Da, my smozhem! Russia’s answer to Obama

Author: By Shaun Walker

Mr Crima, a 37-year-old native of Guinea-Bissau, plans to stand for mayor of
the district of Srednyaya Akhtuba, part of the Volgograd Region. If elected,
he would become the first black man ever to hold public office in Russia.

Even though the elections are not until October, Mr Crima has started his
campaign. He has a Russian passport, has lived in the district for more than
a decade and is known locally not as Joaquim but as Vasily Ivanovich. A
series of large billboards has appeared in Srednyaya Akhtuba showing him
dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie, with the slogan: “Vasily Crima
? the new head of the district”.

There are thousands of Africans in Russia, most of whom, like Mr Crima,
arrived on scholarships to Russian universities. Many are forced to stay on
due to political instability or lack of economic opportunities back home,
but they are subjected to ingrained everyday racism and the threat of racist
attacks.

Unlike Barack Obama, Mr Crima has decided to play into, rather than attempt to
transcend, the racial stereotypes. He has promised that if elected he will “toil
like a negro” for the good of the district, which has problems with
water and gas supplies, bad roads, and allegedly corrupt officials. “There
are so many problems in our district, so I decided to run for mayor,”
Mr Crima said in an interview. “The constitution allows for anyone to
run for office, whatever the colour of their skin.”

In September, Mr Crima will mark 20 years of living in Russia and the former
Soviet Union. He first arrived in 1989 as a student on a Soviet-era exchange
programme, and was sent to university in Moldova, then a Soviet republic.
After a year, he was transferred to the Pedagogical University in Volgograd
where he specialised in biochemistry.

He decided to stay in Russia after graduating, and met Anait, a Russian woman
of Armenian origin, whom he later married. The pair moved to her town of
Srednyaya Akhtuba more than a decade ago and have a nine-year-old son.
Despite his education, the would-be mayor makes a living standing by the
side of the road between Volgograd and Srednyaya Akhtuba, selling
watermelons grown and harvested by his father-in-law.

Because he lives in a town where everybody knows him, Mr Crima doesn’t face
the day-to-day racism that plagues African immigrants in Moscow and other
Russian provincial cities. In Moscow, many Africans only travel in groups
and never take the metro at night; provincial towns such as Voronezh, with a
large contingent of African students, have become notorious for racist
beatings and even murders.

Now Mr Crima walks around his village with a smile on his face, but things
weren’t always so easy. “When I first came to live here, it was very
difficult. People would cross the road when they saw me coming; little
children would point at me and call me names and everyone would laugh.”

Now, he says, local people have accepted him, although when he travels to
Volgograd itself or further afield, he has to be on his guard. As for his
decision to say that he would “toil like a negro”, he laughs and
says that he doesn’t see anything wrong with playing on stereotypes. “I
wanted to say something that would be interesting and surprising for people;
that would catch their attention.”

He also played down the tag of “Volgograd Obama”, and said he would
not dream of comparing himself to the American President. However, he said
that Mr Obama’s election was part of a “global process”, and that,
in time, even Russia would be ready for black officials.

In Russia, Mr Obama’s electoral victory has been viewed mostly with
indifference rather than inspiration. While many people are pleased to note
friendlier geopolitical policies towards Russia, Mr Obama’s race and
background have found little of the resonance that they have elsewhere in
Europe and the world.

Election officials seem unimpressed by Mr Crima’s plans to stand. “The
poster says he wants to be the ‘new head of the region’ but it doesn’t say
which region,” Viktor Sapozhnikov, head of the local electoral
commission, told Russian news agencies. “Is it Guinea-Bissau or some
kind of Maltese islands?” He said that anyone who voted for Mr Crima
would probably be doing so “for a joke”.

There were suggestions in some local newspapers that Mr Crima might be a false
candidate employed by the current head of the administration to make him
look better. Mr Crima denied this.

However, some people seem ready to support him. “We’re sick of our own
officials,” local resident Alexei Fedotov told newspaper Izvestia. “They don’t do anything for us. Let Vasily be elected; he works hard and he’s too
conscientious to steal or cheat people.”

Mr Crima is philosophical about his chances, saying that he wants to stay
positive and believes that he can really change things for the district. But
even if he loses, he plans on the small town being home for the rest of his
life.

“I’ve seen some terrible things about Guinea-Bissau on the TV, and I’d
like to go back to see what has happened to my country,” he says. “But
this is home now. My life is here; my son is here. I’m Russian.”

Foreign origins: Russia’s star imports

*Pierre Nartsiss, from Cameroon, came to Russia over a decade ago on a
university scholarship. While studying journalism, he worked as a casino
compère, where he was noticed and invited to take part in the Russian
version of Pop Idol. His first major release, entitled “I’m A Chocolate
bunny”, was a huge hit in Russia and propelled him to fame.

*JR Holden, an American basketball player, aged 32, joined CSKA Moscow in
2002. In 2003, after rules were brought in limiting the number of foreigners
allowed to play in the Russian league, he was given citizenship and
travelled to the Beijing Olympics with the Russian squad.

*Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s favourite poet, had an African
great-grandfather ? a slave who became Peter the Great’s godson. Many
Russian historians put Pushkin’s negative character traits down to his
African ancestry. The poet himself, however, was proud of his roots.

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