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For Russian Blacks, Obama Visit Stirs Special Interest

Yelena Khanga says that "while not everything was easy," you can't compare the black plight in Russia to "the kinds of things that happened in America."
Yelena Khanga says that "while not everything was easy," you can't compare the black plight in Russia to "the kinds of things that happened in America."
By Kevin O'Flynn
MOSCOW -- The visit to Russia by Barack Obama, the first black man to be elected president of the United States, is significant for many Russians.

But for Russians of African descent, in particular, the new U.S. leader is a potent symbol of triumph over the same challenges they themselves face in a country where dark-skinned people remain rare and often unwelcome.

Yelena Khanga is one of Russia's best-known black citizens. The popular host of a top-rated 1990s chat show about sex -- "Pro Eto," (About That) -- she became one of the few black faces regularly seen on Russian television.

Khanga's grandparents came to the Soviet Union in the 1920s to escape the racism they had endured in the United States as a mixed-race couple.

Today, Khanga says Obama's election to the American presidency, and his current visit to Moscow, have special meaning for her.

"He did what my grandmother and grandfather dreamed about in their day," Khanga says. "They couldn't even have dreamed that, one day, America would have a black president. The only dreams that they had -- my grandmother was white, and my grandfather was black -- was that Americans would someday allow mixed couples to live in peace, have children, and let the children have decent lives. That is what they dreamed about."

Dreams Of Her Grandfather

Khanga's grandfather, Oliver Golden, became a member of the Communist Party in the United States after he failed to find work as anything but a waiter despite having a college degree.

He soon left for the Soviet Union with his Polish-American wife, Bertha Bialek, in one of the groups of black Americans actively encouraged by Bolshevik leaders to pull up stakes in their capitalist homeland and help build a new society in the USSR.

Golden traveled to Uzbekistan to work on cotton cultivation. He and his wife soon gave birth to a daughter named Lily, Khanga's mother.

Khanga says her grandparents worked hard to show Lily -- who went on to marry Abdullah Khanga, a political leader from Zanzibar whom she met in Moscow -- that she was free to achieve whatever she wanted.

"The Obama campaign said, 'Yes we can.' My grandmother and grandfather said the same thing to my mother -- 'Yes, you can. You can do it,'" Khanga says. "And my mother was the best pupil in school, she graduated with a gold medal.... She was practically the first black person to study at MGU [Moscow State University] in the Soviet Union. She played tennis; it was the dream of my grandfather that she, a black girl, played tennis. She was the champion of Uzbekistan."

Tiny Minority

The most famous African-Russian is legendary poet Alexander Pushkin, who was the great-grandson of an African brought to St. Petersburg under Peter the Great in the early 18th century.

During the Soviet era, African students were actively encouraged to travel to the Soviet Union for their educations, leading to a number of mixed marriages and African-Russian offspring.

But black skin remains extremely rare in Russia. One estimate says that there are between 40,000 and 70,000 Russians of full or mixed-African heritage.

That distinction has singled many black Russians out for treatment that they say swings between curiosity, at best, and open hostility, at worst.

Grigory Siyatinda, an actor at the Sovremennik Theater in Moscow, grew up as the only black man in his hometown of Tyumen in the 1970s. His experience was that of an object of fascination in an isolated Soviet society where foreigners, and especially black foreigners, were exotic.

"How to put it? It wasn't racism, what I experienced during my childhood in Tyumen," Siyatinda says. "I was the only black person in Tyumen -- Tyumen is a Siberian city and there were no black-skinned people at all. No one had ever seen one. That's why there was simply this heightened curiosity toward me. It was heightened so much at times that it crossed over the borders of tact."

No 'History Of Racism'

Racism, long officially denied under the communist regime, is a reality in modern-day Russia, where nationalist groups and xenophobia are on the rise.

Russia's Sova center, which tracks issues related to race and ethnicity, reports that 97 people were killed in racist attacks in 2008. Statistically, Central Asian migrants have become the primary victims of attacks in recent years. But African-Russians and African students remain constant targets as well.

Still, Khanga -- whose great-grandfather was a slave in Mississippi -- says she believes the scourge of racism was far worse in the United States, where there were 4 million African slaves by the time slavery was abolished in 1865 and where it took another century before school segregation and other forms of racial discrimination were formally outlawed.

Khanga notes that there was a very small percentage of mixed-race and black people in the Soviet Union.

"I was part of the first generation -- now, of course, there are a lot more," Khanga says. "But...we did not have the history of racism as they did in America. Not everything was easy, and I can be the first to tell you what kinds of problems we had. But, of course, you can't compare them to the kinds of things that happened in America."

Still, the few black Russians who have risen to prominence in their country have done so through sports or the entertainment world.

Khanga says she hopes that Obama's historic rise to become the first African-American president will open doors for blacks in Russia as well.

"I would like to see us have success in politics or science as well," she says.
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by: Roger from: PA
July 07, 2009 04:29
Wasn't there one old African community somewhere in the Caucasus descebded from Arab or Ottoman conscripts?

by: Leonard Kendall from: Chester, VA
July 07, 2009 12:30
Great article; Enlightening. The kind of story one does not read anywhere else. Hopefully, President Obama and/or Michelle will present a photo op for these black Russians that will bring attention to their existence, heighten worldwide interest and lead to the development of more stories.

by: Erma Williams from: USA
July 07, 2009 17:53
Very tasteful article, I enjoyed reading it, we are all of the human race &amp; I wish people could see that. I imagine that the grudge goes back to God Almighty who sent one Son to deliver his people from oppression &amp; it is some mysteries that we will never understand, but one thing I share with you is that it is a God somewwhere the overseer of all CREATION, regardless of how bad it seem. Bless you young lady &amp; keep up the respectful work that you do. Help somone else if you can. Rev. Erma G. Williams<br /> PO Box 300592<br />I would love to hear from you.<br /> University City, Missouri 63130

by: Erma Williams from: USA
July 07, 2009 17:55
I would like to hear from you<br />write me or send a post card to:<br />Rev. Erma G. Williams, PO Box 300592,<br /> Saint Louis, Missouri 63130

by: jojoju from: France
July 08, 2009 16:46
Russia is known today to be the most racist country in the world. Many african or black students in russia has been killed these last years!<br /><br />This anti-black behavior of the russians should be known worlwide. It is the same kind of racism jews have experienced under the Nazi in Germany.

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
July 08, 2009 23:32
Criticism of American racism was a long-time staple of Soviet propaganda, and the existence of both slavery and its after-effects in racist policies were often duplicitously used by the Soviets to distract from their own crimes against humanity on their own territory.<br /><br />It seems as a consequence, liberal intelligentsia in both America and Russia today still see the American legacy of slavery and racism as &quot;worse&quot; than anything that ever occurred in the Soviet Union. I think this bears some nuanced context.<br /><br />They aren't. And the Soviet legacy is abysmal, regarding the minorities and non-Russian ethnic groups on Soviet territory as well as those of Africa descent.<br /><br />The alarming increase in racist murders in Russia indicated by the research of Sova and other human rights monitors is part of the story that lets us know that all is not well with the issue of race in Russia today.<br /><br />But it's also worth looking at the two countries over a longer period of time. An appropriate analogy to American mistreatment is to look at Soviet oppression of &quot;the punishmed peoples&quot; like Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Volga Germans and others. Hundreds of thousands were forcibly displaced under Stalin's nationalities policies, particularly when they fell under suspicion as supposed collaborators with the Nazis. Their populations were decimated as they were forced into cattle cars, with many suffocating or dying of disease along the way, or after they arrived to be forcibly resettled in bleak collective farms. The parallel is something like the U.S. internment of the Japanese during World War II only with far more brutality.<br /><br />The wars that the Soviets -- and later Russians -- have waged on their &quot;nationalities&quot; such as the Chechens have been attributed to racism by many activists who try to work with these awful situations -- and the point has some merit. When you have such an enormous population of clear non-combatants -- Chechen women, children and elderly men -- winding up massacred and disappeared during what are supposed to be pinpointed anti-terrorist operations, you have to ask about parallel issues of racism.<br /><br />Ultimately, people vote with their feet -- that is, if they are able to get a passport and move and find a place of refuge. By and large, the flow of migration between Russia and America moves in only one direction, which out to put paid to any continuing invocations of moral equivalence.<br />

by: Tikvah4u2 from: Boca Raton, FL
July 09, 2009 00:08
@ Roger Yes, I remember reading about the community you are refering to, but for the life of me I cannot remember where.

by: Pianki from: US
July 09, 2009 12:50
One thing that all whites prove to have is a view towards Blacks that assigns them to &quot;sex, entertainment, and sports which is entertainment.

by: belcher from: atlanta georgia
July 09, 2009 13:54
I like this article

by: Michael Averko
July 19, 2009 07:05
Catherine Fitzpatrick<br /><br />When discussing the mistreatment of non-Russians in the USSR, relative to the conditions of others elsewhere (like Blacks in the US), one can also note the overall treatment of people in the USSR, which included Russians.<br /><br />Upon doing so, the USSR comes across as more human rights challenged as opposed to the suppressing of non-Russians mantra - which at times has had some inaccurate and bigoted anti-Russian attributes. This last point pertains to matter like the manner of the American Congressionally approved Captive Nations Week, which was put together in conjunction with the Captive Nations Committee.<br /><br />When comparing the WW II era Crimean Tatar and Japanese-North American experiences, you aren't incorrect in noting how the latter were better off. Also note that at the time, North Americans at large were also better off than the Soviet population. <br /><br />In a number of conflicts, the situation isn't always such a clear matter of good on one side and evil on the other. There has been a good deal of propaganda regarding Chechnya. It's quite frankly an absurdity to suggestively portray a situation of evil Russians against innocent Chechens. Rather, the situation in Chechnya reflects what's noted in the beginning of this paragraph.<br /><br />FYI, over the past ten years or so, a good number of folks have moved to Russia as either returnees or newbies (if you may on the latter category). Of this grouping, a number of them are non-Russian. <br /><br />Despite having its share of discrimnination, the US by world standards can claim a melting pot success. Likewise, Russia has been a place where many non-Russians have become entrenched, while becoming as Russian if not more Russian than the Russians themselves. For good and not so good, Russian history has many examples of such people.
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