At the summit in St. Petersburg this week much will be made of the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama. Given the current iciness in relations after the Snowden affair it might be helpful to look at a key element most have overlooked- race. It may be politically incorrect to even hint that one persons’ race could impact relations between nations but in Russia the unsaid can carry considerable impact.
Race has not always been an issue.
For most of Russia’s history minorities have thrived. Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian history, was of mixed African ancestry. In the early twentieth century people of color visited like Paul Robeson declared the Soviet Union a haven from discrimination.
Communism brought hardship, and as they experienced chronic shortages, the government falsely blamed assistance to African comrades for empty store shelves. In time resentment grew against all people of African lineage.
While Putin has been in office one of the tools he uses is to release tensions in his country by turning a blind eye to rampant racism. At one time packs of Neo-Nazis roamed the streets of Moscow attacking any churki (a derogatory term used for any non-Russian looking person).
No one has accused Putin of racism- he just gains little by being overly friendly with Obama.
When the American president made his first trip to Russia the occasion was notable mainly by its low key nature. No flag waving populace, no grand banquet, not even a comfortable stay in one of the Kremlin palaces were offered. The Obama family stayed in a hotel.
Over the years the relationship between the two men has risen at best to cordial, at worst, the whole world saw photos from their last meeting. Both looked as if being anywhere in the world would be preferable to the others’ company.
All cannot be explained by the social attitudes in Russia. The two presidents also have very different leadership styles.
Constitutionally, Barack Obama tends to interpret his role as a hands’ off administrator, who allows others to work out the details so he can focus on the big picture. Putin would relishes involving himself in the details sometimes with dramatic effect. In 2009 Putin visited the small city of Pikalyovo when local leaders stopped paying employees and disconnecting vital services. With news cameras present he ordered all the leaders to sign an agreement ending the crisis.
Whatever comes from this weeks’ summit the odds of a warming in the relationship between the two presidents, especially with America heading towards war with Syria, are remote.