RUSSIA OH SO WHITE by RJ Furth
Sandy and I were standing in the slow line for the Kremlin’s Armory Museum when we struck up a conversation with the young African-American in front of us. I mention his background because he was the first person of color we had seen in our four days in Moscow. A recent graduate of Princeton now living in New York, he was on a whirlwind tour of Moscow and St. Petersburg, trying to pack in as many museums and palaces as possible. Four days later, Sandy and I were strolling through St. Petersburg’s wonderful State Russian Museum when I spied a young black man. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “a second black guy in Russia.” The man looked at me, we looked at each other, then we both smiled. It was the same young Princeton graduate. The three of us stood together chatting for a few minutes, discussing our experiences in Russia, when I mentioned that he was the only black person we’d seen. He laughed and related his experience. People had, indeed, looked at him as a curiosity. None were rude, but it was obvious that people were looking at him closely. It was the children, he said, who were really curious, with some staring. He said he was just glad that nobody wanted to touch his hair, which had happened a few years earlier in rural Hungary.
I’ve been in homogeneous countries before. Japan does not host many people of color, though there are enough whites and the occasional person from the Indian subcontinent to break the monotony. Not so in Russia. If you removed the Chinese and Korean tourists you would have a country that is overwhelmingly white. Although Sandy and I were only in Moscow and St. Petersburg, I’ve done research that confirms Russia’s homogeneity. Russia contains many different ethnic groups, yet a vast majority are some form of white. Most are classified as Turkic or Indo-European. Less than 0.5%, mainly from Siberia, are classified as Mongolic or Korean. This doesn’t mean that Russia lacks diversity. Many people from former Soviet states live in Russia. We had Uber drivers from Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Uzbekistan. When Marc Fogel took us to the Saturday market (outstanding fruits and vegetables, top quality meat, fish and poultry) we met stall owners from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan and other neighboring nations. Many were Muslim. Some of these ethnic groups, particularly those of Turkic ethnicity, had black hair and thick black mustaches. That’s as much color as we saw.
I make no moral judgement about Russia’s whiteness. The U.S. has a large black population because they originally arrived on slave ships. Still, America is packed with Indians and Africans and East Asians and people of every color and religion because it is an open society, and is still viewed as a land of opportunity. That is not the case with Russia. They do not encourage immigration, and certainly not by people of color. There is a strong racist element in Russia that has led to violent attacks and racist incidents directed at visiting soccer players. (These incidents also occur frequently in Italy, Spain and various countries in Eastern Europe. I need not mention the shooting by police of unarmed black men in the U.S. or drivers pulled over for DWB – Driving While Black.) The Soviet Union brought in people of color from Africa and Latin America to learn about Socialism. I’m told that there are black students at Russian universities. I’ve visited many countries that lacked diversity. I am not criticizing them. Personally, I enjoy being in places that display a rich diversity of skin color, ethnic clothing, a mélange of languages, a wide variety of foods and religions. That’s one of the reasons why Malaysia is one of the favorite places in which I’ve lived. Visit Chicago, New York, Paris or London, and you get a glimpse of the range of humanity. Russia has a lot to offer tourists, ethnic diversity is not one of those things.