My Black skin and African-style braids attracted the curious stares of several Russian workers and guests standing in the lobby of The President’s hotel in Moscow. The staff member handling my check-out was no exception.
“I’m really curious to know how they make those braids,” she wondered aloud in her native tongue. One of her colleagues knowingly replied, “Oh, someone does it for them when they’re a child and then they keep it like that for the rest of their lives.”
This exchange generated a mixture of emotions in me: amusement at her attempt to sound knowledgeable; outrage at the outright lie; and a desire to set her straight. I could act on only of these feelings. So, in Russian and with a slight smile I said, “Actually, I change this style every two to three months.”
After the initial gasp of surprise, the two women eagerly entered into conversation with me. They laughed heartily at their previous statement and jumped at the opportunity to ask me some more questions. I responded factually and cordially, and at their request even let them get a closer look at my hair.
Colleagues, family and friends often ask me, “What’s it like for a Black person in Russia? Is there racism there?”
In my six years as a student at a Russian university I never received lower grades because of the color of my skin. Then and during subsequent visits over the last three years, I don’t recall having been refused a service, denied access, or in anyway segregated because of my skin color. I have not experienced institutional racism in Russia.
As the above experience shows, however, travel, work and life for a Black person in Russia is not without its challenges.
What little the average Russian knows about Blacks has been learned from limited and questionable sources. The Soviet press used to pass onto its citizenry selected images of the Western world intended to prove just how bad the rest of the world was and what a socialist mecca they lived in. Those images included the inferior status in which people of color have been held in the United States. So, many Russians have accepted the notion that Blacks are inferior. These people perpetuate racist attitudes.
A limited number of African-Americans migrated to the Soviet Union in the 1930s at the invitation of the Soviet government. In the late 1950s, students from Africa and the Caribbean began to study in larger cities. While most Muscovites and residents of other large cities have seen Blacks, they often have had no direct contact or communication with them. Many Russians have never seen a Black person in their lives.
So, what should the person of color expect in Russia? How should one behave?
* You can expect to be stared at and sometimes groped at, as if you stepped off another planet. This is particularly true outside the larger cities. Children, even adults, will want to touch your hair. You will be asked questions which seem rude but really reflect their lack of exposure. Try not to take offense. It’s best to either ignore the question or the attitude and to respond in a friendly manner.
* Don’t take personally the rudeness of shop assistants and other people we typically think are there to serve us. In fact, it’s best not to get too upset at rudeness in general. It will often have nothing to do with the color of your skin, as a quick look around will assure you. They are very often rude to each other. This is a society where politeness has not been at a premium and where an understanding of “customer relations” does not exist.
The following scenario has often happened to me and could easily happen to you:
I would walk into the store and stand for several minutes waiting to be served. (This is a very familiar feeling to many of us, but no less annoying because of that fact.) Eventually someone would take note and shout, “What is it you want?” As I started to reply, the clerk often impatiently would continue to shout, “Girl, girl! Now what is it that you want?”
If this happens to you, please do not assume that you just had a racist encounter. You most likely met a very rude salesperson, of which you’ll meet quite a few.
* You will get your share of racist slurs and hostile looks. I’ve also had people refuse to sit beside me on the bus or train. Each person has to learn how to handle these situations in their own way. I typically focus on my positive experiences which far outnumber the negative ones. Such incidents should not stop you from enjoying your stay or from returning.
* It helps to know some Russian. I have found that Russians are truly appreciative of any effort made to learn their language, which they know is a difficult one. A few words go a long way toward overcoming the barriers of culture and race.
* As an obvious foreigner, you should expect to get more than your fair share of that special ambivalence reserved by Russians for all Westerners. You will experience their mistrust of you as a foreigner, and their envy that you are a foreigner.
In the new Russia, you’ll also be bombarded by tourist hustlers because you’re an easy target. (What else could you be but a foreigner?) “Do you want caviar?” “Do you want to change dollars? “Do you want a book on the city? It’s only $10.00.” “I need money”. Naive requests for help. A Jewish banker who said he’d been having a hard time finding a job once requested of me, “Take my card and give it to a bank in New York.”
* If you get really homesick and desperately want to see another Black face, you will find foreign students on the large university campuses in such cities as Moscow and Kiev. (In Moscow, the Patrice Lumumba University or People’s Friendship University, as must Russians call it, is located at the farther end of Leninskii Prospekton Miklukho-Maklaya street; metro stations Yugo-Zapadnaya or Belyaevo).
* By now, you’ve probably realized that your attitude is key. Keep it positive, and search for another explanation for behavior that makes you uncomfortable before labelling it racism.
Yes, you will come into contact with rude, abrasive and racist individuals. But the majority of Russians will learn something about Blacks from you. In my interaction with a Russian, I always try to make life a little easier for the next person of color with whom that individual comes in contact.
So, if the next Black woman who stays at the President’s Hotel doesn’t get asked a stupid question about her hair, I’ll be satisfied.
Andrea Ewart studied and worked in Russia for several years and currently works in Washington at the Academy for Educational Development.
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