John Kerry, who served as secretary of state under the first black president of the United States, lamented the state of relations between Moscow and Washington this week, as he encouraged Harvard University students to go learn Russian.
The sharp-tongued spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry offered up this eyebrow-raising recommendation in response:
Go read a 90-year-old Russian poem about an "elderly negro."
During his May 24 commencement speech to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Kerry was harshly partisan and often scathing in his criticism of President Donald Trump’s administration.
He also quipped that one of the best ways to succeed in a Trump administration would be to learn Russian, using Rosetta Stone, a widely used commercial tool for learning foreign languages.
"I’m often asked what is the secret to having real impact on government," Kerry said. "Well, it’s recently changed. I used to say either run for office or get a degree from Harvard Kennedy School. With this White House I’d say, buy Rosetta Stone and learn Russian."
Kerry’s comments reflected the growing furor in Washington about ties between Trump associates and Russian officials, and U.S. intelligence conclusions that Moscow meddled in last year’s presidential election. Several congressional committees are investigating those ties, and the FBI is conducting a criminal probe as well.
In Moscow, Maria Zakharova, whose undiplomatic barbs have targeted Jewish voters and Washington’s former ambassador to Moscow, appeared defensive at Kerry’s comments.
In a post she wrote to her Facebook page, Zakharova echoed the Kremlin’s assertions that the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama was to blame for the state of bilateral relations and suggested that poems by the Soviet futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky would have been useful.
She then quoted a verse from Mayakovsky's 1927 poem called To Our Youth:
"Even if I
were an elderly negro
without being despondent or lazy
I would learn Russian
only because it
was spoken by Lenin."
Zakharova’s choice of poem, the language it contained, and the fact she directed it at Obama caught the attention of more than a handful of commentators on her Facebook page, some of whom parsed Kerry’s speech but many more who debated the choice of word.
For many, particularly older, Russians, “negro” is a commonly used word to describe African-Americans, and is not considered offensive. The use of “black-skinned” or "black" – as in “black American”-- is sometimes heard, though the word "black" is also used as an epithet to describe people from the southern Caucasus region.
"With the word 'negro' then, it's not all so straightforward," wrote one man, identified as Roman Cochinsky.