From Russia With Hate: Africans Face Racism
By Daniel Williams
Not only does Negesh have to fight public indifference to the plight of the poor, he also has to fight an insidious enemy that makes his work even harder and more poignant: racism.
"I can be standing giving out food one minute and hear the whispers of `nigger' the next. I can be lifting a drunk off the ground in one instant and then get shaken down by a policeman. For me it is more than a bother. It is sad," said Negesh while overseeing a day's cooking at a tiny kitchen near the Sts. Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church here.
Negesh is Ethiopian, one of a colony of foreigners who arrived here during Soviet rule for higher education and stayed on. Africans number about 12,000 in Russia, with thousands more Latin Americans, Middle Easterners and Asians living in the country. Many are settled and engaged in business, giving Moscow in particular a cosmopolitan air. But more and more of the expatriates, foreigners and Russian observers say, are subject to racial taunts, beatings and, increasingly, police abuse.
The anecdotes are almost endless. Knifings by skinheads while police look on. Interrogations by police who, finding everything in order, still haul the subject into jail. Evictions from apartments. Even killings.
For Africans in particular, the hostility marks the end of an illusion they brought with them in Soviet times, one that died hard. It was an illusion that in Russia, white people didn't care about skin color, that here, if nothing else, the ideology of brotherhood officially espoused for 80 years took firm hold.
"Like many things, it was a distorted dream, but it was a dream," said Negesh, who arrived in the Soviet Union in 1989, only two years before its breakup.
Negesh and other foreigners say that youths are the prime abusers. Russia's six-year economic depression has made it difficult to find work, and gaps between rich and poor are large. For reasons no one fully understands, blacks are targets of economic resentment.
Twisted pride also plays a role. If Russia is no longer a superpower, at least it ought not be classified as a Third World country, the feeling goes. To some, that means open season on Africans. "These young people seem to want to feel better than somebody. We are the perfect targets, the perfect scapegoats. We have no protection. They see that the cops treat us badly. There is no official policy of racism but there is an atmosphere of racism," said Gabriel Kotchofa, from Benin, a teacher at the Oil and Gas Academy who has lived in Moscow since 1982.
The turning inward of Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union is reflected in renewed aggression against non-Russian ethnic groups, in particular Caucasian, Central Asian and Turkic people who were formerly citizens of the Soviet Union, as well as foreigners. It is common to see police randomly demanding the documents of anyone regarded as a member of these groups and taking their money and valuables in broad daylight.
"Each black person has his own experience with racial discrimination, but a shared theme is that the police are either unconcerned or part of the problem," Ghanaian journalist Kester Klomegah wrote in the Moscow Times. "Victims have no legal recourse or remedy."
Human Rights Watch, in a report issued late last year, criticized racial harassment of foreigners, particularly refugees, by Moscow police. "Typically," the report said, "police stop young men with dark skin (although they increasingly stop women) and ask them for their documents. Police also conduct body searches to seek money for `fines.' When detainees have no money, it is not uncommon for police to ask them to perform chores at the station, such as mopping the floor."
Other abuses are common. In the report, a Somali woman testified that a policeman checking for documents at her home "grabbed me on my breast."
"He said, `You are beautiful and need a man.' My son came out of his room and ran in front of me. He kicked my son, and my son fell down."
Moscow city interior department spokesman Vladimir Morozov said the press is blowing up a few incidents, and he blamed victims who are assaulted for not cooperating with police. "The victim is often very reluctant to give information," he said.
The Soviet Union set out the official view of race in popular form in the 1930s movie "Circus." In the film, a white American female acrobat performs in Moscow, falls in love with a muscular Russian and tries to remain with him. Her venal manager wants to take her away, and he knows a secret: She is mother to a black child. He exposes the woman in front of a circus audience, heartlessly exhibiting the child. The Soviet audience responds by tenderly passing around the toddler and singing him a lullaby.
Moscow's glowing symbol of tolerance was Patrice Lumumba University, named after the Congolese revolutionary leader. The university attracted tens of thousands of scholarship students over the years from throughout the Third World.
These days, fewer students come because stipends have dried up; the name of the institute has been changed to the Russian University of People's Friendship. The public welcome mat has also been pulled in.
"For me, the biggest change is security," said Kotchofa, the teacher at the Oil and Gas Institute. Last year, he organized an African student organization to promote safety for visiting scholars. "If it wasn't for danger, I would not have formed the association," he said.
Kotchofa is married to a white Russian woman, and they have a child. The academy provides him $100 a month salary and a two-room apartment. "I live pretty much like Russian academics -- not very well. But my family feels less safe than any academic I know," he said.
Sometimes on movie outings with his wife, bystanders call her a prostitute, Kotchofa said. "People treat us roughly, like we're not human beings."
In part, he blames sensationalist newspapers for creating an atmosphere of hate. Stories about drug dealing by African newcomers who enter the country illegally do not distinguish between the criminals and the legitimate worker or student. "To Russians, we're all alike," said Kotchofa.
On rare occasions, newspapers take up the problems of the foreign residents sympathetically. The St. Petersburg Times detailed a random raid by riot police on a dormitory of foreign students, in which the raiders fired submachine guns into the air. The police described the incident as a "training exercise." Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper recently described a rock concert in which some audience members greeted black musicians with insults, including some borrowed from America. "White Power!" for instance. ("Nigger" is mouthed by locals in English; chornymazy, or "black-painted" is also a common insult.)
"I try not to get upset. Someone yells out I'm a `black monkey,' I should just say, `Fool' and move on. But I can't, and then the trouble begins," said Edmundo Manhica, a Mozambican who works at the Portuguese language service of the Voice of Russia radio network. He has lived in Russia for 13 years, is married to a Russian and has three children.
"I have no nostalgia for the past, but of course, it was harder for someone to make provocations on the street," he said over coffee. "Now, it's every day.
"I knew what racism was back home. I went to a Portuguese school and sat at the back of the class. I thought it was just colonialism. Now I think maybe it is a worldwide disease."
Both Manhica and Kotchofa are contemplating a return to their homelands, despite their family ties in Russia. "There are opportunities here, but also there," said Kotchofa as he leafed through studies predicting stepped-up oil exploration in Benin.
Negesh, who belongs to an Orthodox Church-related volunteer group called the Seraphim Brotherhood, also is thinking about going home, where food needs are even more pressing than in Moscow. He is finishing up a dissertation on international charities in between preparing 700 simple meals of gruel and tea a day. He and his volunteers roam Moscow's train stations looking for indigent to feed. Funding comes from individuals and foreign organizations.
"I have a good feeling for work here," Negesh said, "although I'm afraid many in Russia either view charity work as a way to make money or as a waste of time. The insults I take are nothing compared with what the homeless get. They are rounded up by police and deported beyond the outskirts of the city. Passersby ask, `Why do you feed them? They are no better than dogs.' Our mission is also to let them know they have rights. That way, I believe, I am also reminded I have rights."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company