What it means to be Black in Russia is an understudied topic. This is primarily due to the fact that the Black population in Russia is minuscule, making up an estimated .03% of the Russian population. In an interview with Glimpse from the Globe, Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Race/Blackness in the USSR, noted that this is only an estimation because the USSR did not previously record race, specifying nationality instead. Now, even as Russia records ethnic groups, these groups usually do not include Afro-Russians.
This idea of a raceless society mainly comes from the fact that Russia never participated in slavery. In 1842, well before the U.S. Civil War, Emperor Nicholas I banned the human trade of Africans and stated that slaves that arrived in Russia would be declared free. Those who broke this law would be, “put on trial and punished”.
Russia Beyond writer Georgy Manaev explains that the time period affected how Black individuals were perceived: “[Africans] were seen as an object of wonder, a curiosity and something exotic from overseas.” They were not necessarily seen as an opportunity for free labor.
This historical perception raises the question: what does it mean to be Black in Russia now? This article will analyze how, despite the lack of slavery, innate rights are not equally afforded to Black Russians as they are to white Russians.
During the United States’ fight against communism, the United States’ main competitor was the USSR. The USSR was Communist but continued to expand and colonize bordering republics. As a result, their economy grew despite not being capitalist. This development was particularly troubling for the United States.
The USSR was able to find the United States’ weakness — racism — and exploit it by encouraging black people to immigrate to the USSR while criticizing the United States. Starting in the 1930s, an abundance of African-Americans immigrated to the USSR for the chance of a better life financially, with the Great Depression looming, and personally, perceiving a place with “no racism or white supremacy” – an ironic juxtaposition to the heavily promoted American Dream said St. Julian-Varnon in an interview with Glimpse from the Globe.
In explaining the sentiment of many Black Americans, St. Julian-Varnon says “America’s not great. What could Russia offer us? It couldn’t be any worse.”
In the court of Black public opinion, Russia didn’t have to be extraordinary. It just had to be better than the United States. The USSR could use propaganda to dissuade people from accepting American ideals by enforcing the theory of “if they can’t treat their own people right, why would they treat you any better?” (St. Julian-Varnon). This sentiment was often conveyed to newly independent African states who were considering aligning ideologically with the United States.
The USSR was able to further damage the United States’s reputation by using American news clips and posters to boost their own labor market and country of equality. This further persuaded Americans to immigrate and therefore discrediting American prestige.
It is important to note that, for the USSR, establishing positive race relations was paramount to national identity. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Jennifer Wilson writes that “racial equality was not merely incidental but a state project [for the USSR].” Then Premier of the USSR, Vladimir Lenin, saw that the greatest potential for revolution in the United States was “in the development of a Black proletarian consciousness.” In a sense, the acceptance of Black Americans was merely a side effect of the overall goal of degrading the United States.
This has been the experience of Black Americans in Russia, but what about Afro-Russians? According to St. Julian-Varnon, Afro-Russians are people of African descent that have migrated to and settled in Russia, usually multi-generational. Africans and Central Asians often traveled to the USSR for their studies. This was encouraged by the government at the time, specifically during the 1950s, expresses St. Julian Varnon. When “Khrushchev invited African students to study in the USSR as part of the nation’s push to influence the decolonization movement on the African continent.”
A side effect of this push was an increase in Afro-Russians, meaning those with one Russian parent and one African parent. After the African parent left, these children were “left alone to face increasing racial discrimination.”
Racism against Afro-Russians was exacerbated after the fall of the Soviet Union. The USSR was a multinational empire that, because of the collapse, was degraded to a regional power. The collapse essentially left an ideological hole that manifested in resentment and racism. St. Julian-Varnon notes, “If you lose your own power elsewhere, where do you reclaim it?”
The USSR prided itself on being anti-racist. Still, many, including St. Julien Varnon, have argued: how can one be anti-racist when one doesn’t measure race? Having a raceless society causes the erasure of the entire racial identity of Afro-Russians, who have experiences specific to their background. Oftentimes, an Afro-Russian is the only Black person in their entire town, including their own family.
This upbringing causes many Afro-Russians to be indifferent to their race despite systemic racism that still ravages the system. Yelena Khanga, an Afro-Russian journalist and former television presenter, shared her opinion on race in Russia and how it is non-existent. The interviewer asked her about how Khanga’s then-white Russian boyfriend used to call her “monkey” and Khanga responded saying, “I couldn’t explain to him that it was racist because I knew he was not racist…That’s just what he called me.”
Khanga’s view of racism is unique because of her homogenous upbringing. St. Julian-Varnon writes, “For [Khanga], racism could only be a product not of malice, but of ignorance.” The racism Khanga encountered was, from Khanga’s point of view, purely based on ignorance and not the individual’s actual consciousness.
Maxim Nikolsky, a journalist from Russia, described his experience with racism saying, “It’s the casual racism that’s a problem in Russia, and it comes from ignorance. I don’t think we have the institutionalized racism of the West.” This belief is not unpopular for many Afro-Russians.
Although the experience of some Afro-Russians is that there is only casual racism, the data says otherwise. Russian law states that “Incitement of Hatred or Enmity, is classified as Actions aimed at the incitement of hatred or enmity…” Unfortunately, this law has been partially decriminalized and often produces lesser convictions for those who have violated it.
According to the SOVA Center, an Information and Analysis nonprofit organization based in Moscow, Russia, there is some progress: “The number of those convicted of “extremist statements” has increased slightly in the past year .” With Afro-Russians making up such a small percentage of Russians, these numbers are often overlooked. Their lived experiences of racism do not go away.
An example would be Isabel Kastilio, a marketing manager from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia. She shares her experience in adolescence when her family was looking for a home and many of the renting signs said, “Slavs only”.
She recounted, “When landlords heard my name on the phone, even though I had a permit to live in Moscow, they didn’t believe I could pay the rent. I had to arrange to meet them in person, so they could see I was a normal person with a normal job and wouldn’t turn their apartment into a drug den.” Kastilio’s experience can be compared to that of the United States’s redlining that continues to affect marginalized communities today.
Kastilio’s experience is shared with many other Afro–Russians as well as first-generation African immigrants. An example of this would be Roy Ibonga, a 21-year-old Congolese man studying economics at Bryansk State University. He posted on social media a time in which he was racially profiled while in a taxi. In the video, “the driver can be heard saying ‘If I don’t like a person, I won’t give them a ride. It’s my car.’ When Ibonga asks him bluntly “Are you a racist?” the driver replies, “Yes, of course.”
Kastilio and Ibonga’s experience is quite contradictory to Khanga and Nikolsky, but together they embody a range of perspectives on racism in Russia.
Simply said, there is racism in Russia, but it is often overlooked by Afro-Russians because it is perceived as just another occurrence in their lived experience. This human rights issue often gets very little attention for many reasons: Black people in Russia are a small population, there is a lack of research about the issue, and finally, international actors simply don’t care.
The overt and systemic racism in Russia like that experienced by Isabel Kastilio and Roy Ibonga is not so different from the black American experience despite the USSR’s and Russia’s claim of being a nonracist country. This will continue to affect this minority without pressure from international state actors. Black Russians are not afforded the same rights as white Russians, as demonstrated by a brief look into the history and lived experiences of Black Russians from the USSR to today. Looking ahead to the future, there is much more research that needs to be done, starting with more accurate census reporting on Black Russians.