A few years back I remember several female neighbors warning me to be careful of the black men who lived on the 6th floor of my Moscow apartment. I lived a couple floors lower and wasn’t really sure why we were supposed to be careful as they hadn’t bothered to explain that part. I did wonder who it could be as in my view, Russia was very white for the most part and I had seen only a very few truly black folk in Moscow. Eventually I figured out that they were referring to a household of Chechen guys who lived upstairs. It was a stretch in my mind to figure them as “black” because back home in Southern California and Arizona I’d have recognized more of a light brown skin tone, closer to Hispanics in the American southwest.
Of course Russia and the FSU is racist and we’re not going to try and paper over that fact. When Mr. Obama was elected president the Russian internet went viral with cartoons that were blatantly offensive, and people who knew I was a resident wanted to know how in the world a great country like the USA could allow a black man to be president? From university students to co-workers I was asked if the military was planning to step in and restore order, etc.
If nothing else it was an opportunity to talk about the meaning of free elections. During the 50s-60s-70s in Russia there were billboards, postcards, TV shows and newspaper reports of “African throngs” in the streets of America, supposedly burning the place to the ground. Newspaper cartoons showed burned out schools and hospitals with the clear message that America had “allowed the black man to go too far” and that with proper vigilance such would never be allowed in the Soviet Union.
So in 2008 and following, I understood such questions especially when top leaders in Russia were mocking Obama on Russian TV at almost every turn. To me it is amazing that Russia has actually grown up quickly and a good many people have attempted to put that behind them.
One ice cream company, and Russians love ice cream almost as much as vodka, came out with a new product titled “Chocolate in Vanilla.’ Ads for the product proclaimed “The flavour of the week–Black in White!” Some Russians thought it cool to combine black and white, but others rushed to tell grocers who carried the product that customers would find new venues to shop if the item remained in store coolers.
Of course few can forget the reaction on national television network REN when this news anchor gave Mr.Obama the “finger” on national TV:
Just this week Igor Panarin, dean the Russian Foreign Ministry School for future diplomats, predicted that President Obama will announce martial law by the end of 2012 in order to stay in power should he lose the election. During the Russian presidential election in March 2012 nationalist youth printed banners showing Obama surrounded by a black staff and in the other frame was Putin with a white staff, the obvious message that if one failed to vote for Putin then “terrible things” like blacks coming to power could happen to Russia.
Quality instruction at cheap prices however continues to attract black students from primarily African countries to live and study in Russia. Black students say that if they band together, the promise of an education outweighs the danger. But still, there are risks for non-whites living in Russia.
Next door in Ukraine professional football soccer players from Nigeria tell of spectators who attend games armed with bananas and monkey chants. Some players say they try to make a joke of the fruit landing on the field by eating the fruit. In an interview with the European Press Association, they tell of having learned to avoid the random beatings, pepper spray muggings and insults these players face as well as African students in Ukraine by leaving their campus for home before dark, seldom going into the city centre unless in a group and staying away from gangs of men.
Authorities in Ukraine don’t seem to be interested and most claim that stories of beatings and brutality are exaggerated in order to make Ukraine look bad.
While the USA has for decades elected black officials and a black president to lead the country, Russian voters waited until 2010 for a black person to be elected to public office. A country which traces its roots to over a 1,000 years ago, only elected a black regional council representative as the first black person ever to hold any sort of public office in Russia in 2010.
Yet even in this vast land there remains the possibility of change. The 2010 census revealed that there are between 40,000 and 70,000 Russians of full or mixed-African heritage who live in Russia now. Normally racist Russians are colour blind when it comes to the most famous African-Russian, the “father of Russian literature.” Aleksandr Pushkin, Russia’s premier literary genius was the great-grandson of an African brought to St. Petersburg under Peter the Great in the early 18th century.
As Michelle Goldhaber wrote in the Kyiv Post in May, “Pluralism and diversity are your assets, not liabilities and it’s time to come to terms with your history, and your present, and to stop allowing hate crimes and discrimination to be culturally accepted.“