You are here:   Dispatches > ONLINE ONLY: Black Russian
 


President Medvedev and President Obama shake hands

Barack Hussein Obama is making that face again, the one we have all grown rather used to since November 2008. The deal is clinched. The smile is broad and the tiny grey hairs behind his ears are becoming suggestive of the Nelson Mandela coiffure which you can be certain he is aiming for in the long-term. Today Obama is shaking hands with Dmitri Medvedev in Moscow, but the Russian's face is pulled into an awkward grin, with one cheek pulled a lot higher than the other. It looks almost like a sneer. I find this rather amusing, because if Obama was just a nobody interested in a bit of tourism I would have discouraged him from ever going to Russia.

I had heard rumours about Russian racism: Anti-Semitic slurs graphed onto Synagogue walls, Caucasian immigrants being taunted or attacked as the violence in Chechnya spilled over onto the backstreets of Moscow, foreign students from the third-world subjected to beatings and harassment, and other cruel symbols, revealed by the collapse of "the homeland of Socialism", of popular attitudes towards race comparable to 1930s France or even 1980s White South Africa. Then there are the statistics: The SOVA Centre, one of Russia's last functioning human rights centres, estimates that in 2008 over 70 people were killed and more than 260 injured as a result of racially-motivated attacks. But it was only when I started to meet black Russians that I began to understand what it was like to live a life of globalisation gone wrong.

The "Chocolate man," as he is known by those who pass him daily on Nevsky Prospekt, stands outside the Chocolate Museum in St. Petersburg. I had only been in Russia for a few days when I spotted this Senegalese man decked out in a white wig and a pale 18th century court costume. Under the wig was Jacques. "I hate being a chocolate man. Believe me. It's degrading. Humiliating. But I ran out of money when studying dentistry here, and my country cannot repatriate me. You'd be a chocolate man if you were in my situation." His eyes were thick with red micro-veins. After work he puts on his own clothes, rags of the worst imaginable quality. Then he distributes flyers for an R' and B' club outside a metro-station. "Most people take the leaflet, but every hour I'll hear a racist jibe. 'Nigger,' usually." Stuck in Russia with only hideously expensive flights home, Jacques and other black Russians are trapped.

I met Samba when studying at the State University of St. Petersburg in the summer of 2006. We were both eighteen. Samba had been there for a year already, so he showed me the ropes: which far-right students to avoid when they dribbled home late from the vodka bars, how to reach the sealed-off rooftop of the crumbling Khrushchev-era tower-block without falling off. When he learned I was Jewish, he become more sympathetic: "The Russians hate us Blacks, but you Jews are rubbish like us here."

But Samba wasn't free from prejudice himself: "Is it true Jews control America? Can you take me there then?"

We would drink cans of St. Petersburg's native larger, Baltika, in a tent on the beach that ran out behind the dormitory. It wasn't really a beach, just a stretch of pebbles and concrete slabs along the shore. The tent, containing a fridge hooked up to a small generator and filled with beers, was "run" by an overweight Ukrainian in his late sixties, who kept himself company in what he fondly called "my little restaurant" by hosting dozens of stray cats. None of this looked anything like the city I had imagined. The fabled white nights were a lingering luminescence, pink and polluted. Nor was there a single pastel-coloured piece of baroque Tsarist architecture for miles. Tower-blocks, in rows so precise and monotonous they could have been dropped from outer space, lined the edge of this outer island. Crumbling, grey and shaped something like switchboards, these towers blotted out every view apart from the one out to sea. Just over a mile out, the water-tower of a nuclear power station looked like a vat steaming with boiling radioactivity.

One night I asked Samba about the long scar on his right-arm. "They chased me," was the reply. He was from Burkina Faso. Though his country may be as underdeveloped as it is remote, sitting second-to-last on the UN Human Development Index, Samba has little time for Russia: "I hate it here. It was a terrible mistake to come. My tribal elder told me that Russia had been a friend to the blacks and they had programmes from Soviet times to bring people to these cities to become Doctors. I looked at a map. Russia was in Europe. They are all rich there, I thought. I came. I made a terrible mistake." He would screw his face up and throw his cigarette butts into the water whenever we talked about this topic. "Russian girls are nice. But the men will come up and stab you in the back. The things they've done you wouldn't even believe. I've had a banana thrown at me more than once. I've been chased down Nevsky Prospekt. Taunts. Whispers. Always fights." Samba suddenly smiled and pulled himself closer to me so nobody else could hear him speak. "They are the primitive people. Seriously."

View Full Article
 
Share/Save
 
 
 
 
Dov
September 6th, 2010
10:09 PM
I find the author confused and the article a little weak on facts and historic analysis. Just to put things in a right perspective: it is the tolerant Europeans that exterminated 6 million Jews and it is the intolerant Russians that enabled creation of State of Israel thus saving survivors that could not and did not want to go back to their European lands. I afraid the author did not spend his time in St. Petersburg productively by using his drinking friends as sources of reliable information. A short trip to a library would more to the point.

Vendella Watkins
April 29th, 2010
1:04 AM
I hate racism so much. I'm hoping God will help us all over the world to stop hating, based on race and color. It dates back to prehistoric I'm sure. Possible not color or race, but who has the largest sabar toothe around his neck! But it is so sad being black to be mistreated by whites, but black on black is even worse. To deal with this is hard to see them, the way they treat each other. As for the black russians, Most America is very racist,but quite subtle.

blussian
March 26th, 2010
3:03 AM
I am actually "blussian". I was born in moscow russia and i'm jewish. my parents moved from russia to escape anti-semitism. now i live in new york and will be marrying a black "african american". he is from south carolina and is a wonderful man. in new york black ppl are not seen as chocolate.. they are victims of a "holocaust" as well.. because black ppl came to america by ship involuntarily....

svenka
September 23rd, 2009
2:09 PM
So many Russian men are violent, drunks, lazy or racist and the nice ones are taken. I am so lonely but I'd rather be single forever than marry a nazi. Maybe I'll go overseas and find myself a nice man.

Andrei
August 22nd, 2009
7:08 AM
According to the article the author describes the common negative view on the international friendship but please notice that the biggest cities not include all the parts of federation, please look at the black candidate to political party http://www.rg.ru/2009/08/20/reg-jugrossii/obami.html so it was a bit primitive text full of uncertain details.

AKPAN
August 1st, 2009
2:08 AM
What astonishes me more than anything else is why my fellow black people would want to live in such a society. Our rulers might have been misguided in their twisted beliefs about the supposed virtues of Soviet communism, and Nigerian government officials may still find nothing wrong with adopting the name NIGAZ for a joint venture project with Russia. But what excuse do we have for exposing ourselves to such evident dangers, daily humiliation and violent prejudice?

Post your comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Related content
More Dispatches
Popular Standpoint topics