Russia, February 24, 1999
Racism in RussiaRussia has to be the most racist country I have lived in. In winter, when I have a beard, I am routinely stopped for document checks to see if I am a Chechen or not. Boris Nemsov, a leading Russian politician, and once governor of Nizhy Novogord, will never be more than Deputy Prime Minister, because even at that post, he is criticized for being a Jew. Anybody of quasi-Asian decent is called a "Zholtic," or yellow, and Russians still use the word "nigger," to describe anyone of color. Worst of all, racism isn't even hidden or spoken about with guilt. It is part of life, sort of what I think 1950's America was like (only America was probably much worse), before the discriminators were put on the defensive.
Below is an article from the Moscow Times that illustrates my point quite well. If you look past the sugar coating the author puts on the situation, you realize that Molisa is the only black man in the world's largest army. Then, a critique of this topic by someone who should know better than I, followed by and odd look in the mirror, and finally my Singaporean friend's experience.
Now make your own conclusion, or better yet, go see for yourself.
The Moscow Times, 29 July, 1998
By Sergei Minayev, Agence France Presse
The product of a mixed-race love match at the height of the Cold War, Molisa Seia stands out in more ways than one - for the son of a Russian accountant and a Tanzanian medical student is the only black mail currently serving in the Russian armed forces.
While thousands of ordinary Russians live on the run from the police after dodging the dreaded draft, Molisa hag embraced his comrades with open arms, despite the armed forces' unenviable reputation for brutality toward new recruits. "I have been dreaming of becoming an army officer all my life, because I think the army is a job for a real man," said Molisa. "I also realized that the army is the only opportunity for me, as I'm not rich, to get higher education and enter a relatively prestigious profession. I did not have any other choice, but I like it," he said,
But while Molisa was ready for the rigors of the Russian army, the army was less than ready for him, admits Colonel Andrei Sakhno, head off department at Moscow's Military Institute for the Federal Border service.
"A black officer in the Russian armed forces is all extremely unusual event," Sakhno said. "There has never been such a case in the Soviet or Russian army before. He is the first and probably the last," he said. "It is difficult to say at present whether 's a good thing or not, but what I am sure Is that he will experience a lot of problems because of his skin color," Sakhno said.
Those troubles began even before he signed up; the 18-year-old had to battle racism at the Staff College just to have the right to take the entrance exams. Officers, baffled by the Russian citizenship stamp in the passport of a black man, were reluctant to believe his story, "They had no legal foundation to refuse me for race reasons, but I felt that they looked at me as a spy," he recalled. "They treated me with a great deal of suspicion, kept checking my documents again and again, trying to find even the slightest evidence of forgery. But their efforts were ill vain," said Molisa, who passed the entrance exams with flying colors.
His difficulties did not stop there, as the young recruit had to win over the staff and his fellow students. "There are a lot of guys from small villages in the academy. Many of them had never seen a black man," Molisa explained. "One day our platoon went to the banya [a Russian sauna], and as we got in I noticed that one guy kept staring at me. He seemed to be studying every detail of my body. At first, I was ashamed because thought he must be gay. Then he came up to me and said, 'It's so strange, You've got everything I have, and everything is almost the same.' It was really funny," said Molisa.
Standing out from the crowd can have its drawbacks, however, especially when it comes to the opposite sex. When the institute organized a disco, Molisa found he was given a wide berth when it came to the slow dances. "It didn't offend me at all. I was ready for it because I realized that I was very unusual for them," he said.
The black-into-Russian-doesn't-go equation has caused Molisa problems on city streets too, where police patrols, convinced they have nabbed a foreigner masquerading as a soldier, are always forced to let him go once they see his military ID. For others, a more direct approach has been enough to prove his Russian roots. During a training exercise in the country, Molisa surprised one hapless villager by asking to buy some milk. Seeing a black man in Russian army fatigues, the unfortunate villager proceeded to beg him to spare her life. Only the red star in his cap and his masterful command of Russian army slang convinced her he was just a normal Russian lad.
Molisa's story began in 1980, when his father William met Olga at a student party in the Russian capital. "I think my mother must have fallen in love with him to marry him in the very same year," said Molisa. However, when William returned to Tanzania two years later, his businessman father refused to allow him to bring his bride and boy with him, leaving Olga to raise Molisa with her parents in Ukraine, before returning to Moscow in 1995.
February 24, 1999
The comment and article quoted under "random russia experiences- racism" was a bit strong to be universal. specifically, "Russia has to be the most racist country I have lived in." I've only lived here for about a year & a half so I'm definitely no authority on anything (black american female), but I've found racism here to be extremely mild.
Also, I notice that you use strong comparisons with black experiences to prove your point about racism here (moscow times article, mention of the word used to describe people of color here, etc.).
You made a very interesting point when you mentioned that you are not "use" to feeling racism. I must say that I have never experienced much overt racism but have definitely been aware of many subtle occurrences (spent time in the South). In any case the experience itself is definitely not something foreign to me, which is definitely not something you are familiar with. This could explain why you find this place so racist because you are experiencing something for the first time here. This is actually an interesting topic. I already knew that Russians used the term "negro" to describe people with dark skin before I moved here. I learned about this from my Russian friends in the States.
I heard many funny stories of how they mistakenly used the term in the USA or UK but I never thought the term was negative in the context used by them. Hey this is the word used to describe dark skinned people here so I can't see faulting them. But if we're talking about an American using the term it's another story for me because it is widely known to be a very derogatory term towards blacks. In the 1 1/2 years I've lived here I've been passport checked about 4 times or so. I'm sure the lack of frequency has to do with various factors: I'm usually not walking around a lot on the streets or on public modes of transportation, I'm an obvious foreigner and probably stand out a little by dress. In regards to lack of Africans in the military,
I get the impression that unlike other places that support African countries, Russia is not seen as a place for long term residence for most Africans. They come here for a specific purpose, in most cases, perhaps an education and then leave. For example I believe that Molisa's (from the Moscow Times article) African father did just that. To come and serve in an army for a particular country I would hope that you would have long term residency plans there. So, maybe it isn't such a bad thing that Molisa is the ONLY black person in the world's largest army, especially the army in THIS country today. Why would you expect to see more?
The Times (UK) July 26 1999
'Russia unnerves us because its familiar-looking people consistently refuse to conform to our ideas of acceptable behaviour'
To your casual observer most Russians look reasonably European. Not in the sense that they all sit drinking frothy cappuccino in pavement cafe or wear tasteful, expensive and understated clothes, but in that they are, crudely speaking, white.
Admittedly, they mostly have a bit of Tartar in them (few Russian women came away unimpregnated from the hundreds of years of Tartar yoke), but you wouldn't necessarily notice it. Not unless you happened to be staring into the face of one of Moscow's incredible-looking women - the kind of perfect-skinned, green-eyed, tall and exotic-looking types that make Western businessmen sweat into their suits and go even redder in the face than usual.
But basically, if you put your average Russian outside a Soho bar with a mobile phone and a glass of chablis it would only be the long-suffering look in his eyes and the air of casual menace that would be likely to give him away. And it is partly this unity of skin colour that fuels the West's enduring obsession with Russia and her people.
We are horrified by Russia's crime figures, though there are Latin American countries with worse. We are appalled by the bleak stories of Moscow's orphaned street children who sniff glue, beg and prostitute themselves, but there are far too many countries in the world with similar tales. The British press runs articles about the fact that Russia is cold in winter, yet it is just as cold in Canada.
Of course, our concern stems partly from the fact that Russia is near, although at around four hours from Heathrow it is not much nearer to England than Greece and much of the Middle East. Granted, the Soviet Union was a superpower to be reckoned with and, OK, we would all like to get our hands on the natural resources.
But the root of our interest really lies in the fact that we are inherently racist and Russians are white. Any nation where the majority of inhabitants have skin less pallid than ours is allowed its idiosyncrasies, but Russia unnerves us because its familiar-looking people consistently refuse to conform to our ideas of acceptable behaviour.
Westerners have been afraid of Russians for centuries. "Both the men and women are handsome, but they are a brutal race," wrote Ambrosio Contarini, a Venetian ambassador, after his visit to Muscovy in 1476. "They boast of being great drunkards, and despise those who are not. The sovereign, however, will not grant permission to every one to make it; for, if they had that permission they would be constantly intoxicated and would murder each other like brutes," he says. He was not the first to comment on this phenomenon.
The fact that Russia opposed Nato's bombing of Yugoslavia rather than toadying up to the West came as something of a relief to the disturbingly large number of Europeans and Americans who like to pontificate on the subject of Russia. (Articles entitled "A World Without Russia?" are forever popping up on the computer screens of Moscow's resident foreigners.)
You know where you are with a contrary, combative Russia that hates you. It is when she is being all pally that you have to worry. For in the same way that the Russians' current need for money disguises their true feelings about Europeans and Americans (essentially that they are cowardly, uncultured, grinning idiots), their pale skins disguise the fact that they are in fact half-Western and half-Eastern, and so more incomprehensible and fascinating to us than either.
Russians sneer at the likes of us for being so chilly - not talking to each other in lifts, keeping a constant physical distance between ourselves and whomever we are talking to - and they also make jokes at the expense of their Southern and Eastern friends for what they see as their excessive unselfconsciousness with friends and strangers.
They themselves don't seem to know what they are. They appear to flail aimlessly when required to produce a national identity, and always end up talking about Russian souls, enigmas, the countryside and snow. All they know is that whatever happens in the world, they are of vital importance to it.
Nikolai Gogol brilliantly failed to put his finger on this in his 1842 unfinished classic Dead Souls: "'And you Russia, speeding along like a spirited troika that nothing can overtake? Everything on earth is flying past, and looking askance, other nations and states draw aside and make way." Well, they had to in Kosovo and will almost certainly have to do so again.
19 August, 2002
Moscow: About Police Racism in Russia
Yesterday, I took the train to Yaroslavl, a historical city north of Moscow, with Dima, a Russian contact. It was there that I found out via email that my uncle has passed away in Singapore. With Dima's help, I bought an overnight train ticket to Moscow. At 4:30am, the train reached Yaroslavlsky Station in Moscow. Heaven was crying and God of lightning rocked the skies with his angry roars. Together with other passengers, I ran towards the main station building for shelter. The distance between might be a mere 100 meters or so, but it was one of the longest and most humiliating 100 meters I have ever covered in my life. Despite the heavy rain and the short distance, I was stopped three times by hostile policemen for checks.
"Kitai, Kitai, Kitai, passport, passport, passport!" I heard the shouts as I was running towards the station building. Kitai means Chinese in Russian, a word that I was long acquainted with on this journey. It's usually shouted across loudly, with disdain and condescension. I have already experienced daily police checks during my first few days in Moscow. I presented my passport, which the two policemen waved in the rain, wetting it in the process and smearing the ink of the stamp on the document.
"Nyet Kitai ?" They asked. "Nyet, Singapursky," I said, "No, Singaporean." Then they threw the passport at me, dropping it onto the pile of water.
I picked it up, and continued running towards the station. Then followed a second check by another policeman, and then a third one just moments after I left the second one. Three checks in 100 meters!
What a relief when I reached the station building. I ran to a corner, carefully making sure no policemen were in sight. By now, I felt like a fugitive, a criminal on the run, a frightened prey being hunted mercilessly, simply because of my skin colour. Shivering with coldness and hunger, I wiped my wet forehead. Suddenly, tears rolled down my cheeks. The combination of grief from my uncle's death, physical fatigue from the restless overnight train journey, and then finally the humiliating treatment by the local police, have drained me off totally, physically and emotionally. I have never in my travels, not just the past 8 months, but throughout my decade of backpacking, felt so awful and humiliated.
I regained my composure soon enough. I have experienced wonderful hospitality from all my Russian friends and contacts, and I would never forget these, despite the rough treatment from the local police. The latter has totally disgraced their country and did their country a terrible disservice. If any Asian asks me whether he should visit Russia, I am inclined to say, NOT NOW, do it only after the Russian police stop their persecution of Asian visitors. Moscow is a surprisingly cosmopolitan city with huge population of ethnic Asians who are Russian citizens.
However, I am amazed this is how they are treated on a day-to-day basis. I have met Russians who say that such measures are justifiable due to the war in Chechnya (and hence potential of Chechen terrorist acts in Moscow), or presence of illegal immigrants in Russia. I am not convinced by such arguments. I can't see how basic human dignity can be disregarded and certain ethnic groups targeted in such a rough manner. I am not the only one who has experienced this. I have heard of numerous horror stories from other Asian travelers.
The bribery incident on the Red Square also revealed how corrupt policemen are tempted to abuse their power to enrich themselves simply because the system gives them enormous discretion, and allows them to do what is usually not allowed or tolerated in civilized societies. To my Russian friends who are reading this, no offence is meant, for I am merely saying what I feel sincerely as someone on the receiving end of the unpleasant treatment.
Will I abandon my journey? No, doing so would be an act of defeat, especially when I have been planning this journey for a long time. If things get worse, I may consider shortening my stay in the rest of Russia, but will certainly travel on the main railway line to Mongolia.