Is it safe for black people to go to Russia?
People have asked how safe Russia is for black people and people of color in general. The honest answer is that I really don't know. I've seen the warnings and read about black people being brutally attacked a few years back. And there is no way to minimize the stabbings, murders and attacks to led some (American) universities and African countries to stop sending black students to Russia; I just happened not to feel it. In fact, my racialized experiences were few and far between: some school children asked if I was from Nigeria, and I met two Angolan marines in Russian naval uniforms. On the surface I'd be tempted to say that was it. However, if I'm completely honest, I should probably mention that Russia is an extremely diverse and multi ethnic country. I saw local women in hijabs, people from the Caucasus regions (some of whom were extremely wealthy) and saw many many people of Asian descent, including a few young Army cadets in Moscow.
Are all of these people of color tourists?
Nope. Ok, some were. But I definitely interacted with many Russian speaking Asian people who were universally warm and kind. I don't know enough about racism in Russia, however many Asians seemed to be relegated to menial jobs (street cleaning, snow shoveling, and custodial work). In restaurants, I also ran into short order cooks, and waitresses who who were completely Asian in appearance (a few mentioned being born and raised near Siberia). Russia also hosts a lot of immigrants from all over the world: my first day I ran into a taxi driver from the Indian sub-continent who spoke Russian with a super thick Indian accent that I could recognize through the Russian. So I guess you could argue that Russia is far more diverse than most people imagine, even though black women are still a definite rarity.
Diversity in unexpected places...
I hadn't even really thought of race until I stepped into the Museum of Russian Art in St Petersburg and saw real diversity in the exhibits. There were portraits of middle eastern traders, a black woman, depictions of wild animals from Africa and a painting of Jesus surrounded by people who actually look Middle Eastern.
The painting of the black woman, is translated as Negress, and is fairly well known. The portrait was painted in 1876 by a Russian painter named Ilya Repin who worked in St Petersburg and Paris.
The second painting that struck me wasone depicting Jesus who calls on the people to show mercy to a woman who has committed adultery by inviting he who is without sin to cast the first stone.
Call me crazy but I was struck by how middle eastern everyone looks here. The adulteress is in what that looks like the traditional Palestinian dress. She is held back by an olive completed man with a black beard and thick black hair. And wait! Is that a black in the mob, ready to stone her? Yup. It is. I have no idea why a Russian painter would paint a picture that is so much more geographically accurate than what I grew up seeing in Western European museums. Maybe the fact that Russia is so much closer to the places where Jesus lived means that artists were more likely to depict him and his followers more realistically. Either way, I still can't believe that I had to come to Russia to see a painting of Jesus sharing space with a black guy. (Because the three wise men do not count).
A few tips on safety
I think that city centers are probably much safer for people of color, especially visitors. Tourist areas are highly trafficked, highly policed and locals do not want any bad elements jeopardizing tourism (and the jobs that tourism brings). In addition, an Indian medical student I met told me that the police are finally starting to take racial violence, especially that against Indian and African students, seriously. Eager to restore a tarnished reputation, the police have been cracking down on skinheads, handing down harsh fines to attackers and forcing public servants who commit racist acts out of their jobs. Given these circumstances, I think now has probably never been as good a time to visit Russia...