The Case of Being in Black in 2020’s Russia

Image: Africans in St.Petersburg Protest the killing of Senegalese Student Lamzar Samba by Russian Neo-Nazi (source: Radio Free Liberty)

Written by Nathaniel Hill

The tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers has ushered new avenues in black justice, not just in the United States (US), but around the world. While the majority of attention on the ongoing protests are focused on the US, the American political controversies have engulfed a worldwide movement protesting the treatment of people of African descent. In the United Kingdom (UK), Germany, Israel, Canada, New Zealand, and dozens more, crowds have shown both solidary for George Floyd in the US as well as protesting the racial inequality in their own countries.

The spread and scale of these protests around the world, has allowed for a more comprehensive look at the structures, hierarchies, and institutions that are oppressing people of African descent. The African Diaspora is quite large and widespread, with an estimated population of 210 million people, and it can be expanded and condensed depending on one’s definition of ‘diaspora’ and ‘African’. African communities exist mainly on the peripheries of the western world, with comparatively smaller populations in countries like the US, Brazil or the UK, seldom get the attention or analysis as larger populations. The African and/or black community in Russia is one such example.

Africans in Russian Space

Geography has traditionally limited Russian interaction with Africa and African populations. Tsarist Russia had not pursued any policy of Africa colonization nor was Russia involved in the Arab or transatlantic slave trades. Instead, Imperial Russia focused its colonial ambitions on Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Siberia. However, there are some notable examples of Africans settling in pre-Soviet Russia. The most notable case is General Abram Petrovich Gannibal. Gannibal was a slave in Constantinople, taken from Central Africa by Ottoman slavers. The Sultan Ahmed III bequeathed him as a gift to Tsar Peter the Great. From there, Peter saw intelligence and strength in the young Abram and had sent him to Europe to be educated in military engineering. After a brief exile in Siberia during a coup, Gannibal eventually became a nobleman and fathered 11 children, with his most famous progeny, great-great-grandson being the renowned poet Alexander Pushkin. Such examples indicate that before the formation of the Soviet Union (USSR), majority of the Kremlin’s interactions with Africa and African communities was dominated by exceptional individuals, like Abram Gannibal.

The Soviet Union, Russia and Africa

The formation of the USSR broke down the traditional connotations of race and class in Russian society. The appeal of a non-racial biased society was tempting to many black Americans. In the 1920s, several African-Americans moved to Soviet Russia, creating a brand new generation of mixed Russian and black children. Furthermore, to promote its anti-colonial, anti-western, and anti-capitalist credentials, the USSR actively supported socialist-oriented African countries and movements, both militarily and economically. African and other black students enjoyed new opportunities to study in the USSR, a school now known as the People’s Friendship University was established to encourage African students to study in the Eastern Bloc, under the non-racial communist banner. Consequently, the influx of young students in the 20th century and a subsequent wave of economic migrants has brought the Afro-Russian community to an estimated population of 50,000.

As the US and the European Union become more protectionist in their policy approach to Africa; Russia has followed China in filling the vacuum. Last year, the first Russian-African Summit resulted in over $12.5 billion in new business deals (See Figure 1). Russia is Africa’s largest arms dealer, and Russian mercenaries have become a preferred choice for African governments looking to bolster their military capabilities. Russia has built upon the initial anti-imperialist Soviet reputation and has steadily increased its soft power alongside military and economic influence. Russian media and humanitarian presence have increased in Africa too. The Putin regime is marketing itself as a trustworthy alternative to the ‘exploitative’ economic and political practices of the West and China. The results have been an increase in Africans migrating to work and study in Russia. As Europe and the United States attempt to clamp down on immigration, Russia now presents itself as a cheap and more accessible alternative for African migrants.

Figure 1: Russia’s military cooperation and strategic interests in Africa

‘Negry’ in Modern Russia

While a relatively small minority in today’s Russia, Afro-Russians have achieved a notable presence in its society. Prominent footballers, such as Peter Odemwingie and Sylvester Igboun shine in the Russian Premier League. Africa’s richest woman, Isabel Dos Santos, was born and raised in Baku to a Russian mother. Afro-Russians, like journalist Yelena Kanga and rapper Jacques Anthony, have made a name for themselves in the entertainment industry. An outstanding achievement, however, has come through Jean Sagbo, who in 2010 became the first black person to ever be elected in a Russian council. As a councilman in the town of Novozavidovo, he gained reputation as an honest and passionate politician who works tirelessly to help his crumbling city.

Nevertheless, despite the recent positive achievements, African populations in Russia face significant challenges in social advancement and public acceptance. Given the recent rise of right-wing Russian nationalism and neo-fascism, native Afro-Russians and African migrants face frequent harassment and violent confrontations. One African from Liberia described living in Russia as ‘hell on Earth’. Blacks in Russia are frequently called obezyana (Russian for ‘monkey’), and the typical Russian word for people of colour ‘negry’ is developing a more negative connotation as more Africans, and black communities arrive in Russia. Additionally, there is little communal organization and/or advocacy in Afro-Russian societies and few resources for individuals to access help in the event of discrimination or violence. Since a large majority of Afro-Russians come from a mixed parentage, the duality of being born and raised in Russia, and being of a darker skin hue has further complicated the psyche of the community.

Racial Discrimination in Russia

Discrimination against Russians of African descent parallels the treatment of other racial and ethnic minorities in Russian society. For example, attacks and harassment of Caucasian and Central-Asian migrants by police and gangs has been increasing, given Russia’s current economic woes, xenophobic attacks are likely to be on the rise again. Endemic corruption and general bureaucracy within the Russian judicial system, offer migrants little recourse when seeking justice for discrimination, made worse by the fact that the police are often complicit in the violence. The fact that many recent migrants are also illegal residents, make seeking justice a real risk of being deported by the authorities. It has to be said that most Russians, regardless of race, face harassment and abuse at the hands of Russian police. Use of torture, excessive force, illegal searches, and extortion is commonplace among police officers. Attempts at police reform or accountability have so far been unsuccessful, therefore, an African migrant with little understanding of the Russian language or legal system is unlikely to be in a position to effectively combat police brutality.

The Russian government needs to, as a matter of urgency, enact statutory and practical measures to ensure proper protection of Afro-Russians. Ultimately, the international community should take greater interest in this community and fund civil society support programmes that promote empowerment and collective action by people of African descent in Russia. While the United States has failed to adequately address racial inequality in its policing and society in general, there is however substantial, ongoing political and social dialogue attempting to reform the system in the US. In Russia, there is apparently no such dialogue, nor a proposal for reform on the table. Afro-Russians are being subjected to daily experiences of discrimination and brutality by the police and gangs of skinheads.  Russia has relished in the ‘hypocrisy’ of the United States, who frequently berates Russia for its human rights abuses, yet allows for police officers to murder African-Americans like George Floyd in the street. Russia would loath to be tagged as a country that harbours endemic racism, discrimination and brutality against Blacks, hopefully, the global dialogue arising out of George Floyd’s death will encourage the Russian authorities to do better.