‘Russians think about blacks, Jews and women in the way Europeans did a generation ago’
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.”
Things have changed dramatically since the trip undertaken by Samba was made by Third World heroes such as the Senegalese film-maker Usmane Sembene or the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas. An estimated 400,000 Africans passed through the Soviet Union, grabbing above-average educations on the way. During the Brezhenev years, mixed-marriages were not even particularly frowned upon.
Central to the Kremlin’s plan to spread Socialist soft-power was the Patrice Lumumba University. Luis has been studying here for two years and his fine features bare the traces of stress. He speaks very softly. “The teachers are making racist comments in the classrooms. I can’t bear the streets. It’s just too much for me. I spend my whole time in my room when I’m not studying.” His contemporary from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gamo, looks like a mixture of the brave and the laughable decked out in Rapper-chic. “Man, we call ourselves the hardest ‘hood. We have to put up with white racism here like no black man anywhere.” The experts estimate that there are at least 200,000 active Russian neo-Nazi gang members. In 2003 they struck out at Patrice Lumumba University. An arsonist set fire to one of the residences and blocked the exits, killing 40 students. The fire services blamed an electrical fault, to the rage of Lumumba students. Soon afterwards, two skinheads were seen running away after a second attack was stopped in its tracks. Shockingly, there was no police investigation. Last March, three Chinese students were attacked by a gang of young men just outside a dormitory. One of the students died of his injuries.
You might expect the children of Russia’s wealthy to hold Western attitudes towards skin-colour. Maria and I were having cocktails in a Moscow bar that she thinks is glamorous. The daughter of the Vice-President of a leading Russian oil company, she giggles with her girlfriends about black men. The sexual innuendo leads into a discussion about how much it costs to rent them out for parties. Maria seems shocked when I ask her how this is possible. “This is Moscow. You can rent anything.” Her chain-smoking friend, clad in expensive brands, butted in: “My friend rented some blacks for a party. They were dressed all in white and paraded around in these lovely gloves. Some of us had only seen blacks on TV, it was so funny.”
I phoned up Elena Nuryaeva, a prestigious events organiser, to see how common this is. Her voice is a mixture of a Grace Kelly impression and a Siberian accent. “People find them very exciting. It’s common enough. Recently I was at a private birthday party at the luxurious Rai-Paradise Club. For entertainment there were several black men dressed in caricatural ‘Disney’ outfits for people to stare at. They were there for titillation by virtue of being black. Recently I was at a Tequila party, an event opened to a wider public held by the Tequila brand Olmeca. Dozens of Africans had been hired out and painted in gold.”
Behind this behaviour lies the politics of the past ten years. Nikolay Petrov was once an adviser to the Russian government. Now he is scholar in residence at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow. Petrov believes that the fall of the Soviet Union left a “lost generation of young men who seek to fill the vacuum with racist hatred and violence.” He argues that “these great feelings of humiliation experienced when Russia ceased to be a superpower lent themselves to nationalism, which Vladimir Putin has used in part to legitimize his regime.” Experts share this sense that the Russian leader has abetted the rise of such attitudes. Ida Kuklina, an activist and researcher at the Russian Center for Human Rights, also blames Putin for inciting racism among Russian youth. “Putin has a personal obsession with strength,” she says. “It’s very clear to me that black students or lost immigrants are just the most visible targets of a deeper and far more intense attitude.” Kuklina suggests that the attacks on black students are the manifestations of a deeper and more threatening racism.
Back when Obama was gathering steam after the Iowa primary, I found myself in St. Petersburg once more. I was with a very beautiful woman, but it wasn’t going very well. Drinking cheap Russian fizzy wine, misleadingly called Champagneskaia, had given me a permanent headache. I was smoking too much and now had a cough. I felt trapped by the winter and the cultural gulf between myself and my Russian girlfriend. I thought talking about Barack Obama might be an easy filler for an awkward afternoon, but she had firm views: “He will never win. He’s black. And they are anthropologically different from us. Lazy and stupid.” I spoke about Nelson Mandela, and then changed tack. “But what if I was Black?” I asked. “Then I would never be with you.” Perhaps I should have known then that, after the break-up, I would receive a letter heavily laden with anti-Semitism.
Baudrillard claimed to have been sitting in Sheremetevo Airport, before even going through customs, when he came to understand that the U.S.S.R. had, far from liberating the mind, acted as a glacier over Russian attitudes to “others.” Russians think about blacks, Jews and women in the way Europeans did a generation ago. Totalitarianism meant that they have never thought through racism and prejudice, and Putin’s regime has made it less likely that they ever will. Obama might be wise to remember that Russians attitudes are distinctive, old-fashioned and sometimes dangerous, and not just on the societal level. The wars in the Caucasus would suggest they affect geopolitics as well.