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AMST 3920

Final Paper

Racism in Sweden and Russia: Comparative Perspectives

“Authorities say most of Russia's recent hate crimes have been directed toward Africans,
Asians and anyone of the Caucasus region. Ali Nasoor, who came to St. Petersburg 20
years ago and has lived through all the upheavals of the last two decades, says life for
foreigners has never been worse. ‘We are just being killed out in the open,’ Nasoor told
ABC News. ‘It's just gotten out of control.’” 1

“As long as the refugee and migrant flows could generate economic prosperity, they were
welcome. When this is no longer the case in the short run, the door is shut;
humanitarianism can go shame itself in the corner”
– Jabar Amin, former director of the refugee camp in the municipality of Robertfors, speaking of Sweden
and Western countries in general (Daun et al. [1994], 236).2

According to Wieviorka (2002), although what we understand as racism might have been

a feature in various societies, ultimately it has been a project related to global European

expansionism, and various scientific and philosophical developments (40-41). However, racism

should not be seen as a “natural” feature of European societies, but rather as an outcome of

complex processes and social relations. Essed (1991) argues that “even when it draws on cultural

and ideological remnants of previous historical processes, the specific forms racism takes are

determined by the economic, political, social, and organizational conditions of society” (12). The

case studies of Sweden and Russia are good examples to illustrate Essed’s point - both countries

were perceived as bastions of ethnic and racial tolerance and solidarity for a significant part of

the 20th century but became hostile grounds for immigrants and refugees by the end of the

century. This paper will try to analyze what accounts for such important shifts and how processes

of racialization operate on multiple levels and are shaped by particular developments in the

social, economic, and ideological organization of society. Following Pred (2000) I will argue that
1
Nadezhdina, Sasha. “Racist Attacks Threaten Multiculturalism in Russia: Anti-Immigrant Propaganda Fuels Neo-
Nazi Crimes Ahead of Elections.” ABC News, Sept. 13, 2007. Retrieved May 3, 2008 from
http://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=3596145&page=1
2
Quoted in Pred, Allan. Even In Sweden: Racisms, Racialized Spaces, and the Popular Geographical Imagination,
University of California Press, 2000, pg. 48.

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focusing on extreme forms of racism obscures significant institutional and everyday forms of

racism that take place in societies that are experiencing socioeconomic transitions.

Some Key Terms and Theoretical Debates on Race and Racism

According to Miles and Brown (2003) people have been categorized as “races” in

different societies at different times, but “race” as a biological or scientific concept does not exist

(88-89). They argue that “the use of word ‘race’ to label groups so distinguished by some

combination of phenotypical and cultural attributes is one moment in the ongoing social

construction of reality: ‘races’ are socially imagined rather than biological realities” (89).

However, not having a biological basis for ‘race’ does not mean that the race is not real in the

social world or even that the idea that race is not a biological reality is widely accepted beyond

academic circles. 19th and 20th century developments inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution

and the rise of scientific racism in the Western world culminated with Nazi Germany, which took

the concept of “racial purity” to the extreme (Wieviorka 2003: 460-61).3

Since the end of WWII and decolonization throughout most of the world, scientific

theories of racism saw their decline, but got replaced with cultural racism. Wieviorka (2003),

drawing on Barker (1981), states “the move from biological inferiority to cultural difference – a

move by which racist discourse attempts to base its legitimacy” (461). In this shift focus moves

away from hierarchy of “races” to difference, expressed through “culture, language, religions,

traditions, and customs” (Wieviorka 42). The cultural difference then is presented in terms of

incompatibility, lack, or threat to national homogeneity. It also, just like the biological

3
Wieviorka (2003) also proposes extensive definition of racism through its multiple forms: 1)Racist prejudices,
stereotypes, representations, etc; 2) Racist segregation; 3) Hierarchization; 4) Spectrum of racist violence – from
individual to state sponsored; 5) Poltical racism; 6) Ideological and doctrinaire racism (pg. 463).

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explanation of race, allows for the reproduction of inequalities and class differences, and

establishes justifications for differentiated access to societal resources and social status.

Racism and nationalism have a lot in common. According to Miles (1993) “the ideas of

‘race’ and ‘nation’ as in a kaleidoscope, merge into one another in varying patterns, each

simultaneously highlighting and obscuring the other.”4 Most modern nation-states were built

around the notion of sameness, shared ethnicity, and privileging perceived homogenous

collectivity over difference. Nation states either pushed assimilation or otherwise tried to erase

difference in order to succeed and centralize power. Nation states also relied on establishing and

maintaining clear boundaries against others outside its borders. Hall (1991) states that “national

identity is always …a structured representation which only achieves its positive through the

narrow eye of the negative. It has to go through the eye of the needle of the other before it can

construct itself.”5 Anderson (1983) came up with the term “imagined communities” – it suggests

that the nation is a social and political construction, achieved through particular technological

developments (such as the printed press). It is an invention or maintenance of traditions that

assume shared and universal significance, and the erasure of difference. It is “imagined” since in

reality the individuals within the “community” of the nation cannot possibly know each other

personally, as in the traditional sense of community. He argues that “nation-ness is the most

universally legitimate value in the political life of our time” (1983: 12). The nation is “an

imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (15).

Nationalism however would not succeed simply by political, educational, or mass media means.

In order to properly function (for someone to become ready to die for their nation, for example)

4
Quoted in Pred (2000), pp.25.
5
Quoted in Pred (2000), pp. 25.

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nationalism needs to have “not only ideological pole, but a sensuous and emotional one as well”

(Eriksen 1997: 108).

The concept of institutional racism has roots in the Black Power movement although

since then it has been variously defined and applied. Wellman (1972) defines it as “a structural

relationship based on the subordination of one racial group by another. Given this perspective,

the determining feature of race relations is not prejudice towards blacks, but rather the superior

position of whites and the institutions – ideological as well as structural which maintain it.”6

Race and Racism in Sweden

Pred (2000) opens his book with what appears to be an accurate and complex summary of

Sweden’s transformations:

I have borne the intense discomfort of bearing witness to an immense tragedy, of


observing good intentions coming completely apart, of seeing what was once arguably
the world’s most generous refugee policy, what was once a remarkably humane and
altruistic response to cruelties committed abroad, became translated at home into the
cruelties of pronounced housing segregation, extreme labor-market discrimination,
almost total (de facto) social apartheid, and frequently encountered bureaucratic
paternalism (xii).

Although Sweden’s role was not major in the global European expansion, it was involved

in colonization and slave trade in its earlier history. Sweden’s industrialization and the emerging

Cold War brought the Social Democratic Party to power which stayed for the most of 20th

century. Sweden’s historical compromise involved the provision of generous social policies,

welfare, and solidarity. This in part was achieved through Sweden’s strong labor unions which, if

not appeased, could have potentially went down the revolutionary route following the Soviet

Union. Instead, a historical compromise between labor and capital was reached, which was

6
Quoted in entry on “Institutional Racism” in Dictionary of Sociology. 2005. Scott, John and Gordon Marshall
(eds.) Oxford University Press, pp. 311-312.

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mediated by the state. Rapid industrialization and the growing economy also accepted significant

numbers of refugees and immigrants. According to Pred (2000) Sweden was “a country long

stereotyped by Western intellectuals and progressives as a paradise of social enlightenment, as an

international champion of social justice, as the very model of solidarity and equality, as the

world’s capital of good intentions and civilized behaviors towards others” (6). Good intentions

and “civilized behaviors” could not always been attributed to Sweden – in fact it has a long

history of colonizing indigenous Saami people, as well as a history of eugenics, sterilization and

other experiments in “scientific racism” (Pred 2000).

The visibility of larger and larger numbers of immigrants and Swedes born to immigrant

parents were often met with hostility. White Swedish anxieties about “their” nation, culture, and

economy manifested themselves in various ways. Some of them were blatant racist attacks,

changes in immigration laws, and endless ways of institutional and everyday forms of racism.

The economic crisis of the early 1990s challenged Swedish notions of solidarity and

humanitarianism in unprecedented ways in the form of racism and hostility against “foreigners.”

Immigrants or non-white Swedes had an increasingly difficult time in finding jobs, receiving

quality social services, receiving a poor education, while they were also being attacked or

insulted on the streets by passersby’s or police. However, it is difficult to distinguish forms of

everyday racism and structural racism.

Essed (2001) argues that a clear-cut distinction of everyday or individual racism and

structural racism has serious theoretical and methodological shortcomings. She argues that

“individual racism is A contradiction in terms because racism is by definition An expression or

activation of group power” (37). She argues that such a distinction places the “individual outside

the institutional, thereby severing rules, regulations, and procedures from the people who make

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and enact them, as if it concerned qualitatively different racism rather than different positions

and relations through which racism operates” (36)

White Swedes suddenly find their national identity in crisis. It needs to readjust itself to

face the changes, but it attempts to not give up privileges and notions of cultural superiority.

“Outsiders” even if living in Sweden for generations have very poor prospects to ever achieve a

status of insider. Sweden then needs to identify not only against “others from without” but from

“others from within” as well. “Others from without” can be seen as all Others – immigrants,

refugees, asylum seekers - attempting to access Sweden’s wealth and welfare, usually

represented as potential burden on the society. “Others from within” are non-white Swedes,

holding citizenship and possessing various markers of Swedishness, but in fact, never fully

accepted as such.

Race and Racism in Russia

The history of Russia offers a glance at the human and geographic diversity of this vast

country. Russia has been a site of cross cultural migration and a battlefield of various empires

(Mongol, Chinese, Ottoman and numerous others) over influence. Modern Russia is far from

being ethnically “pure” – but is rather a result of centuries-long process of migration, conquest,

movement, and ethnic mixing. Russia, as a nation with a bounded territory governed by the

Russian state, is not (and never has been) a stable unitary unit, but rather a constantly contested

and shifting process of nation-building. The Russian nation is not a simple and “natural” process.

Although Russia is typically not associated with African presence it does, in fact, have a

long history. Probably the best illustration of that is Aleksandr Pushkin, the 19th century poet,

who is widely considered to be the embodiment of Russian greatness and culture. Pushkin’s

grandfather was African (disputed, but probably of Ethiopian origin) who was adopted by Peter

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the Great and rose to the military rank of General-in-Chief in the Russian army, became

governor of Tallinn, and had a variety of other military, scientific, and social accomplishments.

He was seen as one of the most educated Russian citizens at the time.7 Although this might be

simply seen as an isolated case, following the fashion of Western European courts of adopting

enslaved African children, it also illustrates that African presence has been significant, although

not numerically, even in the countries that are not associated with having such histories. It also

allows us to gain some insights into changing meanings of race, blackness, and otherness, as

mediated by new developments in state, nation, social, and economic structures.

According to Fikes and Lemon (2002), even if the Russian Empire was not a power

directly involved in slavery there were some slaves coming in to Russia largely purchased at the

slave trade centers of Ottoman Empire, directly from Africa, or from Western European slave

traders. Slaves and especially children, as in the case of Ibrahim Petrovich Hannibal, Pushkin’s

grandfather, apparently were obtained for their exotic appearance to become part of the Imperial

courthouses, not for manual labor exploitation, as it was common rationale in the transatlantic

slave trade or the Ottoman Empire. Africans were “given personal freedom in exchange for a

lifetime service obligation.”8 The reason for that might be that Russia did not become an

industrialized state and had a system of serfdom in place, which was officially abolished only in

1861. However it remained a de facto practice for much longer.

Besides Black servants in the tsarist courts, Blacks found home in Russia.9 Some traveled

from the US and became influential businessmen, diplomats, and occupied various other

7
Gnammankou, .Diedonne “Pushkin Between Russia and Africa.” Diogenes, 45(3), 1997, 211-229.
8
Fikes, Kesha and Alaina Lemon. “African Presence in Former Soviet Spaces.” Annual Review of Anthropology,
vol. 31, 2002, pg. 497-524.
9
This paragraph draws heavily on the information from an entry on “Russia and Soviet Union” in Africana: The
Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. 2005. Appiah, Kwame Anthony and Henry Louis
Gates, Jr. (eds.) Oxford University Press, pp. 1643-1648.

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professions. Black villages existed in Abkhazia (now Georgia) as part of the Russian empire for

centuries. Before and after the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia apparently was a desirable

destination for many Africans, African Americans, and Caribbean Blacks. Many prominent

African American artists, intellectuals, and political leaders expressed sentiments about a lack of

racism in Russia. They included Langston Hughes, W.E.B Du Bois, Paul Robeson and many

others. Some stayed and married Russians, others frequently returned to the Soviet Union.

Claude McCay, for example, talking about his treatment in Russia said “never in my life did I

feel prouder of being African, a black, and make no mistake about it.”10 In fact, many Africans or

African Americans stated that the only racism they experienced was from white Americans,

while in Russia. Although this, of course, should be situated in the politics of the emerging Cold

War and the Soviet Union’s global political ambitions about worldwide socialist revolution, the

fact remains telling and important, especially when considering the post-Soviet rise in racism and

xenophobia. The Lumumba or People’s Friendship University accepted a lot of African students.

When the numbers increased to significant levels this caused some racist sentiments and one

alleged murder in the 1960s.11 The Soviet Union’s involvement in Africa and its independent

struggles varied over time and depended on various interests and priorities of the time. However,

anti-racism was an actively disseminated state ideology to illustrate moral superiority of the

Soviets versus US and other Western racist governments.

Neo-Nazi Extremism in Sweden and Russia

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought an unseen instant economic collapse and

dissolution of social and political order. Rising inequalities and ethnic conflicts brought not only

10
Ibid, pp. 1645.
11
Literature of the Black experience in the latter period of the Soviet Union (which was to a significant degree much
more racist then the accounts describe from before 1960s) is reviewed in Fikes and Lemon (2002).

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economic crisis, but a crisis in identity as well for Russia as well as former Soviet states.

Blaming foreigners - whether Americans and other westerners, Jews, Muslims or labor

immigrants - became a common practice, distracting from the internal power grab and

privatization of common wealth accumulated over the generations. The sense of powerlessness

and insecurity opened up space for the rise of racist and xenophobic rhetoric and actions at

various levels – from neo-Nazi violent street attacks on foreigners, to media and political

scapegoating of immigrants for the hardships of the country. How can the rise of racism be

explained in the country which took pride in defeating Nazi Germany – the war which took over

20 million lives of Soviet citizens? Although economic or structural explanations might appear

self-evident, they are not sufficient in order to understand the complexity of the recent rise of

racism in Russia. While it is quite clear that some neo-Nazis could be described as a disaffected

youth coming from poor backgrounds, it is not entirely clear that it is the only or primary cause

of racist attacks. The search for rationale should include complex examination of nationalist

ideologies that circulate via media and political discourses. It should also examine the typically

gendered nature of neo-Nazi activism; the appeal of hypermasculine subculture as a space for

meaning-making in the period of transition; the symbolic role of losing the Cold War; and

Russia, or Eastern Europe in general, being West’s permanent “Other.”12 It is also important to

note that in Russia the “other” is not explicitly African. The category of “Black” encompasses a

variety of non-European people. The war in Chechnya, for example, caused intense racialized

fear and hatred of Muslim people (often portrayed as savage and/or terrorist), which was

exploited by the media and politicians. Some ex-Soviet Republics and its people acquired

racialized hostility for its regional politics and successful or attempted secession. Other
12
The presence of such discourse could be found in the debates about EU enlargement, which often posits Russia as
ultimate border for the “real” Europe. On western Orientalism in relation to Eastern Europe see Wolff, Larry. 1994.
Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford, CA.: Stanford
University Press.

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significant Russian anxieties stem from the declining population. This has been caused by low

fertility, a sharp increase in mortality rates after the collapse of Soviet Union, as well as

emigration. Since these trends are not to be reversed any time soon, the only solution, similar to

the Western Europe, is to be achieved through immigration. Apparently Russia, like other

countries, is not ready to come to terms with economic needs on the one hand and inevitable

increase in diversity on the other.

Similar reasons and developments can be applied for rise of neo-Nazi extremism in

Sweden. In Russia despite some sentences and arrests of neo-Nazis for their crimes, the general

idea is that the government, if not actively promotes neo-Nazi groups, at least tolerates. In the

environment where political power is centralized and any dissent easily crushed, the proliferation

of neo-Nazi groups and parties speaks for itself in the state’s complicity with these

developments. In Sweden, the relationship of neo-Nazi groups and the state might be more

hostile, but Sweden remains one of the largest neo-Nazi propaganda production and

dissemination sites. However, the difference might be the liberal framework of free speech in

Sweden, which does not have tools to completely ban neo-Nazi propaganda. Pred (2000),

however, argues that condemnation by the public of the neo-Nazi attacks might be a distraction

from the structural problems, as well as an excuse for “respectable” middle-class and elite

Swedes to disassociate from racism. Russia’s public discourse is largely at the different level

when it comes to the “problems” of multiculturalism in the Western countries. The immigrants

are openly discussed in terms of their utility to the economic and not in terms of successful

integration. However, it should not be assumed that society as a whole is racist and that neo-Nazi

extremism is purely a reflection. Some statistics show that ordinary Russians are not as

prejudiced as it might seem and they fear neo-Nazi gangs themselves.

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By now, the message has been spread worldwide about the neo-Nazi attacks and that

signifies symbolic victory for the neo-Nazi groups and whoever else shares same interest of anti-

immigration. In Russia, however, the most common complaint from the immigrants is about

police harassment. Police as representatives of the state and keepers of the law are able to

communicate a message to the immigrants that they are not welcome. What exactly is the role of

the state is not entirely clear. The official rhetoric welcomes foreigners, while institutional

obstacles, police harassment, and neo-Nazi extremism communicates the opposite. This makes

filing complaints against neo-Nazis or other abuses even more difficult and official statistics not

representing real situation.13

The case of Russia shares some similarities but also has various differences with Sweden

when it comes to displacing responsibility on particular groups for racism. By now the general

sentiments from the Soviet period about solidarity with the world’s racialized and underclasses

are gone. There is no strong framework of Western style liberal democratic values (no matter

how contradictory and selective they are in the West), and often groups that work for the various

human rights causes are frequently harassed or banned.14 Although an anti-fascist heritage is still

strong and circulates widely in the political discourses and media, it loses its legitimacy, since

the young generation is not able to connect to it in meaningful ways. Another hypothesis that is

often proposed is that neo-Nazi groups are allowed to proliferate to the extent that they become

13
Osipov, .Alexandr. 1998. “Racism in Russia: A Few Comments.” The Memorial Human Rights Centre “The
problem has three basic mutually interdependent forms: a) racially motivated violence by the police militsiya’):
arbitrary checks of the ‘passport regime’, searches of private flats, detains, extortion of money, beatings, abuses; b)
refuse of the police to protect equally persons of different ethnic (racial) background from criminal offences; c)
activities of extremist groups and official connivance towards them.”
14
"Human rights don't exist in Russia. Not if your skin is black," notes Taddele Gebre Alemayehu, a Cold War era
dissident from Ethiopia. "I was watching on television when Putin talked about 'human rights'. But that's a joke. It's
only words. We are nobody. Absolutely nobody."
Barnes, Hugh. “Xenophobia in Russia.” Retrieved on May 11th 2008 from http://cdi.org/russia/johnson/7223-12.cfm

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widely publicly feared but at the right moment suppressed by the “mighty hand” of the state

(such tricks can be used to win elections, for example.)

Some Conclusions:

The forms of racism and racialization are complex and always changing. It is important

to pay attention to how various shifts in economic and social order, representations, and global

developments reinforce or challenge concepts of race and racism. It is also important not to

universalize them, but attempt to understand them in their full complexity – for example, how

blackness is constructed, lived, understood, and embodied across time and space. There is always

a danger of reproducing the realness of “race” while attempting simultaneously to undo it.15

Wright (2004) calls for cautionary treatment of various diasporas in order not to homogenize

them but rather see them as possessing “different immigrant histories, not only in terms of their

chronological history, physical placement, and the racial discourses…that sought to interpellate

them, but also in the ways they have subverted, resisted, or otherwise reacted against those

discourses” (7).

Miles (1993) reminds us that “the effects of racism are always mediated by other

structures and social relations, the most important of which are class relations and political

reality of the nation state.”16 Naturalization of inequalities is achieved through complex structural

processes and individual actions as part of ideological constructions that strive for hegemony.

Hegemony, however, is typically not able to achieve its full potential since there is always

resistance coming from collective and individual agency. Although both Sweden and Russia both

were empires at different times and were involved to various degrees in slave trade and
15
For the elaborate argument see Miles, Robert and Rudy Torres. 1996. “Does ‘Race’ Matter? Transatlantic
Perspectives on Racism after ‘Race Relations.’” In Re-Situating Identities: The Politics of Race, Ethnicity &
Culture. Amit-Talai, Vered and Caroline Knowles (eds). Broadview Press: Ontario, Canada, pp.24-46.
16
Quoted in Pred (2ooo), pp. 25.

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colonization of other people, it is important to acknowledge that “there is a difference between

the racism aimed at former colonial populations or groups which do not share a colonial past

with the host society” (Wieviorka 2003: 465).

However, in today’s rapidly globalizing world, images, representations, stereotypes, and

social meanings travel faster then ever before and they might inform and shape discourses on

race in various unexpected ways.17 Another important concern is to consider differences among

different countries and ways institutions and individuals respond to racism and racializations.

Assuming universality of racism as translocal and static prevents us to learn from successful

challenges and achievements, erases resistance and agency of multiple individuals and

communities.18 Racialization affects individuals differently depending on their class, gender,

sexuality, and various other markers of identity. Those markers and locations in the hierarchy

vary across space and time. Focusing on neo-Nazi extremism without deeper analysis of their

actions in a larger symbolic order and socioeconomic environment, its connections to how

broader social forces are reflected or not in their sentiments might be ultimately unproductive

and misleading. (Not to suggest that they should be ignored or seen as unimportant, but rather to

understand their emergence and effective prevention of their rise.)

17
For example how is it that in some largely homogenous countries such as Lithuania myths of affirmative action
and “excesses of political correctness” in the US find their ways into popular discourses and imagination without
historicized and contextualized framework?
It is also to important to note Russian neo-Nazi groups as strongly influenced by the Western European trends, and
sometimes actively recruited in the 1990s. Russia has chapters of all major White Supremacist and Nazi skinhead
groups such as Blood and Honor.

18 For example, recent study has shown that within the Europe according to complex and multilayered criteria
Sweden remains most progressive when it comes to immigrant employment. After learning about the degree of
racism even in Sweden what does it tell about other European societies? (Lithuania, my native country ranks
the very last on the list, for example, and that does not surprise me.) “Sweden 'best at helping foreigners
integrate.'” Retrieved on April 29th, 2008 from The Local http://www.thelocal.se/8791/ Although such studies
might have significant shortcomings it is still worthwhile trying to understand differences across various
countries.

18

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References:

Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of
Nationalism. London: Verso.

Edwards, Roanne. 2005. “Russia and Soviet Union” in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the
African and African American Experience. Appiah, Kwame Anthony and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
(eds.) Oxford University Press, pp. 1643-1648.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 1997. “The Nation as a Human Being – A Metaphor in a Mid-Life
Crisis?: Notes on the Imminent Collapse of Norwegian Identity.” In Siting Culture: The Shifting
Anthropological Object. Olwig, Karen Fog and Kirsten Hastrup (eds.). London: Routledge.

Essed, Philomena. 1991. Understanding Everyday Racism: An Interdisciplinary Approach.


Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Gnammankou, Diedonne. “Pushkin Between Russia and Africa.” Diogenes, 45(3), 1997, 211-
229.

Miles, Robert and Malcolm Brown. 2003. Racism (2nd Edition). Routledge: New York.

Pred, Allan. 2000. Even In Sweden: Racisms, Racialized Spaces, and the Popular Geographical
Imagination, University of California Press.

Scott, John and Gordon Marshall (eds.) 2005. Dictionary of Sociology. 2005. Oxford University
Press.

Fikes, Kesha and Alaina Lemon. 2002. “African Presence in Former Soviet Spaces.” Annual
Review of Anthropology, vol. 31, pp. 497-524.

Wieviorka, Michel. 2002. “The Development of Racism in Europe.” In A Companion to Racial


and Ethnic Studies. Goldberg, David Theo and John Solomos (Eds.) Blackwell.

Michelle M. Wright. 2004. Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora. Durham:
Duke University Press.

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