Weathering Russian xenophobia in everyday life

Photos of Milana Nazir by Holod Magazine, used with permission.

Holod” is an independent Russian media outlet founded in 2019 by renowned journalist Taisia Bekbulatova, who was declared a foreign agent by the Russian government in 2021, and named in the BBC's list of the 100 most influential women in 2022.  

Holod Magazine” asked Milana Nazir, an Uzbek who grew up in Russia, to talk about the xenophobia and bullying she faced in Russia as a result of her ethnicity. Milana Nazir studies at the Faculty of Economics at Moscow State University. She is 20 years old and has lived in Russia for 15 years. Since her early childhood, Nazir has faced various forms of discrimination from Russians in her community. 

The following is a shortened personal essay from Nazir which is republished on Global Voices with permission from Holod

This spring, I shared a link to a Holod publication on how ethnic minorities live in Russia. A friend messaged me after, saying that “xenophobia doesn't exist in Russia. The only people disrespected here are from the North Caucasus who allow themselves too much.” For a long time, I tried hard to change his mind, gently and without imposing my opinion, but in the end, we got nowhere. It really upset me deeply that even my friends didn't understand the scale of the issue. 

Our family has always been frowned upon

I am Uzbek and partially Kyrgyz. I was born in Kyrgyzstan, and I lived there until I was five. Then my mom took my siblings and me to Russia. In Kyrgyzstan, we lived in a village with my father, who would constantly beat my mom. One day he came home drunk while she and my sister were praying. He became pissed off about something, so he came up to them from behind and showered them with a bucket of ice-cold water. Mom had always wanted to achieve something more than just a life in a village with my father. Besides, the quality of education and life in Kyrgyzstan is lower than in Russia.

During first and second grades, I never really felt I was treated differently from the others. But when I entered the third grade, and we moved to Kazan, it was hard for me to communicate with my classmates. For example, the girls would say that they wouldn't hug me because I was dirty and smelled bad. Kids would yell “Allah Akbar” at me, and those were Tatar guys (a minority ethnic group in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that is predominantly Muslim), mind you. I knew that their families were Muslim, so I couldn't understand why they were doing that to me. (Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, an Autonomous Republic within the Russian Federation, with a predominantly ethnic Volga Tatar population.)

One day we were standing in a line at the canteen. A girl came up to me and, without asking, started rubbing me. I thought she wanted to hold my hand, so I asked her what she was doing: she said she was checking to see if I was dirty or not. After that, I started feeling like I was actually dirty — like I wasn’t bathing properly. Then I started showering three or four times a day: I felt like I needed to wash the dirt off. One time I found Belizna (a sodium hypochlorite-based bleach similar to Clorox) in the bathroom and wanted to bleach myself with it. But, thank God, my mother came home at that moment, and told me off very badly.

I remember that our family has always been frowned upon when we were, say, on a bus. My mother told me later, when I grew up, that people would almost directly tell her they were afraid she might steal something from them. That said, my mother was a very educated woman. The only thing she could do was to get off the bus or sit somewhere further away. She never confronted them directly: she understood that she would always be a total stranger in Russia.

After all of this, while I was still at elementary school, I decided to directly ask my classmates why they wouldn’t talk to me. At that time, I hadn’t yet understood that it was my ethnicity that kept others from communicating with me. My classmates told me that they didn’t talk to me because I just didn't look right, that my skin was darker and they felt like I didn't shower. After that, I crawled into my shell and wouldn’t make any friends for a long time.

At that point, my mother gave me some very strange advice. She said that I needed to study well so that the kids would copy from me, so this would encourage them to be friends with me. But she never said anything about the fact that my skin color and appearance shouldn't have discouraged them from becoming friends with me in the first place.

If you joke about yourself, people won't bully you

After my mom saw my intent to bleach myself, she apparently realized that this was a very serious matter, and she started discussing Uzbek culture with me a lot. Back then, I despised everything Uzbek. I thought it was something bad, given that I wasn't accepted. My mother tried her best to explain that it was necessary to accept my ethnic identity and that there was nothing wrong with me being different. After those conversations, I became more confident. 

In seventh grade, I made my first friends. I think it was around that age that I learned to respond to rude jokes. If you joke about yourself, people won't bully you, so humor became my defense mechanism.

However, I kept facing xenophobia. For example, in Kazan, my Russian teacher would lower my grades; she bluntly told me that she “couldn't give a non-Russian girl an A when the entire class of Russians got Bs.” 

In eighth grade, I tried to understand why I hated myself so much. I had very low self-esteem, be it around my appearance or my personality. Eventually, I realized that it was my ethnic identity that annoyed me the most. I tried to find the answer to why I could not accept myself. I started reading some studies on the differences between people of different ethnicities. I came across articles about how difficult life is for ethnic minorities in Russia, and I began to feel that I was not alone. That was very important to me. It was a relief to know that there was someone out there also dealing with similar issues. From that moment on, I never gave people a chance to make fun of me again.

In 11th grade, when I cut my hair very short, my art teacher told me, “Milana, it must be very hot for you here. You're from the mountains. The temperature is different there.” And during a lecture devoted to Islam, she looked at me throughout the entire lesson and constantly asked me if everything was written accurately and correctly. By the end of the lesson, she had spent a long time begging me to say a prayer in Arabic. I don't speak it, but my family taught me some Arabic prayers. I decided that nothing bad would happen if I recited one, but when I did, the teacher said: “Muslims are trying to recruit everyone to their religion,” and that I was a prime example. Thankfully, most of my classmates came up to me after class and said that the teacher’s behavior was disgusting.

Last year one of the professors at my university wouldn't remember my name. I think he pretended he couldn’t get it on purpose and kept calling me Madina. I corrected him each time, but it didn't help. Such things happen all the time.

But in general, things have become better since I went to the university: I have very good friends and a boyfriend — all of them Russians — who support me. They respect my experience and show appreciation for my culture. Joining a model agency at the end of the 10th grade also helped: at photoshoots, I stopped feeling there was anything wrong with my appearance.

I want to believe I have fully accepted my ethnic identity. I can’t be 100 percent sure because hostility to other people seems to be inbred in Russian culture, and I was brought up in this culture. Whether I want it or not, there’s still this inner xenophobia I’ve been trying to eliminate.

In those 15 years, I have been unable to feel at home either in Russia or in Uzbekistan. I was recently on a plane to Moscow from Tashkent. At some point, I realized that I was uncomfortable with the fact that most of the passengers were Uzbeks. During the flight, I was trying to figure out why, and I realized that if you grow up in Russia, ethnic minorities evoke fear and disdain in you. In the news, when a crime is committed by a Russian, his nationality is not mentioned, but when it’s someone of a different ethnicity, it is always mentioned.

Of course, all these experiences from my childhood have influenced me negatively. I feel insecure about everything I do. As if I needed to prove that I am a human being — prove it with my intellect, education, or something else.

In recent months, there has been more talk about Russophobia (anti-Russian sentiment has recently become more prominent because of the backlash against Russia's invasion of Ukraine). I don't think it exists, but Russians are very sensitive to this phenomenon. When such discussions begin, I feel a strong urge to compare it with what I’ve been through and say that what they face is nothing compared to what national minorities face in Russia.

Obviously, we should not compare experiences, and we should not devalue them, but it is one thing to be discriminated against in the land where you live, and another thing to hear it from people from some faraway country, and not be directly affected by those words. I think Russian people are now, little by little, beginning to understand what xenophobia is. I hope it will help them become more empathetic.

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