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7/30/09

The Color of Skin: Racial Prejudice In Russia


He is known as "the Chocolate Man" by those who pass him daily on Nevsky Prospekt. He "stands outside the Chocolate Museum in St. Petersburg. I had only been in Russia for a few days when I spotted this Senegalese man decked out in a white wig and a pale 18th century court costume. Under the wig was Jacques. 'I hate being a chocolate man. Believe me. It's degrading. Humiliating. But I ran out of money when studying dentistry here, and my country cannot repatriate me. You'd be a chocolate man if you were in my situation.' His eyes were thick with red micro-veins. After work he puts on his own clothes, rags of the worst imaginable quality. Then he distributes flyers for an R' and B' club outside a metro-station. 'Most people take the leaflet, but every hour I'll hear a racist jibe. "Nigger," usually.' Stuck in Russia with only hideously expensive flights home, Jacques and other black Russians are trapped.

I met Samba when studying at the State University of St. Petersburg in the summer of 2006. We were both eighteen. Samba had been there for a year already, so he showed me the ropes: which far-right students to avoid when they dribbled home late from the vodka bars, how to reach the sealed-off rooftop of the crumbling Khrushchev-era tower-block without falling off. When he learned I was Jewish, he become more sympathetic: 'The Russians hate us Blacks, but you Jews are rubbish like us here.' . . . .

We would drink cans of St. Petersburg's native larger, Baltika, in a tent on the beach that ran out behind the dormitory. . . . Just over a mile out, the water-tower of a nuclear power station looked like a vat steaming with boiling radioactivity.

One night I asked Samba about the long scar on his right-arm. 'They chased me,' was the reply. He was from Burkina Faso. Though his country may be as underdeveloped . . . Samba has little time for Russia: 'I hate it here. It was a terrible mistake to come. . . . I looked at a map. Russia was in Europe. They are all rich there, I thought. I came. I made a terrible mistake.' He would screw his face up and throw his cigarette butts into the water . . . . ' . . . . The things they've done you wouldn't even believe. I've had a banana thrown at me more than once. I've been chased down Nevsky Prospekt. Taunts. Whispers. Always fights.' Samba suddenly smiled and pulled himself closer to me so nobody else could hear him speak. 'They are the primitive people. Seriously.'" More

Also see Mind Shadows about Robert Robinson an African American who spent 44 years in the Soviet Union. The Soviets claimed to be prejudice free. Robinson, a Detroit auto worker, was virtually captive in the Soviet Union, and through a deceptive maneuver (a travel visa to Uganda) finally returned to America, where he died.

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