Being Black in Russia
Post from Saint Petersburg July 2015
A few days ago a small group of American students from Moscow came to stay at the dorms in St. Petersburg. One asked me about what it was like being black in Russia, or if I had come across any issues concerning race during my stay in Russia thus far. The thing is, I was hard pressed to think of any slights, real or perceived.
I had gotten nothing but welcome in Russia by the Russians. The only real problem I had was with some Americans I had met while studying in St. Petersburg. A few of them, from their actions and certain statements, I could tell had never or seldom had any interactions with black people. Or hadn’t had interactions with black people who did not behave like stereotypes. So to the young man from the US who asked me what it was like to be black in Russia, I had to give him a response that I had no real incidences of any open hostility.
There were a few notable incidences where when I went out at night with other Americans or Russians we were met by club goers who were drunk and wanted to touch me or my hair. Or people who gave me seductive stares or wanted to dance with me. Then there was the Russian guy who, in broad daylight presumably sober, ran up to me calling “Africansky debushka” or African girl, then grabs me to swoop me in a frightening bear hug. He then put me down and say “I love you!”. Or the Russian guy who was drunk dressed in hip hop gear who comes up to me with “black girl, black girl” with a sly smirk “I have many black friends, but I have not met a black girl, you are beautiful.” He then asks my Russian female friend if we can all go for a walk to get to know each other. Drunk Russian men have tried to grab my hand. Or tell me how much they hate America but love black people as he tries to dance seductively behind me. Then there was the time I met an actual Black Russian, not an immigrant to Russia but a girl whose mother was a Russian. She was curious about life in the United States and how my Russian had become so good in such a short period of time.
All of my incidences that even remotely dealt with race had more to do with being perceived as exotic, “sexy” and a novelty. A black American who speaks decent Russian? I would be curious too. My Chinese-American friend also got questions about her “exotic” beauty. Mostly from men who thought she was from Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. Before I came to Russia I asked my Russian professor what I should expect as a black woman considering my internet searches were yielding some pretty terrifying results. According to the internet, most African or black women in Russia come there working as prostitutes, men were subject to xenophobic attacks. This was information the scholar in me didn’t want to believe. I needed more empirical evidence. My professor said in her experience there would be little hostility, just stay away from skinheads. I made a mental note to do that. Overall, I only encountered two black women in both Moscow and Saint Petersburg and they were both students not prostitutes.
My experiences were more positive (positive in my estimation, some more weird than “positive”) due to my nationality. I was told to be prepared for some anti-American sentiment. This was something that also did not materialize. People I met said they loved the US, with the exception of that one guy who wanted to buy me vodka and dance with me after declaring his disdain for America and our sanctions against the Russian Federation. Some of them even expressed a desire to come visit the US.
Revisiting this blog (Okay well, finally finishing this post) in September 2015
The issue of being black in Russia was especially poignant to me as there were several issues that were happening in the US that summer that dealt with race. The removal of the Confederate flag in the south and the #blacklivesmatter movement. These issues showed that America still has issues that have to be worked out. But I think being in a new country and having expectations on how you may or may not be treated is something that needs to be revisited and analyzed. I know I did a lot of juxtapositions of Russia to China. When I lived in China, I encountered a mixed bag of hostility and open curiosity. People would point in stare or just plain refuse to interact with me based on my color. I think being a rational person who implores logic is helpful to understanding why people have prejudices in the first place.
Furthermore, my international experiences thus far have taught me that being black in America, we have to transcend the confines of racial perceptions by engaging in healthy dialogues. In our increasingly globalized world its important to recognize that we too are American because American is what the world sees when you are abroad. Our culture belongs to the American experience. It is naive to talk about a post racial America. My point here is that there has to be representation of the diversity of America abroad by transcending the small confines of your immediate situation to think on a global scale.
Concluding, its best to experience our truths firsthand to understand what the world really thinks. And visiting 3 Russian cities is by no means an accurate test of Russian views on race and hostility or hospitality towards black people. I can’t express enough that the world is smaller and the vastness of America makes us ignorant of the importance of having a global perspective. Situations on race abroad is all relative to your outlook and what you are expecting to find. If you are looking for negative things to happen you will encounter negative things. I am a very positive person so maybe racist things were happening and I was just blind to them. I’m excited to visit Russia again and perhaps other parts of Eastern Europe. I think I want to tell the world the story of a black American girl from Detroit!
7 Comments Add yours
I very much enjoyed reading your post. Thank you for sharing your reflections on your experiences in Russia. I hope that you keep learning languages, traveling, and writing!
Dianna Murphy (Wisconsin)
Thank you so much for your comment Dianna, my whole objective is to encourage people to see the world and travel. I will continue to study Russian by attending local Russian cultural events in my commuinity. I hope you continue to follow my language journey.
First, congratulations, Ernestine, for your achievements in Russian. I’m not surprised after witnessing your ambitions and intelligence in class, but it’s still delightful to hear about them. Your blog relates to issues in the U.S. that have engaged me outside the university for about 25 years. No room for details here, but in that time I’ve learned a lot, and I applaud your wise and positive understanding and approach to racial issues in general. The tenor of your comments echoes the voices of many of my black friends in the Detroit area, and this always strengthens my hope for a better future in racial relations in the United States. My own experiences with African Americans have vastly enriched my life, and I regret deeply that so many of my white counterparts are completely unaware of the possibility of this experience. Keep doing what you are doing, and my best wishes go with you!
Thank you so much for your comments and being an encouraging Professor when I was taking your Reading Russian class. I’m glad to hear that you share my views on race. I think it is very important to have rich experiences with all of our hyphen American citizens.
Thanks so much for sharing your experiences! They’ve been much appreciated in the Slavosphere. If you’re interested in connecting with other teachers and students interested in minority experiences in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia, I’d like to invite you to check out the Association for Diversity in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (https://www.facebook.com/groups/153286684736881/?ref=br_tf). We get a lot of questions from students thinking about studying abroad in the group, and they might be interested in hearing what you have to say! Either way, thanks again for writing this blog post — it’s so helpful.
Thank you emily for shating my blog post. I think its good to know that there are more like minded people out there who care about exploring the world. Stay tuned for more on my travels in Russia and study of russian language in future blogs