Breivik, tolerance, and the West’s decline: a Russian view

A recent piece in Rossiiskaia Gazeta, the Russian government’s official newspaper and one of Russia’s largest, portrays Norway as a country that, while nice in many ways, is unfortunately about to be capsized by a wave of multicultural tolerance set in motion by Breivik, the right-wing terrorist. This rather ludicrous charge is not new, but echoes previous and similarly bizarre commentary about the Breivik attacks in the mainstream Russian press.

The author of the Rossiiskaia Gazeta article, Iurii Snegirev, imagines the right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik “beating his bold Nazi skull” against the walls of his prison cell for not having achieved his purpose of igniting a wave of racial hatred. What he rather achieved by massacring 77 innocent people on 22 July 2011, we are told, was to “raise an unprecedented wave of tolerance [which] is about to overwhelm and sink Norway”. And what exactly does this tolerance tsunami consist of? Apparently, it hit the reporter with full force on a crowded intercity train:

I’m on the train from Hamar to Oslo. […] It’s Friday. Everyone is in a hurry to get home, or to the airport for a weekend trip to the warm sea. A lot of elderly women with expensive suitcases. All seats are taken. I’m standing next to a vending machine. A Pakistani enters the train. Black beard, dark skin. Here a red-bearded Norwegian jumps up to offer the Muslim a seat. He refuses. Around me there are elderly women and children who would also like to rest. And then there’s me. But the Norwegian doesn’t relent. He forced the black-bearded man to take his place. Then he went to stand by the door, all the while glancing affably at the southerner, as if having done a good deed which will be credited in Brussels.

It doesn’t stop there. Readers also learn that Norway is almost free from corruption, apart from among immigrants, of course, “who despite their incompetence and thanks to universal tolerance are occupying higher and higher positions” (no evidence is cited for this silly claim). To further reveal how Norway is heading down the drain due to misguided tolerance and immigration, the Rossiiskaia Gazeta reporter interviews an obscure journalist, a Norwegian citizen of Russian origin who complains that if he’d only been a dark-skinned and homosexual Muslim, his life in Norway would have been sweet as chocolate [“zhil by v shokolade”]. (I’m sure many gay Muslims would beg to differ.)

Similar views were voiced by commentators in the Russian mainstream press back in 2011. Here’s what I wrote on the subject in a 2015 article published in Terrorism and Political Violence (read the whole piece here):

The role of ideology was not a major topic in the Russian press. Rather, pundits usually ignored the whole question, interpreting the 22/7 attacks as growing more or less directly out of the ills of immigration and multiculturalism. For instance, an op-ed appearing three days after the events in Komsomolskaia pravda, Russia’s largest daily, observed that, “A great many saw in Breivik a victim of circumstances, a concerned [neravnodushno] man driven to extremes by globalization and multiculturalism.” […] The daily Trud published an opinion piece entitled “The Eurobutcher” arguing that the Breivik case demonstrates Europe’s march into “an unbelievable ideological quagmire” of naive multiculturalism and misguided tolerance.

Some media commentators even portrayed Breivik as a righteous rebel against the government, thereby reproducing a central part of the terrorist’s own narrative of justification. On 24 July 2011, the Moskovskii komsomolets, a major Moscow tabloid, ran an op-ed entitled “Black and Whites” in which Breivik was said to have “rebelled against […] the suicidal idea of multiculturalism, tolerance, and satiety” and a Norwegian government “blinded by treacherous tolerance”. Norway’s policies of multiculturalism and tolerance, the author continued, would result in giving “power to the blacks [vlast chernym]”, which in turn explains why Breivik did what he did. Another example is an opinion piece published on the popular internet news site in August 2012, in which the authors compared Breivik to the crusaders of the Middle Ages: Just like the crusaders, who demonstrated much cruelty when scrambling to defend and restore Christian lands conquered by Muslims, Breivik reacted “barbarically” to a “barbarian invasion” of non-Western immigrants [otvetil varvarski, no – na varvarskoe nashestvie].

This kind of schadenfreude-infused attack on multiculturalism, sometimes bordering on plain racism, obviously taps into the good old theme of a decaying West. A couple of centuries ago, in the 1840s, Slavophiles would portray Western Europe as “a decaying, infectious organism, from which Russia should be guarded”. Back then, it was a matter of protecting autocracy and orthodoxy from revolutionary developments in the West. Nowadays, it is still about guarding a certain conservative order against unsettling effects of cultural change.

The Kremlin’s conservative positioning, defense of “traditional values”, and attack on Western “so-called tolerance” has a foreign-policy dimension as well. Such signals may help build ties with far-right parties in the West and influence opinion about Russia among parts of the conservative electorate in Western countries. But don’t be fooled by pundits who depict far-right forces in the West as “Russian Trojan horses”. The ongoing right-wing drift in European politics is homegrown; blaming Russia for it would amount to a silly conspiracy theory. While there may be legitimate concerns about Kremlin attempts to capitalize on this development, the development itself is not a Russian ploy.

Inasmuch as the Western right-wing turn is a reaction to liberal overreach and overoptimistic globalism, the general thrust of the Russian critique is not entirely devoid of merit. But the Rossiiskaia Gazeta piece, and the many articles it echoes, are overwrought and poorly in touch with the facts. An extreme outlier case such as the Breivik attacks is just not a useful lens for analyzing larger developments related to (the failures) of multiculturalism. Moreover, even if we agreed to use right-wing terrorism as a measure of failed multiculturalism, then Russia would fare a lot worse than any Western country, with its 650 right-wing extremist killings in the past 15 years (according to SOVA Center data). And speaking of Breivik in particular, Russia seems to be the only country to have witnessed public manifestations of support for the Norwegian terrorist.¹ So perhaps the spotlight in this case should have been turned inwards rather than westwards.

¹ You need a account to view the video in the first link. In it, pro-Breivik chanting begins at about 4:00.

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