact that a Russian-speaker could be born and raised in another country, Russophobia is being applied by certain people in the Czech Republic to anyone with a Russian passport or a Russian place of birth, or who speaks Russian.
Yet some Czechs have already realized the dangers of blaming all Russians for the crimes of the Russian army, comparing it to witch-hunting.
Czech laws guarantee an anti-discriminatory approach to the citizens and non-citizens of the Czech Republic, providing the institution of the Ombudsman as a recourse, monitoring and checking the cases of discrimination. The Russian House in Prague reacted to these situations and wrote an email to share the story of Russophobia in the Czech Republic.
But perhaps what is most worrying is that this Russophobia is recycled by pro-Russian newspapers that are based in or target the Czech Republic, and amplify those examples to further justify their own violent discourses against Europe and its values.
It is important to understand that many Russians do feel “besieged”: Following a major diplomatic crisis in 2021, and now strict sanctions, they are unable to travel home by plane or train, their families are unable to obtain Czech visas and, for many, the economic sanctions also limit or freeze their ability to use credit cards and bank transfers.
Accumulated historical layers of Russophobia
The attitude towards Russians or holders of Russian-passports (and earlier, of Soviet passports) has always been peculiar in the territory of the Czech Republic, and not the least because it is connected to the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact troops on August 21, 1968. Tanks and armored personnel carriers ended by force the Prague Spring. Though it was a member-state of the Warsaw Pact, Czechoslovakia was a sovereign state, thus the invasion by Soviet allies was and is considered a great national tragedy. It is also a source of ongoing anti-Russian sentiment that remains alive today.
A more recent wave of Russophobia surfaced in 2014, after Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula. Prague supported the European Union sanctions against Russia. It also reinforced an extremely negative view of Russia that was, for some, extended to include Russian people.
Besides the economic and political sanctions on Russia from several states, some people, feeling it wasn’t enough to just condemn Russian activities in Ukraine and share support for Ukraine, decide they must impose their own personal sanctions not on the country, but on the citizens of Russia.
The Russian community in the Czech Republic: A historical presence
The history of the Russian community in the Czech Republic goes back more than a century, starting in the 1920s as Russians fled the 1917 Russian Revolution and were granted aid by the Masaryk government. There was a significant presence of Soviet soldiers and their families from 1948 to 1989, which increased after the 1968 invasion. Those who left in 1989 were replaced by a new wave of migrants including wealthy Russians buying property but also middle class Russians studying and staying on. They are mostly concentrated in Prague, and in Karlovy Vary, and Mariánské Lázně in the west of the country.
According to the data of the Czech Statistical Office, in the year 2020, there were about 42,000 foreigners with a Russian passport who had been living in the Czech Republic for more than 12 calendar months, on a long-term or permanent residence visa, including the ones who have asylum here.
The renewed expression of Russophobia proves once again the fact that history is cyclical. Representatives of a certain some community bear the price of aggression on another, though they are not the ones who started it, or have nothing to do with it. This was witnessed in the anti-Asian racism following the COVID-19 pandemic. And now the same phenomenon resurfaces in Europe and elsewhere for Russians and Russian-speakers.
For more information about this topic, see our special coverage Russia invades Ukraine.