Russian to Criticize Russian Culture

Some Americans believe that international cooperation is a discussion between Americans and the rest of the world, so it stands to reason that everyone should be well-versed in American discourses. Otherwise, who knows what wrath shall come upon them? Recently, such fury came down upon two Russian designers who attended Fashion Week in Paris, France.

A week ago Ulyana Sergeenko sent Miroslava Duma a “Fashion Week in Paris” invitation envelope where she cited a song by Kanye West “Niggas in Paris.” Someone later posted a photo of the envelope on Instagram. Shortly after, both women received thousands of death threats. Ulyana apologized saying that since she was raised in a remote Kazakhstani village, she was unaware of how offensive the N-word would be. However, the internet did not accept the apology. Ulyana’s followers continued sending her enraged letters. In these letters, they reiterated how many times white women have been told to avoid the word. Indeed, how many times have they been told? For Kazakhstani women, none at all.

Afro-Russians make up less than 0.0005 percent of the Russian population – not enough to cause either hatred or love. Russia also has little to no history of racial conflict, so Russians do not have a sense of historical responsibility for it. Besides, the Russian word “Negr” does not have any negative connotations, so a native Russian speaker would not understand the extent to which the English N-word is considered abominable.

The key issue here is that there is no concept of cultural appropriation in Russian culture. As a Russian Jew, for example, I know that Jews welcome when someone is playing Jewish music, dancing Jewish dances or wearing traditional Jewish clothes, unless it is intentionally derisive. It is perceived as an expression of mutual interest, as respect for and solidarity with the culture rather than theft. Therefore, when Americans attack white Eastern Europeans for wearing dreads referring to a concept of cultural appropriation, the former cannot understand them.  since wearing dreads in Eastern Europe is a bold and frequently dangerous act of civil disobedience.

Wearing dreads in the former Soviet bloc signifies a rebellion, a challenge to oppressive totalitarian structures. Inspired by tactics of civil disobedience used by the followers of Martin Luther King Jr., Eastern Europeans initially started wearing dreads to show their solidarity with African-Americans struggling for their civil rights. As the movement progressed behind the iron curtain, dreads started to more broadly signify support for America as well as general rebellion against totalitarian structures. Henceforth, wearing dreads became a separate cultural phenomenon in Eastern Europe. In the former Soviet bloc, it is a bold act to wear dreads, it is dangerous and has its own cultural context.

The concept of cultural appropriation does not always make sense outside of Western cultures. Indeed, why would a Kazakhstani woman be aware of American linguistic intricacies if Americans en masse do not feel obliged to even know where Kazakhstan is. Such attacks caused by cultural insensitivity thwart international cooperation. The attack on Ulyana Sergeenko did not advance the African-American case — instead, it went viral in Russia and empowered those promoting hatred to the U.S. and isolation from the West.   

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