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The Born Identity

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Black Russians on Red Square: Tina Coulibaly (second left) and friends met on social networks for Afro-Russians

Words Sarah Bentley Photography Liz Johnson-Artur

This article was originally published in issue 12 of ARISE Magazine.

Subject to racism, prejudice and ignorance, Afro-Russians struggle to be recognised as fully-fledged citizens. But times are changing...

Thirty-six year-old Egor Belov has just told a childhood anecdote about scrubbing his face until it drew blood. He’d been playing in the snow and wanted pink cheeks like his friends. His dark complexion was never going to turn his desired shade but as a six-year-old living in a home otherwise occupied by white children, he struggled to understand why. The gathering of St Petersburg-based Afro-Russians (the collective name given to Russian nationals of mixed African and Russian parentage) with whom Belov shares this tale all smile knowingly and begin to offer up their own stories.

Some tales, including lovers who were shocked that black skin is lighter on different parts of the body, are humorous. But others, such as how school years were marred by bullying, fights and adolescent paranoia, are indicative of the challenges of the Afro-Russian experience. A candid confession from Marie Madlene, a striking 44-year-old with a blonde afro (pictured below), gets a raucous laugh: “I’m so used to being stared at that when I travel to more diverse countries, I miss the attention.”

Although the group has previously only met online through the ‘black-Russian-Ukranian-Belorussian-Kazakh’ page on Kontakt (Russia’s answer to Facebook), its members have developed instant camaraderie. After all, they are all mixed-race people living in a country that, despite its obvious multiculturalism (almost 180 ethnicities live in Russia), has one of the highest race-hate crime rates in the world. There are around 150 active far-right groups, many with ideologies of racial intolerance.

According to The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, a Russia-based research organisation, 14 people were victims of racist and neo-Nazi attacks in January, three of whom died. The potential for hostility is a daily reality for Afro-Russians. In a country of 142million where poverty and anti-immigration sentiments are widespread, the community – which estimates put at between 40,000 and 70,000 – is tiny, yet their distinctive appearances make them easy targets for the far right.

The ‘Russia for Russians’ movement is strong. ARISE was repeatedly told of verbal abuse on the street, particularly against black men, and attacks aren’t uncommon. Even fame doesn’t negate risk, as singer Gerbert Morales (pictured below) of reggae band Jah Division once found out at a concert. He was midway through a song about Russian-Ethiopian solidarity when a man mounted the stage to punch him.

Such extreme xenophobia is not the norm and many Afro-Russians have grown up in communities unconcerned about their difference. Far from being forced to hide away, they study, work, socialise and achieve as much as any other Russian national. Yet an underlying racism exists throughout the country, and there has been a resurgence in far-right extremism lately. For instance neo-Nazis commonly celebrate the anniversary of Hitler’s birthday (April 20), a ritual that often explodes into violence with attacks on non-Russians and non-whites.

Those that venture out are vulnerable, as Russian-Ethiopian skateboarder Alem Assefa (pictured below with his brother Michael) found out in 2004. At midnight on April 18, a then 22-year-old Assefa and a friend were waiting for a Metro train in Moscow when two men launched a savage attack. Assefa fell, cracked his head on a stone pillar and was knocked unconscious. As he lay on the floor his attackers stamped on his head and chest. A train arrived and as his assailants jumped aboard, they flashed the Nazi salute and shouted “Seig Heil”. His friend suffered broken limbs but Assefa only just survived.

Today this handsome young man with Slavic features, olive skin and afro hair is wheelchair bound and has a serious speech impediment. The shock and stress of the attack is also visible in his younger brother Michael’s grey hair. Before the incident the brothers led separate lives. Now, with Michael acting as Alem’s carer, they are rarely apart. Wearing an intense expression Michael explains how racism continues to trouble Alem. Despite live CCTV surveillance, the transport police made little attempt to catch the assailants and deleted the footage within days. The case was soon resigned to police archives due to a lack of evidence. “Had this happened to one of Putin’s nephews they would have prosecuted the attackers and their entire families,” says Michael.

IDENTITY CHARADE

Although the country has recently seen a number of TV shows on Afro-Russians, the story of this community is largely unknown. With the exception of pioneering figures such as MTV host Ivan Traore, actor Grigori Siatvindo, TV presenter Yelena Khanga and footballers Peter Odemwingie, Aleksandr Alumona and Allan Dugblei, the public sphere has few non-white Russians. It was not until last summer that Russia elected its first black politican, when Jean Gregoire Sagbo, an African who moved to Russia from Benin in 1982, became a councillor in Novozavidovo.

Despite the many ethnic backgrounds common in Russian society, acceptance of multiculturalism or political correctness has yet to fully permeate society. Immigrants are expected to assimilate into the national identity instead of having outlets such as cultural centres to share and express their own. Michael Eckels, founder of African-Russia.net describes the life of Africans in Russia as “not one of integration; it is a form of hyper-extended colonialism... They must yield their native identity to the dominant Russian culture.” With no traditional culture to yield, Afro-Russians struggle to be accepted as natives in their own land.

Septuagenarian Emilia Mensah (pictured below) is a first generation Afro-Russian and the founder of Metis (the Russian term for mixed-race people), a charity that supports families with mixed-race children. Despite going to the same Orthodox Church for decades, babushkas (elderly women) gossip about her and loudly question why she attends a Russian church. Lack of comprehension that a Russian citizen can be non-white is so great that Mensah has to present ID at her doctor’s surgery. “People don’t accept us as Russians,” she says. “We don’t feel like we’re in our own country. Unless they’re strong and have a brave family to back them up, mixed-race children often suffer psychological problems.”

BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN

Mensah’s story could act as the opening chapter of the Afro-Russian history book. She was born in Moscow in the late 1930s to an African-American father and a Russian-Ukrainian mother. Communism was at its peak and her father was one of a small group of African-American agricultural experts invited to assist with the nation’s economic development. Creatives such as poet Langston Hughes and singer Paul Robeson, along with 22 filmmakers, were also invited to learn about communism in an effort to rally international supporters.

For African-Americans living in pre-civil rights era America, moving to the USSR and into a seemingly egalitarian society seemed like a golden opportunity. Yet although they were officially welcomed as equals, the reality was far from the sort of utopia expressed in Circus, the 1936 Russian film about a white American circus performer who flees to Russia with her illegitimate mixed-race baby and is received with open arms. Mensah says her parents suffered “intense discrimination” and her mother was considered to be “no better than a prostitute” for marrying a black man. An attitude that still isn’t unusual, she says.

In an effort to solidify links with other communist states and foster new allies, students from Cuba, Angola, Vietnam and other nations were offered scholarships to the Soviet Union and between 1960 and 2000, around 400,000 Africans went there to study. In 1957 Moscow hosted the 6th World Festival Of Youth And Students and in 1960 the People’s Friendship University was opened to host international students. Both drew hundreds of Africans to the country and this era signaled the first boom in Afro-Russian births with those born during this era nicknamed ‘children of the festival’. In the 1970s the Soviet Union wanted to expand its influence in Africa and so backed several freedom movements and brought African students to study there.

The older Afro-Russians ARISE spoke to shared memories of what life was like for African immigrants. They spoke of how relationships forged between local women and African men during this period had little chance of longevity. And also of the resentment for foreigners receiving free education and accommodation at a time when most Russians were enduring extreme poverty. Locals, they remembered, wouldn’t employ foreign graduates, forcing them to return home or to seek opportunities in other countries. This left their partners with the daunting choice of giving up their Soviet passport and going with them – possibly never to return – or staying in Russia to raise a black child alone in a staunchly conservative society. This challenge proved too great for many women, who placed their mixed-race offspring in orphanages. Oddly, ARISE was told, relationships between Russian men and African women were almost unheard of, and this remains so today.

SKIN DEEP

It wasn’t until the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 that far-right nationalism exploded. Unemployment was high and disaffected
youth adopted skinhead culture as a way of channelling frustration. There was a severe spike in race-hate crimes and most male Afro-Russians suffered altercations with skinheads during the 1990s. Fed up of living in fear, a then-teenage Traore started dressing like a skinhead and carrying a metal chain. Word got out among Moscow skinheads that he was ‘crazy’ and so they started to greet him on the street. “As soon as I showed them I wasn’t scared, they respected me,” Traore explains.

Prior to the internet, information about Africa wasn’t easily available and therefore, unless their African father was one of the few that stayed, Afro-Russians knew little about their lineage. Traore used to fight with his Russian grandmother about “the lies she told me about my black family”, although the story about his father being the son of the Malian president turned out to be true.

Contemporary artist Marina Ikoku’s racial background was just as obscure. As a child she believed her skin colour was from a suntan and because she looked like a great aunt, she had no reason to question her roots. When she was 13 a relative made racist comments about her “real father” and it was only then her mother told her about her Nigerian dad. Despite his efforts to maintain contact with her, Ikoku’s mother had to cut ties when the KGB threatened her with imprisonment if she continued to receive letters from ‘enemy territories’. “From then on my father became like a Santa Claus figure,” says Ikoku (pictured below). “I made up my mind to find him.” 

In 1997 the arrival of the internet presented an opportunity. A friend helped her send thousands of emails to other people with the same surname, explaining that a Russian woman was looking for her Nigerian father. A distant relative replied and within weeks Ikoku received a touching message from her father saying he’d always prayed they’d be reunited. She poured her heart out in a reply but never received a response. A year later, after emailing some more Ikokus on Facebook she hoped were related, she learnt he had died. Naturally she was devastated but is now looking forward to one day meeting her half-siblings: “I dream about it, but I want my English to be better first.”

GETTING CONNECTED

The digital age has had an unquantifiable impact on the Afro-Russian experience. Besides providing cheap methods of international communication, it has helped locate scores of long-lost parents with startling ease. ARISE’s Ghanaian-Russian photographer Liz Johnson-Artur connected with her father for the first time since she was three after sending two messages to people on Facebook with her surname. Similarly Traore had never met his Malian father but 24-year-old Tina Coulibaly, the founder of Mulatto Sisters, a Kontakt group for mixed-race women, was able to find his phone number. She emailed its members who were also of Malian descent, with success. “If I’d known it was so easy I’d have done it ages ago,” Coulibaly says.

Besides reuniting families, social networks create a sense of community previously impossible in such a huge country. Miskey Blackadmin, the founder of the ‘Afro-Russian’ group on Kontakt, previously created a paper network by collecting the details of every mixed-race Russian he encountered. He gathered less than a hundred names. His digital community has more than 900 members from all corners of Russia. Discussions on such sites range from where to buy hair products to more serious topics such as the recent spate of violent far-right protests. “These groups gave me a place to discuss mixed-race problems,” say Coulibaly. “Before I hardly saw other metis [mixed-race people]. Now I have many friends who I see regularly. It’s wonderful.” 

Coulibaly and a bevy of sassily dressed Mulatto Sisters members are hanging out in an American diner in central Moscow. The experiences and attitudes of these under-25s contrast greatly with those Afro-Russians just ten years older. It’s testament to the fact that Russia is changing, whether far-right supporters like it or not. They’re nearly all living with or are in contact with their African fathers and at least half make annual trips to Africa or the Caribbean to visit their “black family”. Rather than feel restricted by her mixed ethnicity, 20-year old Russian-Nigerian public relations student Amina Nmadzuru sees it as an advantage. “Nowadays Russian companies want to portray an international image. I’ve been offered reception jobs for that reason,” she says. As the group head for the door, many heads turn to follow them. Bar a few peeved-looking girlfriends, the attention is appreciative. “I had to learn to love being different,” Coulibaly says. “But once I knew I wasn’t alone, it became easy.”

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