Whiteness as Convertable Currency in Russia

The Russian Federation is closed to you.  The Russian Federation is now open to you, as long as you get your papers in order and apply for a new visa.  This is the Russia Foreign Ministry response to the Harding Affair. It didn’t take long for MID to diffuse the situation and chalk it all up to bureaucratism.

Harding has had his fifteen minutes of fame.  The Russian government got an additional fifteen minutes of shame.  The Guardian got some free advertising for Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by insisting that Harding was booted for his Wikileaks reporting.  And just so it doesn’t go unnoticed, Harding is a co-author of the book.  In the age of total marketing, nothing wets publicists between the legs more than an international incident involving a percieved authoritarian state.

The theories will certainly continue to fly as to why Harding’s bureaucratic slip up was met with such intolerance.  Certainly the brief row will be exploited by all sorts of opportunists.  Speaking of which, Vladimir Milov has a theory.  Harding’s expulsion was because he exposed Putin’s connection of Guvnor and even helped him and Boris Nemtsov on their anti-Putin screed.  But this was way back in 2007 and while the Russian bureaucracy works slow, it doesn’t work that slow.  But Milov is just being, well, Milov.  Always hungry for press, always trying in vain to turn all eyes on his valiant campaign against the villainous Putin machine.

Nezamisimaya gazeta has another theory.  How journalists are treated depends on Russian relations with their home country. Britain is at the top of the suspicious list and is journalists are treated different than say their German or Italian colleagues in a similar situation.  After all, Merkel is good friends with Putin, and the latter is in a bromance with Berluscioni that rivals the celluloid shmaltz of I Love You, Man.  Putin has no equivalent in London and therefore its journalists don’t get a pass when they don’t have their papers in order.

I don’t doubt Nezamisimaya is on to something.  Yet I would insert another caveat.  While the world’s press, including that in Russia, and numerous media watchdog groups came to Harding’s aid with all the outrage they’re known to muster, there is one minor detail that has gone unnoticed. In Julia Ioffe’s story, she noted, based on a Harding tweet, the interesting contrast in treatment between our hero and brown people:

Within minutes, Harding’s passport was confiscated and he was locked in a deportation cell. Being a journalist, he counted everyone in there. “There were four Tajiks, a Kyrgyz guy, and a woman from the Congo,” Harding told me on the phone from London. “She had been there for seven days and was half-asleep on a metal bench.” In another half-hour, Harding was on a plane, bound for London on the first flight home, his passport returned to him with a slip of paper marking him as a deportee.

Harding was on the next plane back to jolly ol’Britannia within a half-hour, the brown people had been languishing in a deportation cell days.  Interestingly, I would expect that Harding, “being a journalist” and all, would have made more of the fact that while he was quickly sent on his merry way, and the Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Congolese were left to wallow in a deportation prison.  The woman from the Congo had already been there fore seven days.  For how much longer, who knows?  I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re all still there.  Hopefully, Harding has an upcoming story about this since he’s predicament has made him privy the way Russia deals with people they refuse entry to.

Whiteness has value in Russia no matter which country you come from.  Belyi is always better than chernyi and being considered white is a powerful currency if your possess it.  Everyone who’s been through passport control at Domodedovo or Sheremetevo knows the unwritten rule that if you get in a line behind a bunch of Central Asians, Arabs, Asians or Africans, or anyone with a darker shade of white, your wait will be that much longer.  The passport controllers who often look as if they suffer from myopia when a white person approaches, suddenly regain their focus when a brown person reaches their box.  They scan the foreigner’s darker face as if s/he are engaging in a craniometical analysis.  The foreigner usually passes without incident, but I presume that if there was some kind of bureaucratic mistake, they wouldn’t get a pass, let alone be dispatched back to their home country on the next flight.

All of this makes me wonder whether the brouhaha over the Harding Affair has an unstated racial subtext.  Sure he was refused entry all the same. Being a whitey didn’t save him from that.  But did Harding’s whiteness play a role in the speed in which he was returned home and more importantly in the response his expulsion has garnered?  And if so then who’s speaking out for his Tadjik, Kyrgyz, and Congolese cellmates?