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Idrak Mirzalizade, June 2021. © Idrak Mirzalizade/YouTube

In an outrageous move, the Russian Interior Ministry announced today it has banned a stand-up comedian, Idrak Mirzalizade, from Russia for life, over a joke he told which Russian authorities consider insulting to ethnic Russians.

Mirzalizade, a Belarussian national of Azerbaijani origin, told the joke during a comedy program that aired online in March 2021. He spoke at length about the prevalence of open racism in Russia, in the context of discrimination in the real estate rentals market against non-Slavic people. He attempted a joke about his own experience renting an apartment where the previous tenants, ethnic Russians, left behind a mattress covered in feces.

After a right-wing TV channel and Russian state propaganda personality, who referred to Mirzalizade as “dirt under our feet” aired an abridged version of his joke, devoid of context, Mirzalizade received threats and on June 25 was physically attacked in central Moscow. So far no one has been held accountable.

Later that month, Mirzalizade released another video explaining how the joke was meant to show why it’s wrong to base negative ethnic stereotypes on isolated incidents. He also described the thousands of threatening messages he received and showed CCTV footage of the June assault. The authorities’ response was to open an investigation against Mirzalizade, accusing him of inciting hatred, for which he was sentenced to 10 days’ detention on August 9.

The authorities also opened proceedings on the “undesirability” of Mirzalizade’s presence in Russia, which culminated with the Interior Ministry’s decision today to ban him, claiming it will fight “extremist expressions.” It’s difficult to see this as anything but cynical, given the authorities’ pursuit of penalties against Mirzalizade, but silence on hate speech by politicians, and inaction against hate groups’ harassment of individuals and businesses.

Racism and xenophobia are common in Russia. A 2019 media investigation showed that in Moscow, 14 percent of rental ads contained openly discriminatory exclusion clauses targeting non-Slavic people. 

Mirzalizade’s case illustrates yet again how instead of acknowledging entrenched problems, the authorities punish the messenger. Russian authorities don’t hesitate to flag racism in other countries, but they’re not prepared to fully address it at home. They should start a public dialogue on the corrosive problem of racism in Russia and stop scapegoating those who criticize it.

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