I scream in despair at this frenzy about a Russian ice cream

(Photo: Slavitsa (Славица))

This is the sort of hysterical bullshit that really makes me want to crawl into a cave and never face the internet again: an ice cream, we are told by Craig Fitzpatrick on Newstalk, is at the centre of a new ‘Cold War’ between the US and Russia. It is called Obamka, the diminuitive of Obama, and features a dark-skinned child on the wrapper. Clearly, this is a major crisis, with an ‘unnamed official’ sharing his/her concerns with Reuters about the racist bent that the media-driven anti-Americanism in Russia has taken recently. (I note that this is not the same as the “US accusations of racism” the headline sensationallly points to.)

The evidence piles up. The ice cream is called Obamka, ‘with the “ka” acting as a diminutive suffix which can be considered mocking’. Golly. Those nasty Russians and their potentially mocking diminuitives. But it gets worse: the ice cream is made by a company based in Krasnoyarsk, a city which opened a cafe devoted to Putin and which sported Barack Obama’s face on the bog roll. Disgraceful! The residents of this incestuous little backwater (pop. 1.1 million) are all thick as thieves with each other in this racist, anti-American plot, no doubt about it.

To save my sanity, I’ll lay out a couple of pointers for the next journalist with seemingly no knowledge of Russia, its language or geography who wants to make a new Cold War out of an ice cream wrapper:

  • The -ka suffix can mean, quite literally, a million and one things from merely a smaller size to affection to mockery to function. Mashina = car, mashinka = little car. The verb layat’ = to bark, and the unfortunate dog Laika was a barker. The names Natasha, Sonya, Mikhail become Natashka, Sonyechka and Mishka when used affectionately. And so on for almost every feminine-ending noun and quite a few verbs in this vast language. As a fluent Russian speaker I struggle to think of a mocking use of -ka, though calling anything small could be considered as mockery, to be sure. But the point is this: Russian speakers employ the -ka suffix countless times every day. It is far from always used in mockery. Christ. Get at least a rudimentary hold on such things before you start predicating ice-cream Cold Wars on them.
  • Obama is black. The child on the wrapper is black. The name of the ice cream, Obamka, is clearly a reference to the outgoing US president (this article says so (in Russian)). But for Russians, many of whom, I admit, hold racist, anti-black prejudice, associating an African skin colour with the name of the most powerful black man in the world is not, in and of itself, racist – it is a statement of fact. I shall not labour this point too much, but merely point out that snap American and western judgements of Russian racism miss much in focusing on the dichotomy of Caucasian and African skin colours.

A less clickbait-driven and more mature analysis of this whole, erm, “story” yields some interesting food for thought.

The ice cream company Slavitsa puts forward a representative called Rasilya Mustafina, who is quoted in the Newstalk article above. This is clearly not a Slavonic first name and a quick internet search reveals that it is Tatar. Russia has dozens of its own ethnic groups, many of whom have had to learn to live side by side over centuries. It’s not perfect – Russians’ racism towards their own fellow citizens can be appalling – but Russians are aware of other skin colours and peoples in their own country. Many Russians are the children of inter-ethnic marriages. The concept of people with a non-white skin colour is anything but a foreign one for Russian citizens. Journalists should bear this in mind the next time they want to lambast the ignorant, near-White Supremacist Russians for their racism.

This excuse for news has provoked arch responses in the Russian media. The Russian news responses to this ballyhoo that I have seen convey a gleeful pride that Russia has managed to get under the Americans’ skin with an ice cream for children. The effect of this, I predict, is to bolster nationalist Russian feelings of anti-Americanism and a belief in a constant conflict of sorts between the two countries – a new Cold War, if you will.

The Americans accuse Russia of racism and anti-Americanism. But then their own disproportionate response (to an ice-cream wrapper – did I mention we’re still talking about an ice cream?) fuels more Russian anti-Americanism. Can nobody else see the madness in this chain?

White House officials: find better things to do than commenting to Reuters anonymously about children’s ice creams.

Journalists: learn some basics of a foreign language before you start trying to make Cold War out of a single suffix. Remember that other countries deal with issues of race and ethnicity.

[End of rant.]

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