Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#12 - JRL 7223
From: "Hugh Barnes" <hugh@online.ru>
To: "David Johnson"
Subject: Re: JRL 7222 Black in the USSR
Date: Sun, 15 Jun 2003
[DJ: Complete original version]
by Hugh Barnes

Pundits agree that nothing in Vladimir Putin's Russia is black and white - except its racism. Nevertheless the stark contrast between the president's dreamlike imaginings and ugly reality beyond the Kremlin walls became apparent one midsummer day last month. Here are two snapshots:

Inside a packed hall of distinguished guests and foreign academics, mostly Third World, largely black, graduates of Moscow's Patrice Lumumba (now renamed Friendship) University, Putin toasted higher education in Russia as "a great tradition always open to talented young people independent of class, wealth, religion or ethnic origin."

"I want to repeat: in Russia, dear friends, you are always the most welcome guests," said Putin, to rapturous applause.

Meanwhile, outside the hall, in the main plaza of the university, which was founded in the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War - in honour of the Congolese leader assassinated by the CIA - to educate students from African and Asian nations, a gang of 20 skinheads attempted the latest in a series of often murderous racist attacks, allegedly masterminded by the son of the local police chief, who had chartered a bus for the occasion. Only the presence of a reinforced security cordon, to protect the visiting dignitaries, not the black students, foiled the neo-Nazi plot..

Speaking in the hall on May 14, Putin made no reference to the unfriendliness outside the Friendship University. Yet Russia is now surfing a wave of xenophobia. It has prompted the Kremlin leader to warn of extremism swamping the country "with inflammatory slogans and fascist and nationalist symbols, which threaten human rights and lead to pogroms and people being beaten up and killed." Oddly enough, however, the use of such words as pogrom may itself be inflammatory in the wake of skinhead riots at Moscow's so-called "ethnic" markets of Tsarytsino and Yasenovo, and the recent murders of an Angolan asylum-seeker and an Indian student from Mauritius

Nor do Russia's swastika-toting thugs respect the principle of diplomatic immunity. Indeed, by also targeting the embassy elite, they have spread panic through the ranks of foreign envoys living in Moscow. So, for example, a Madagascan and a Kenyan and a Malian diplomat were set upon by racists last year, while skinheads attacked the wife of South Africa's ambassador as she was shopping in a downtown neighbourhood, and burned her with cigarettes.

"Human rights don't exist in Russia. Not if your skin is black," notes Taddele Gebre Alemayehu, a Cold War era dissident from Ethiopia. "I was watching on television when Putin talked about 'human rights'. But that's a joke. It's only words. We are nobody. Absolutely nobody."

A two-time refusenik in his native country, Alemayehu opposed Ethiopia's Soviet-backed regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. When that regime fell, he soon fell out with the rebel government that seized power in 1991, and ultimately fled to Russia to avoid assassination. No stranger to the evils of living in a police state, Alemayehu was stopped and beaten up by cops at Moscow's Textilshchiki metro station in 2001, before being hauled down to the police station, where he was promptly beaten up again and had tear gas sprayed in his eyes.

"Russia is like a prison for people of colour," Alemayehu told the Financial Times at a soup kitchen near the rundown studios of MosFilm, once the engine-room of Soviet propaganda.

"You can't walk anywhere freely because there are skinheads wherever you go. Trouble is, the police are just as bad. In fact, I run faster from them than I do from the skinheads. Once I went to a police station to make a complaint, and the duty officer said: 'Why are you here, Mr Nigger? We don't have any bananas here.'"

Last summer Alemayehu helped to organise a picnic for Africans in a Moscow park. Unfortunately the event degenerated into a riot, thanks to the sudden arrival of dozens of hooligans bent on violence. Instead of ambulances, the local police sent prison vans to arrest the black victims.

The Moscow office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has almost 14,000 displaced people on its register for Russia. The vast majority come from the former Soviet Union. Of the 731 African refugees on the UNHCR's books, most came to Russia during the Soviet era as students from Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Ethiopia and Sudan, but were then stranded once they graduated because of civil war in their country of origin. Only six have been granted official status by the Federal Migration Service. Nineteen Africans hold temporary refugee status, while 469 are on a waiting list to apply. The rest have been rejected. The UNHCR's refugee reception centre in Moscow estimates that the migration service rejects about 96 percent of all asylum requests.

Between 15,000 and 20,000 Russian skinheads belong to a clandestine web of extremist right-wing groups operating mostly in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, according to Valery Komarov, head of the interior ministry's department on organised crime. The increasing number of self-avowed fascists - up by more than 30 percent in five years - is seen by Russia experts as the inevitable result of the fall of Soviet Communism a decade ago.

It was not until the early 1990s that the skinhead movement really began to develop in Russia. As a rule, skinheads are young men in their late teens who shave their heads and dress in combat gear. Some are affiliated with groups of football fans, such as Spartak Moscow. Others identify with the neo-Nazi movement, and pose a "more serious threat to the stability of our country", according to Putin. Recently the interior ministry launched a nationwide security clampdown dubbed "Anti-Extremist Whirlwind" to prevent attacks by skinheads threatening to kill all foreigners on Hitler's birthday. Because even if the skinheads have diverse organisational affiliations, they all share one trait in common: a hatred of foreigners.

"Xenophobia in Russia remains very strong,," says Abdul Kane, a student from Senegal, and now an anti-racism campaigner in Moscow. "During the Soviet era people here had very little information about what Africa was really like, and this bred some extraordinary prejudices. Even today, some people are surprised to hear there are actually cities in Africa. They think everyone lives in mud huts.

"Someone asked me once if it really was true that Africans come to Russia to have their tails removed."

Skinhead attacks usually follow a pattern. A group of 10 to 30 teenagers will gather together and stake out a victim for an attack. The attack may be an assault with punches and kicking (with combat boots), or it may involve the use of weapons such as bottles and knives or blunt objects. Young men between the ages of 18 and 35 are the most frequent victims. But African and Asian women also face violence, including rape and other kinds of sexual abuse. Thus racism is linked to another contemporary evil: the use of Russia as a base for human trafficking, and a transit point for Nigerian women destined to work in Europe's sex industry.

"Most of the Russian punters treat me OK," said Jaklyne, a 19-year-old Tanzanian, though technically neither a refugee nor a sex-slave, because she was born in Saint Petersburg to parents of mixed race, and now works by choice as a stripper or prostitute in one of the northern city's nightclubs.

In perfect Russian -- a language she prefers to the English spoken by her African father, or to the Swahili she learned in the 1980s when the family resettled briefly in Tanzania -- the dreadlocked teenager went on: "Sometimes I even get treated special because I'm different. It's not as if I'm a real person, you see. Not to the punters. Not even to the violent ones who slap me around a bit and call me a 'black whore'. I'm really only just a thing."

However, as the wife of South Africa's ambassador now knows, racism in Russia is not just the scourge of unfortunates living in the boondocks. Take Julius Tantoh, for example. He moved to Russia seven and a half years ago. A high flyer, literally, he was sent by the Cameroon government to study aviation and cosmic science at one of the elite institutes of the Moscow State Technical University. Now Tantoh doubts he'll ever complete his training due to the subtle prejudices of Russia's space establishment.

"Segregation happens because black people don't have Russian grazhdanstvo (citizenship). So you get so far and then you can't get any further. You reach a glass ceiling," observes Tantoh, a tall, wide-faced man in his early thirties.

A year ago, unsubtle prejudice landed Tantoh in hospital with multiple fractures after he was ambushed at the local bus station by a gang of two dozen skinheads yelling "Rossiya dlya Russkikh, idi domoi chyornaya obyezyana!" ("Russia is for Russians. Go home, you black monkey!")

"Once upon a time, hearing words like that would have hurt me more than the whipping sticks they used to break my bones," says Tantoh. "But racism changes people. I used to think I had a future in Moscow. Now I see I'm in the same bowl of soup as every other black person in this city. Insulted, beaten up, kicked around."

Experts disagree about the flavour of the soup in question. This is partly due to a lack of research. For instance, there are no reliable statistics on the incidence of racist crimes in Russia, although more than three quarters of the Africans who responded to a survey by the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy said they had been physically or verbally attacked in 2002. Russian prosecutors, however, often dismiss violence against ethnic minorities as "hooliganism", rather than as a hate crime, such as "inciting racial hatred", which is punishable under article 282 of the Criminal Code.

"We cannot be silent, seeing the lawlessness that reigns in Moscow, we want to warn our Russian friends," said a senior EU diplomat in the capital. "We don't want Russia to be considered one of those countries where people can be attacked and killed because their skin is a different colour."

But Ashot Airapetian, an Armenian who heads the Centre for Inter-Ethnic Cooperation, warns that history, not bad policing or slack jurisprudence, is to blame for the rising tide of racism in Russia.

"In the Soviet era, the causes of the country's problems were always said to derive from an external enemy, such as imperialism or Zionism. But now we're looking at a different kind of ism, and it's the enemy within, the immigrants living in Russia, who are getting the blame," Airapetian says.

Sweden's ambassador, Sven Hirdman, has taken a lead in trying to alert the Russian government to the scale of the crisis, particularly as it affects the African diplomatic corps. In the wake of operation Anti-Extremist Whirlwind, Hirdman led a high-level delegation to see Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in a bid to curb skinhead attacks.

The emollient Ivanov subsequently issued a statement in which he juggled typically with robust concern and official complacency, ending on a note of bizarre sophistry. "We share the diplomats' concern about the rise of attacks by young hooligans on foreign citizens, and about the threats against embassies," Ivanov said. "However, considering that Russia's crime scene remains rather complicated, not only foreigners but Russians as well fall prey to criminal attacks." So that's all right, then.

Yet Putin was right - in a way, at least - about Russia's "great tradition" of welcoming strangers to its shores. That tradition was celebrated once again a fortnight after his Friendship University speech, when the president welcomed George Bush to Saint Petersburg on the city's 300th anniversary.

Founded by Peter the Great in 1703 as a "window into Europe", Saint Petersburg has always remained somewhat aloof from the palpitating heart of Asiatic Russia. Yet Putin's native city also serves as a kind of template for what his dream of an internationalist Russia might amount to in the unlikely event it ever comes into being. Designed by Italian architects and built by French-speaking German tsars and tsaritsas, with the help of a former African slave who conjured up a network of fortresses from the Artic to the border with China, Saint Petersburg did genuinely welcome foreign talent and put its best efforts to Russian use.

Abram Petrovich Gannibal, the ex-slave, who was adopted by Peter the Great and later became the first black intellectual in Europe, according to Professor Allison Blakely of Boston University, the author of Russia and the Negro: Blacks in Russian Thought and History. In addition to his pioneering work on geometry, his military exploits from northern Spain to the icy wastes of Siberia - to say nothing of his marital problems - sealed Gannibal's fate as the Russian Othello. Yet today he is remembered, if at all, only as the great-grandfather of Russia's finest poet, Alexander Pushkin, who portrayed his black ancestor - his mother's grandfather - in an unfinished novel, The Negro of Peter the Great.

The poet is revered in Russia even more than Shakespeare is in English-speaking countries. He is, quite simply, the national poet. "Pushkin is our everything," observed former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, in a rare moment of clarity. Even illiterate Russians can recite his verse because they've heard it read aloud so often. Yet Pushkin regarded himself as being as much an African as a Russian. Indeed he referred to "my Negro brothers" and to "my African blood" in a letter of 1824 discussing the abolition of slavery. Likewise, his tragic death in a duel at the age of 37 had as much to do with racism at the tsar's court as it did with the love triangle described by his romantic biographers.

Gannibal, too, was a victim of racism in high circles, notably on his retirement in 1762 when the head of the tsar's secret police, Baron Nikolai Korf, described him in an official report sloping off to his country estate "wearing the uniform of the Preobrazhensky regiment and the grin of a maimed monkey" (un singe estropi).

"The kinds of insults Pushkin responded to publicly," says Blakeley, "had more to do with people ridiculing him for being descended from a slave, as opposed to being black." However, before one comes down too heavily on the Russians for their racism - which is an historical defect as opposed to mass psychological one - let's remember that they can be extraordinarily accommodating and accepting of ethnic non-Russians who embrace their culture and language. Witness the adulation of Bulat Okudzhava (Georgian) and Yuli Kim (of Korean origin), the balladeers, or the respect for Irina Khakamada (part-Japanese), Russia's leading woman politician. As a Russian visitor to Yale once said, if Pushkin had been born in the United States, he would today be known as a "great African-American poet, whereas in our country he is one of us - a Russian."

The question of slavery - and of serfdom, its domestic counterpart - underpins the history of xenophobia in Russia, a country that, for historical reasons, avoided the standard British or US guilt complexes. Arriving late in traversing the high seas, and though gaining a large territory in North America, Russia did not achieve a large maritime empire like the western European powers. Thus it did not participate in the African slave trade. Instead its experience of black people derived from its relationship with the Islamic slave trade, which was distinct from the Atlantic model.

How to explain, therefore, the origin of small scattered settlements of indigenous Negroes, who were until recently located along the western slope of the Caucasus mountains, near the aptly named Black Sea? News of these improbable Russians first surfaced in a 1913 article by the nationalist V. P. Vrady, published in Kavkaz (Caucasus), a newspaper in Tiblisi - and based on Vradii's visit to Batumi, a coastal area in southwest Georgia. The most obvious explanation of how Negroes came to the Black Sea area is that they were brought as slaves for Turkish and Abkhaziuan rulers between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, highlighting one of the more delicious semantic ironies of our times. Because it seems that Johann Blumenbach, the 18th-century German naturalist, who was responsible for naming the white race "Caucasian", did so at least partly, because he thought that the region of the Caucasus mountains produced "a most beautiful race of men", and that they were, so to speak, the ideal of the white race.

Nowadays, of course, most ordinary Russians take a xenophobic view of the dark-complexioned Muslim peoples of Chechnya and the other North Caucasus republics. Indeed they are known disparagingly as the chorniye, or blacks, of Russia. The long-running war and its offshoots in Moscow, such as last year's hostage siege at the Theatre na Dubrovke, have merely deepened a centuries-old dislike that precedes the days when the local mafia in the Caucasus was run by a Georgian racketeer called Joseb V. Dzhugashvili (alias Stalin), who would struggle to make it past the stop-and-search patrols of today's Russia. (N.B. If you have a dark complexion and are visiting Moscow or Saint Petersburg, be careful and always carry a passport.)

In the 1930s and after, Stalinist propaganda made a great play with the bogus internationalism of the Soviet project, inspired perhaps by Marx's mantra, "Workers of the World Unite!" One of the finest examples of the genre, and a work of art in spite of its origins in the MosFilm propaganda department, is Grigory Alexandrov's 1936 film Tsirk (or "Circus"), in which a female American circus performer, played by Soviet heartthrob Lyubov Orlova, comes to Russia to escape from the shame of having a black baby. An obvious re-write of Pushkin's unfinished novel, which uses a similar plot device, Tsirk climaxes with the villain displaying the child to the circus audience, only to discover that instead of stoning the baby, the Soviet people embrace it and sing it lullabyes in umpteen languages of the world.

The internationalism was bogus, of course, because it was an axiom of Leninist dictatorship that political terrorism and crimes against humanity could only be sustained by dint of creating a xenophobic and monoglot proletariat that cleaved to its brutal leaders out of fear and suspicion (and incomprehension) of the outside world.

The city of Voronezh, closed to outsiders in the Soviet era, lies on the banks of the river Don, roughly halfway between Moscow and the Black Sea. Here, in 1696, Peter the Great founded the Russian navy that enabled him to rout the Turks in the Sea of Azov. Here, in 2001, Roger Kayesse Dippah, a Cameroonian prince studying at Voronezh's world-famous university, was attacked by skinheads bedecked in match-day scarfs of the local football team. For a decade, while he pursued his studies, Dippah lived in the campus reserved for African students on the edge of the town. Since the incident, however, Dippah, who is now 32, has undergone a re-think of his career plans so thorough as to speak eloquently of the changes in character described by Julius Tantoh.

"When I was in Russia, I felt danger all day every day for 10 years. And finally, after I got over my physical injuries, I realised the mental trauma would never go away as long as I stayed in Voronezh," said Dippah, who has now returned to his ancestral village in Cameroon, not far from the birthplace of Abram Petrovich Gannibal.

To visit Dippah in the southern Russian city two years ago was like stepping back into the siege warfare of medieval times. The decaying concrete residential block, in which the royal scion shared a bed-sit with another Cameroonian student, was literally besieged by fanatics of the Rossiskoe Natsionalnoye Yedinstvo (Russian National Unity) party.

Gazing out the window, over the sink estates, towards the packed stands of the football ground in the distance, Dippah spoke abstractedly of the day he went to the Voronezh police station to file a complaint against his persecutors.

"The police sergeant told me to put my hands up, but I said, "Why? I'm the innocent one here. I'm the victim, and a guest in your country, so I'm asking for your help.

"Then one of the other cops just started punching me in the stomach. Really hard, as if I was a boxing bag," Dippah recalled, with a look of astonishment. "Then I was arrested for wasting police time. Can you believe that? And all this time the guys who beat me up were walking round the campus laughing, and planning their next attack.

"While in police custody, I was treated roughly, given nothing to eat or drink and not permitted to use the bathroom. I was verbally harassed, called 'nigger', 'beggar', 'homeless bum' and 'refugee'. The police officers, especially the sergeant in charge, were drunk on duty," said Dippah. With a wry smile, he added that when it came to impunity for racist bigots, the Deep South of Russia had much in common with its American counterpart from the pre-Civil Rights era.

Marcel Tafen, also from Cameroon, had a dream. Unfortunately his plan to become the Martin Luther King of Tver, half way down the Volga between Moscow and Saint Petersburg, came unstuck two and a half years ago when his election campaign under the slogan "He is DIFFERENT!" failed to sweep him to city hall. In fact, Tafen's hustings slogan rather overstated the obvious: in a provincial town of almost half a million residents, Tafen is one of only a few dozen black inhabitants. And though he has spent a decade in Tver - and has won some notoriety for himself as the leader of the Tver Hip-Hoppers, a local dance club -- his presence is still considered so unusual that people in the street invariably follow him with their gaze as he walks past.

From the MosFilm soup kitchen to the glitzy surroundings of Yapona Mama, an upscale Japanese restaurant in Moscow's fashionable Tsvetnoi boulevard, may seem like a quantum leap. But for Grigory Syatwinda, a 30-year-old Russian of Zambian origin, it is merely one of the unexpected delights of his newly-acquired media fame. "I don't think the money will spoil me," Syatwinda said over sushi, when pressed about the rewards of hosting NTV television's popular five-day-a-week breakfast show, "This Morning".

With his raffish air, and contemporary good-looks, Syatwinda is very much the model of the modern media superstar. Certainly his easy charm and slick presenting style would not be out of place on any British or US "yoof" channel. But in Russia, a country where it is now impossible - at least statistically - for a black man to walk down a street without being attacked at least once in a while, the preponderance of black television presenters is strikingly odd.

So were he and Russia's other black icons, such as NTV's Yelena Hanga and the state-run Rosssiya channel's Anton Zaitsev - not to mention Aset Vatsuyeva, a Chechen presenter just hired by MTV - the media equivalents of Potemkin villages or Uncle Toms disguising the wreckage of Russia's race relations?

"I don't see myself as an Uncle Tom. I'm not political - but I do think I can act as a role model not just for other black Russians growing up today, but also for the majority of those racists whose hatred is based on ignorance more than anything else," Syatwinda replied.

Against the backdrop of Putin's vacuous urgings, and the dismal reality of violence and despair facing Russia's black population, Syatwinda's optimism holds out some hope for a country long used to the gulf between appearance and reality, and therefore more able than a visiting journalist to accommodate the bizarre ubiquity of blacks in the Russian media. Talking of visiting journalists though, the international news agency Reuters was forced to re-assign a senior correspondent to Paris earlier this year after the black reporter was tormented by racists in Vladivostok.

Tatiana Prokofieva, of Gratits, a Russian non-governmental organisation for refugees, sounds a warning note. "Blacks have an exotic value in Russian advertising, fashion, media and entertainment. They sell product. But it's kind of a Not in My Back Yard syndrome. Audiences lap up the TV shows, but would probably beat up a black celebrity if he or she moved in next door."

Top   Next