Recently, a reader of my blog wrote me an email asking what life was like on the ground for a black person in Russia, and if there was any truth to some of the stories about rampant racism she had heard in the United States. Her son had studied Russian and was very interested in visiting Russia, but she was concerned about these issues. I knew that the issue was important; after all, it is normally the first question that pops into people's head when they hear that I work in Russia. But usually they ask something else. This particular question is generally left unspoken, or rather unasked. I know people are thinking about it, and I know people want to ask me, but they rarely do so. It might be the reserved nature of my English friends and colleagues, but I think it goes beyond that. It is viewed as bad form to come out and ask it directly. Fortunately, I am generally upfront about such things and usually address the topic myself; once this Pandora’s box has been opened, a whole host of other issues come up.
One of these is the story of Jean Gregoire Sagbo, the African councilman in Novozavidovo who became the first elected black politician in Russia this summer. His story echoes another that recently came to my attention, that of Peter Bossman, a Ghanian doctor who became the mayor of the small seaside town of Piran, Slovenia. Bossman has been called the “Obama of Piran” and Sagbo has also acquired an “Obama” nickname, but these nicknames are only relevant in the sense that these men also represent a changing reality. Sagbo has lived in Russia for more than 20 years; he is married to a local woman, he is well-liked, he is a naturalized citizen and he has done a lot for the community with his own money. He is Russian. Why does the color of his skin make his election so strange? Because the old stereotypes about Russia are not in line with the current reality. I feel honored that I am able to dispel these views with the stories of my own experiences.
In my experience, Russians are some of the most welcoming and accepting people around. As a black person in Russia, I have not only gone about my business unaffected, I have been embraced, welcomed and treated exceptionally well—even on par with being a celebrity in the smaller towns. Many people do not know this, but African students have been coming to study in Russia for decades. In fact, there is one in Chistopol, where I live. One day I was speaking to one of the directors in the local Vostok watch factory and he affectionately told me how he sold watches to this gentleman, who was training to be a doctor, and how he has been accepted.
Of course there are incidents of racism in Russia. I can say with certainty that they do occur, although I have not experienced any myself. I have experienced only one racist encounter, and that was when I was at university in York, in the north of England. There are pockets of racism everywhere and I believe that Russia should be given the chance to be viewed on an equal plane. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pressed the reset button between the U.S. and Russia some time ago and this was a brilliant gesture. People outside of Russia should also press the reset button in their minds when they think of Russia in terms of cultural acceptance. Russia is doing its part. With the Sochi Winter Olympics, the recent F1 deal, and now the 2018 World Cup, Russia is making sure it takes advantage of as many opportunities as possible to show the outside world its level of modernity and open-mindedness.
Whatever your color or creed, I believe Russia holds as much promise as any other country. I believe there will be more people like Mr. Sagbo to come, and in case you think this is not possible, consider how many people of color are in the British parliament.
Prime Minster Vladimir Putin touched on stereotypes about Russia in his speech in Zurich after his country won right to host the 2018 World Cup. He said something to the effect that there are still a large number of Soviet-era stereotypes prevalent in the minds of people in the West, and once these people have the opportunity to visit Russia, they will see Russia for what it is: a welcoming country that is continually modernizing.
All I can do is speak for myself and comment on what I see from a cultural perspective, and I not only see change, but I realize that it was there long before I arrived.
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