Russia needs to face up to anti-Black racism

As @youngmasha’s recent experience speaking out about racism on TikTok proves, violent discrimination against Afro-Russians is rife.

by Mahoro Seward
07 July 2020, 2:15pm


Last month, when 22-year-old Russian influencer Masha Tunkara posted to her 97.5k following on TikTok, she experienced a cruel backlash. Responding to the global civil movements that have mobilised in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in America, Masha “decided to post a video discussing the situation in Russia with racism and nationalism,” she says, citing her lived experiences as a Russian-Malian woman living in Saint Petersburg. Though one would hope that her decision to speak out would lead to open, productive discourse, the result was quite the opposite, provoking angry responses from a range of internet communities. “I received a barrage of comments, accusing me of inventing the idea that racism exists here, as well as accusations of reverse racism, mostly from white men.

“I began receiving overtly nationalist comments saying things to the effect of ‘Russia is only for Russian people’,” she continues, a statement that deliberately ignores the country’s native ethnic diversity for the sake of promoting the superiority of the country’s Slavic peoples. “Posts about me were then shared in different hate groups on VK and Telegram channels [two popular Russian social media platforms], including those of prominent alt-right figures, and I began receiving threats of physical assault and even death.”

Extreme as Masha’s account may sound, it is one that will be painfully familiar to many members of the African diaspora in Russia. Surprisingly, though, the issue of anti-Black racism in Russia is relatively new -- in its current intensity, at least. As recently as the 60s, students from countries across the African continent were welcomed at Russian universities in their droves, as part of the country’s drive to expand its influence across Africa in the early days of the Cold War. It’s largely from this wave of migration that today’s 50,000 strong population of Afro-Russians descend.

In the years following the Soviet Union’s collapse, public manifestations of anti-Black racism rose dramatically, to such an extent that the situation in the early 2000s was branded by Amnesty International as “out of control”. Though incidents of racially motivated violence have since declined, according to official reports, at least, xenophobia continues to taint all corners of Russian society, as Masha’s experiences demonstrate. Once, when she attempted to report an incident of a white man openly masturbating in her direction on the metro, the policeman’s response was simply: “Why are you so surprised? You look exotic, that's your problem to deal with." In another case, when searching for an apartment with her white Russian boyfriend, the couple routinely encountered posts that racially discriminated against prospective tenants. “It's really common to see this sort of thing,” Masha’s boyfriend explains. “One time, we went to see an apartment, which we didn't even like. But after we left, we looked at the same post again and it had a new description, saying that it was only available to Slavic renters.”

Such aggressions have come to form part of the background noise of Masha’s daily life. But the fact that she has, in certain respects, acclimatised to her constant experiences of racism in no way means that she’s any less passionate about speaking out. The Black Lives Matter movement may have been born in America, but the discussions it has sparked are globally relevant, calling for the world to value Black lives equally, wherever in the world they may be. “That’s why I needed to speak out about my experiences, to help other people in similar situations, too -- there are actually a lot of people of colour in Russia, but there's no real representation,” Masha says. “We need more conversations about the problems that POC in Russia face. And we need laws, especially ones that deal with racial abuse on the internet, which is extremely common in Russia. People need to be able to feel safe, regardless of the colour of their skin.”

Black Lives Matter