There's 'racism', and then there's racism, and then there's hating Russia
And one of them is socially acceptable
AUG 14, 2023
I’m British, and I have lived in the Czech Republic for 12 years now. I remember being shocked at first by some of the ‘racist’ things I heard people say, and for the first five or so years, I accepted that by and large Czechs were a bit racist, but in a harmless kind of way.
Czech ‘friendly racism’
I characterise the things I heard Czechs say as ‘racist’ (rather than racist), because although they might have been joking about black people looking like monkeys and being harder to see at night, or Asian people having slanty eyes and all looking the same, I don’t believe there was any malice behind it. I spent time with enough other foreigners to realise that it wasn’t just me that found this quite shocking, but Czechs would always laugh off our embarrassment and raised eyebrows.
On quite a few occasions, Czechs and other eastern Europeans who felt equally uninhibited about dropping a ‘racist’ joke, explained to me/us that the reason they didn’t feel that it was harmful, was that their country didn’t have the history of institutional racism that western European countries do. People of all cultures are free to come and live here, as long as they’re respectful to everyone else, and they pay taxes and obey the law like everyone else. If they want to make jokes about Czechs, or white people, they’re free to do that too.
The Western (particularly British) neurosis about appearing racist comes from our understanding that for hundreds of years, our countries were colonial empires that exploited their colonial subjects and pillaged their land, and have never really atoned for it… or stopped doing it. Our countries grew rich off the back of free slave labour, although that wealth was always concentrated at the top. After slavery was abolished we still treated ‘the natives’ as second class citizens in what should have been their own countries. When we needed cheap labour, especially after WW2, we invited people from all over the Empire to come and work in Britain - which they were legally entitled to do - and then when they got there, they were again treated by some people like second-class citizens in what should have also been their own country.
Right up until the 1960s, non-white people were openly discriminated against (not by law, but it was not illegal to do so), so we have an understanding that racial epithets carried with them a recognition of the ‘coloured’2 person’s potential lower value in the eyes of society. Although no one my age ever lived in this explicitly racist era, it was a living memory in our parents and grandparents, and some of us might have been embarrassed by some of the ‘politically-incorrect’ things our older relatives said.
I should add that this embarrassment is felt most keenly amongst cossetted white middle-class liberal types - like me. Working-class people are often less concerned about appearing racist, perhaps because they long ago learned to stop caring what middle-class liberal types think of them. That absolutely does not mean that they are any more racist, of course. Class is such a pervasive factor in British society that it’s hard to explain to foreigners exactly how it works - it goes beyond how much money you have - and the closer one gets to the truth the more embarrassing it is to explain, especially if you’re a middle-class liberal type3. Czechs seem to me to have a much less class-oriented society and I hope they realise what a blessing this is, but as with many things, you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.
Czech actual racism, and its causes
To return to my experience of racism in the Czech Republic, after about five years I came to understand the Czech attitude towards making jokes about foreigners, but I also came to understand that the real racism felt amongst Czechs is directed towards gypsies (i.e. Roma). Even after making this apparent criticism, I feel the need to come to their defence: most, if not all, of the Czechs that expressed dislike or distrust of cikáni, told me that they’d grown up experiencing bullying from gypsy kids, usually ones that weren’t in school because their parents didn’t see the point in it. They are usually quick to add that there are, of course, plenty of gypsies who are perfectly fine, but they are still wary when they meet one.
There is a widespread belief that gypsies are given everything they need by the state, but they then ruin it for themselves (for example, taking copper wire from their own homes to sell) and demand the state fix it. This opinion is perhaps even more keenly felt in Slovakia; the Luník housing estate in Košice has become notorious for its dilapidation and squalor.
Their attitude towards gypsies is a bit similar to my attitude towards ‘chavs’, from growing up in Britain and experiencing random acts of violence from tracksuited and Burberry-capped dickheads. Some people consider the word chav to be insulting because of its socioeconomic implications, but to me chav refers to how a person acts, not their clothing or position in society.
Chavs are typically white, so there’s no question of it being a racially-charged term, but the Czech dislike for Roma gypsies does have a racial dimension to it, even if most Czechs readily admit that of course not all gypsies live up to the negative stereotype. The antipathy on the part of the Roma comes from the memory of their active persecution first by the Czechoslovak state4, then their genocide by the Nazis5 - by some accounts, a comparable proportion of Roma living in Europe were exterminated to that of Jews, but this is contested because many Roma were not included in census data - and then their continuing persecution by the communists.
The Czech reaction to this antipathy from Roma, is that the reason they were persecuted is that they refuse to integrate into Czech society. Czechs often cite Vietnamese people, who immigrated here en masse during the communist era, as an example of an ethnic group that has had no trouble integrating, and whose children now consider themselves Czech. This gives way to a bona fide racist argument: that gypsies are unable to assimilate into Czech/European society, due to their ethnicity. If it’s not true (the argument goes), why haven’t they integrated after being here for hundreds of years? If they can but they refuse to, why should we put up with them and keep supporting them? It’s a very thorny issue, and it doesn’t help that practically all the coverage of the plight of gypsies in central Europe that I’ve seen from mainstream UK news, paints them as victims of racist regimes6 that don’t care about them.
I’ve gotten into quite heated discussions with Czechs about their attitude to gypsies, and a common answer I’ve come to is something like this: “OK, Mr. Holier-than-thou, go and hang out with some gypsies and see what I mean”. And I’m almost ashamed to say that I actually have had some quite negative interactions with people who might be classed as gypsies. I stopped a couple of gypsy-looking women from mugging a young (~18 years old) white girl in Hlávní Nádraži a few years ago. I got talking to a friendly-seeming gypsy guy in a pub, and after about a minute he asked me to buy him a drink, then got in a huff when I refused. Gypsy kids do sometimes act in pretty wild and antisocial ways, ways that I would associate with scally kids on council estates in England.
None of these are justifications for persecution, but they do belie an identity of otherness, a feeling that the rules somehow don’t apply to them. Czechs tell probably-apocryphal stories of the police standing by and watching gypsies beat up Czechs, for fear of being accused of racism.
So that’s a very concise summary of the Czech attitude towards gypsies: quite racist, but usually not without some kind of justification based on personal experience. The Czech attitude towards Russia and Russians, is almost the opposite.
The Czech attitude towards Russia is rooted in their post-war experience, obviously. While Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain, communist Czechoslovakia was under the influence of the USSR, which invaded the country in the Prague Spring of 1968 when Alexander Dubček tried to introduce liberalising reforms. Everyone who was alive then, and probably also their children, will always see that as the event that defined Russia for them. It doesn’t matter that it was the USSR then, and it doesn’t matter what motivations the Russians might have had for doing it - a lot of people here can simply never see Russia objectively or in a positive light because of it.
Czechoslovakia, along with lots of central and eastern European countries, rushed to Westernise after the fall of the Berlin Wall, seduced by glossy TV shows, rock and roll and blue jeans. There was abundance and freedom in the West! That abundance might have come from the oppression of the third world, and the freedom might have actually been quite limited, but after experiencing the hardships of life under the yoke of the USSR, they can hardly be blamed for embracing the West and all it promised. It was certainly telling them what they wanted to hear about Russia, and how much more free they were out of its control.
Liberal media plays a key role in this, of course. The ‘liberalisation’ of media in practice means the freedom to say whatever their owners want them to, constrained by truth only to the extent that they might be taken to court by those they lie about. So anti-Russian sentiment continues to trickle down from the top, unchallenged. Before 2022, and even before 2014, many Czechs had no qualms about saying they didn’t like Russians, and for far more vague reasons than gypsies: “they’re arrogant”, “they expect Czechs to understand Russian”, “they act like they own the place”. They would generally accept that any Russians they knew personally were decent people, though.
In 2014, when Russia ‘annexed’ Crimea - or ‘incorporated Crimea after they held a referendum on the question’ - there was an outcry in the Czech Republic, or maybe a collective sighing and rolling of the eyes, since there was no actual bloodshed involved7. There was a reactionary guerilla marketing stunt involving labelling streets named after Crimea (Krymská), Ukraine (Ukrajinská) and the Black Sea (Černomořská) as ‘Ruská?’ (Russia?). And, of course, a cartoon Putin with a big Soviet ushanka
So after thirty years of ‘freedom’ from Russian political and economic control, Czechs were absolutely primed to erupt in a frenzy of Russophobia when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Czech media had told Czechs as little about Ukraine’s attacks on civilians in the Donbass, or the anti-Russian language laws, or the neo-Nazis at Maidan, as any other western country’s media told its people. The war in Ukraine confirmed what two generations believed about Russia: that Russia cannot be trusted, and that it will invade countries that try to fight for independence from it.
Thus it was that I discovered that the real racism that proliferates amongst Czechs - and by ‘real’ I mean vehement and uninformed by personal experience - is reserved for Russia, and Russians are the embodiment of that. Sure, there was some Islamophobia when Islamic terrorism was the media’s flavour of the week, but that was transitory, and certainly not limited to Czechs. After Russia invaded Ukraine, Czechs were ready to take to social media and flood into the streets with homemade signs telling everyone how much they hated Russia and Putin, and there was a feeling of relief and vindication about it. That may have been because it also just so happened to coincide with the end of lockdown restrictions, but that’s probably a coincidence.
Trying to speak to Czechs (especially my Czech partner) about this, tends to go nowhere. She will tell me that I “don’t understand”, rather in the manner of explaining to a child why daddy has to leave for work every day. No, you see: I’m British, and we simply can’t fathom what it must be like to be invaded, because we have always been a powerful country, an empire even. Czechs understand what it means to be a small country at the mercy of a big country, and that big country is always Russia. Then conversation comes back to the Czech experience of the Russian invasion of 1968 - the two are practically the same in some Czechs’ minds.
I tried to tell one Czech guy about the fascists in Ukraine; this was hand-waved away. “Talk about fascists! What about Putin?! He just invaded Ukraine!” There can be no debating a point with someone who believes that their understanding is the only one going. And why wouldn’t Czechs believe it, when all news sources are saying the same thing? They’ve been told that the stories about Ukrainian attacks on Russian civilians are Russian misinformation and conspiracy theories, just like we in the rest of the West have.
Unfortunately Czechs have the sense, and not without reason, that they collectively have also been victims of Russian aggression, so this personalised, visceral humiliation tends to trump any reasoned debate. As with all liberal media narratives, the ‘Russia is evil’ narrative is dripping with emotional manipulation, and many Czechs have been more than willing to be manipulated.
1 Never ever going to call it Czechia, awful name. In Czech, Czechoslovakia is Československo, and when they split they became Česko and Slovensko, which works fine. ‘Slovakia’ works in English because of the hard K, but the ‘ch’ in Czechia implies a softer sound, even if we pronounce ‘Czech’ with a hard K at the end, and it just feels wrong to say. This is something that Czechs just don’t seem to understand, similar to the horror of socks with sandals.
2 The word coloured used to be considered a polite way of saying “not-white”, but like many other terms, over time it became considered offensive. See also retard.
This middle-class guilt is misplaced. In reality the lives of working-class and middle-class people are very similar, the main differences being the kind of work that one does and one's social mores. The real upper class (what you might call the 1%, or less) might never come into contact with working- or middle-class people, short of employing them on their estates or being served by them. And they definitely don't feel guilty about their position in society.
This legal targeting was aimed at ‘gypsies’, which was an ill-defined term that referred to people behaving antisocially, but also encompassed ethnic groups.
One eye-opening phrase I've heard since living here was "I'm no Nazi, and Hitler was a very bad guy, but he had the right idea about gypsies"
Friend of the West Yevhen Karas’s group, C14, was responsible for attacks on Roma in Ukraine. But when it happens in Ukraine, it’s Russian propaganda.
I don’t know how many people here were aware of the actual circumstances surrounding Maidan, or the Odessa Trades Union House massacre, but I didn’t see an outcry then. But I was ignorant then, too.