The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pro-Kremlin TV ridicules Obama with blackface skit

President Barack Obama at a pre-election rally in Miami on Nov. 2. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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A pro-Kremlin TV station over the weekend aired a racist segment in which an actor in blackface portrayed former U.S. president Barack Obama.

The roughly 90-second skit, which appeared on Russian channel NTV’s satirical show “Mezhdunarodnaya Pilorama” — or “International Sawmill,” a pun on a Soviet-era program — features a conversation between the actor posing as Obama and the show’s host, Tigran Keosayan.

“We now go live to the dark side of America’s history, Barack Obama,” Keosayan says. On the split screen, the actor appears amid stacks of books, wearing blackface with a red bandanna tied around her head and chains hanging from her neck.

“Black lives matter!” she chants. The host interjects: “Can you please stop shouting? We don’t have racism. Maximum you could be taken for a gypsy.”

Keosayan goes on to ask her whether she considers her book an achievement — an apparent reference to Obama’s latest memoir, “A Promised Land,” released this month.

“Of course,” she replies.

“Because none of your relatives have written books?” he asks.

“Because none of my relatives that came before me could write,” she answers.

Toward the end of the segment, Keosayan says, “You should have been a rap musician, not the president.”

NTV’s press office did not respond immediately to a request for comment. On Twitter, Keosayan’s partner, Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of RT, a government-funded TV network, defended the segment. The Moscow Times identified the couple as co-writers.

“As someone who is part of an ethnic minority in Russia, Tigran regularly makes fun, on the air, of his large ‘ethnic’ nose and his belonging to a ‘black’ community,” Simonyan wrote, referring to a derogatory term used by some in Russia to describe Armenians and others from the Caucasus. Simonyan and Keosayan are ethnically Armenian.

On Twitter, some Russians criticized the segment. Alexei Navalny — the critic of the Kremlin who was hospitalized earlier this year after he was poisoned by a nerve agent — wrote sarcastically that he couldn’t ignore “another masterpiece” from the pair.

“Let me remind you, Keosayan has sent his daughter to study in New York,” he wrote.

Several Russian tabloids and TV channels published derogatory content about Obama while he was in office. One TV anchor, describing President Trump’s first visit to the White House, said Trump acted like “an English lord” and Obama “was throwing his arms about as if he was in a jungle,” the Moscow Times reported in 2016. The segment was later deleted.

Several Russian businesses — including a carwash and an ice cream company — have also invoked Obama’s name alongside racist imaging or slogans for their products.

In 2015, footage from a Moscow Red Bull Flugtag contest — in which participants build homemade flying contraptions — showed several people wearing blackface and chasing a banana. One was wearing an Obama mask. The energy-drink company apologized after it published a “Best of Moscow Flugtag” video featuring the racist portrayals.

A spokesman, Vadim Shevchenko, initially told the Guardian: “Of course it’s not an expression of racism. The situation was absolutely friendly and happy.”

But the company later removed the video and told Time magazine it would take more steps to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future. The organizers “regret our oversight in allowing these participants to tarnish what was otherwise an enjoyable event,” the company said in a statement.

In the United States, blackface is understood to evoke a painful, racist history of minstrel shows, which mocked enslaved and marginalized Black people. Other countries have in recent years faced their own moments of reckoning with the practice, including in response to portrayals of Obama.

Last year, Italian national air carrier Alitalia released an advertisement for a flight between Rome and Washington, featuring actors playing several former U.S. presidents. The actor playing Obama wore blackface.

The company withdrew the video and apologized on Twitter. “It was never our intention to hurt anyone and we will learn from what has happened,” the statement said.