Minorities Abroad Project
Name: Miriam Vaswani
Destination: Moscow, Russia
Time Abroad: 2009-2011
Ethnic Self-identification: Mixed heritage
When I initially spoke on the phone with the person who would become my first employer in Moscow, he asked me if I looked distinctively Indian (I’m a first generation Canadian, with one English and one Indian parent). It was the weirdest, most unexpected interview question I’ve ever been asked. He explained that he was asking because people who are distinctly not white or Slavic are often targeted for violence and abuse in Russia. He said that he wanted me to consider this before deciding to move to Moscow.
I wasn’t targeted for violence or abuse; people generally assumed I was French or Italian, one of the many well-paid economic migrants in the city, distinct from the laboring economic migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus who led tenuous lives of poverty, police harassment, and extreme violence from the far right. This assumption, that I belonged to a semi-elite class of high-earning people with EU passports, is still difficult for me to quantify. I’m not sure my two years in Moscow gave me a complete understanding of the starting point for ideas about ethnicity in the Russian Federation, but this blog post contains as much as I know.
My African-American flatmate was stopped by the police daily. While I occasionally went out without my documents, he never did. I had the advantage of invisibility, for reasons I couldn’t pin down. Sometimes militsia who knew him would stop him by shouting his name, approaching him and demanding to see his documents. He had the most pristine, airtight set of dokumenty I’ve seen in my life. He was also subject to the attention of an endless stream of fascinated women; he was frequently asked to pose in wedding party photos if he happened to be in Red Square or GUM. There were a few hilarious moments; the photo of him with about 30 women in wedding dresses that appeared on social media one day, and the man who approached him in the office by shouting WHATTUP HOMEBOY and presenting his hand for an awkward high-five. There were hideous moments, when he came home bruised and frightened after an encounter with skinheads on the elektrichka. An encounter we agreed could have been much worse, and was much worse for many black men and women.
I initially went to Russia as a teacher. A frequent topic of teaching seminars was how to deal with bigoted comments from students. It was a grinding daily occurrence. ‘Tajik’ was often a word used as a synonym for stupidity and physical ugliness. It was so frequent that I recall each day I went home without hearing a racial slur or insult. I was informed that black people have underdeveloped brains, that Chechens are genetically predisposed to violence, that Jews are thieves. Worryingly, the evidence people gave to back this up tended to be state education, state media, and American movies in which African-Americans always seemed to be taking drugs and shooting one another.
This isn’t an issue exclusive to Russia, and in some ways I was free from the difficulties specific to other parts of the world. I wasn’t refused accommodation on the grounds of ethnicity, as I have been in southern Germany. I wasn’t treated as a curiosity for being mixed race, as I was in the United States. I wasn’t defined based on my countries’ former links with the British Empire, as I am in the south of England. None of these facts are meant to minimize the very real difficulties that a non-Slavic person will face in Russia, but they are important when looking at the experiences of non-Slavic people in Russia in a wider context.
There is also a growing anti-racist thread of discourse in Russia, and an increasing sense of internationalism. And there are events that made me see things differently. After the 2010 Metro bombings, I braced myself. I was aware that attacks like these brought along with them increased abuse of people from the Caucasus. Yet I heard and saw nothing but dignity and measured comments from the people I saw that day, and over the next few weeks.
I’ll say this as well; it is not a waste of time, as I sadly heard many of my fellow expats assert, to engage in discourse on the subject of race in Russia. We all come from flawed societies and we all have the intelligence, in my experience, to think beyond the ideas we receive.
More about Miriam:
Miriam’s fiction, non-fiction, journalism and poetry has appeared in international publications including Gutter, Valve Journal, Our Penniless Write, Gender Across Borders, Fringe Guru and Open Mouse. She is fiction editor at Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine. She blogs about books, politics and global citizenship and tweets as @miriamvaswani.