They’re calling him the “Volgograd Obama.” Joachim Crima, 37, native of Guinea-Bissau, former watermelon seller, and graduate of Volgograd Pedagogical University has thrown his hat into the region’s municipal election. If elected, which is a long shot, Crima would become Russia’s first black elected official. “I was born in Africa, but I have lived in the district for 12 years and feel practically Russian. I have a son here and this is why I cannot be indifferent to the fate of the region,” he told the press. Crima, who has adopted the name Vasilii Ivanovich, promises “to toil like a negro” for his constituents. “I want to make the lives of people who I consider my compatriots better. I am ready to work from morning until evening to resolve their problems.” In fact, “Will toil like a negro” has become his election slogan.
Political commentators aren’t taking the African seriously and see his campaign as nothing more than “a product of pre-election tactic with the purpose of taking votes from the United Russia candidate.” “I think that this is a case of pure political exoticism” Alexander Strizoe told V1.ru. “I don’t rule out that several forces hope to take some of the votes away from United Russia by promoting a black candidate. However, I don’t think that there is a chance of victory. Our population is traditional. It only votes for its own kind. In order to win the support of our voters, it’s necessary to be a leader of public opinion. I don’t think it’s possible for a native of Guinea-Bissau to be the spokesman for the people’s aspirations.”
As for the racist overtones of the slogan “toil like a negro,” Gennady Shaikhullin, the chairman of the provincial electoral commission, sees “nothing that could treated as inflaming racial, religious, or any kind of hatred.” Shaikhullin thinks the slogan is of poor taste but the “context of this expression supposes that a person who promises to “toil like a negro” takes up the responsibility to work more and with greater intensity.”
I’m not sure how Crima will pull votes away from United Russia since naturally I can’t imagine Russians voting for an African enough to matter if his candidacy is indeed genuine. And if it is, I hope his presence at least rocks the political boat. Even if it’s just a little bit.
Nevertheless, some of the responses to the V1.ru article are noteworthy. They are a mixture of support, fascination, and flat out racism. Ilya Lezin says, “Our corrupt officials won’t allow a Afro-Russian into the government!” Another named Dok writes “Vasilli Ivanovich as he calls himself (I’ve known him for five years) is a good negro but as the head of the district???” Irinka says “A black with a high intellect. I’ve read that its even higher than a penguin.” Others, of course, are simply skeptical and even a bit disappointed by Crima’s “selling his soul.” On RUpor.info, one commentator writes, “Every summer this black sells watermelons not far from the city Volzhskii on the way to Srenaya Akhtuba. He’s legendary. All of Volgograd knows and loves him. And just imagine, you sold your soul to be a slave to political consultants. Vasia, Vasia . . .”
Some are impressed by his vow to “toil like a negro” if elected. Entrepreneur writes, “He used to work for me at the Voroshilov market as a loader! In general, he has a good education with the right world view. In regard to “toil like a negro” . . . he is really very hard working, especially after the birth of a child!! I happily support his ambition and wish him success!” Another, RVS writes, “In the Far East the Chinese are very hard-working, and so are our Negroes, so there’s nothing left for us but to guzzle tainted vodka, since we can’t work. Strange kind of love we have to all things foreign, comrades.” MaksimVI sums his views up quite simple, “Tolerance is evil. We say NO to blacks.”
I happen to share Sergei’s response to the racism on the forum. He writes in response to Irinka above, “I would express it differently: A black person of average intelligence is much higher that the typical visitor of Russian Internet forums.” And how.
I hope to one day sport my own “Volgograd Obama” T-shirt. Go Vasilii Ivanovich!
Thanks to Evgeny for the article.
In the Far East the Chinese are very hard-working, and so are our Negroes, so there's nothing left for us but to guzzle tainted vodka, since we can't work. Strange kind of love we have to all things foreign
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By Sean — 9 years ago
My post about Joachim Crima, the so-called “Volgograd Obama,” has received a lot of traffic thanks to Joshua Keating’s link to it at Foreign Policy. So given the interest in this Russian political novelty, I figured I’d do an update on the first Afro-Russian to run for public office.
The first articles I read about Crima suggested that his candidacy was a scheme of local politicians to potentially suck votes from United Russia. I still can’t figure out how this would be possible, and so far there has been no evidence to prove that Crima’s candidacy is merely a political gimmick. Russian political commentators seem baffled, viewing Crima’s campaign as something that would appeal to voters “for the sake of a joke” or as “an act of protest against Russia’s moribund political life.” Indeed, Crima’s being an outside is part of his appeal. As Rossiiskaya razeta found out, all the people they talked to were unified around one thing: a distrust in the government. Crima is also not some wacky oppositionist. It turns out that he’s been a member of United Russia since 2007, as one reader of this blog noted.
In fact, Joachim Crima’s biography could be held up as a kind of post-Soviet Horatio Alger. Crima left his native Guinea-Bissau twelve years ago for Russia. Like during Soviet times, Russia remains a place for Africans, Middle Easterners, and Asians to get a university education. Crima enrolled in the Volgograd Pedagogical Institute in the Natural Geography Department. It was there that he adopted the nickname Vasillii Ivanovich in honor of the hero in the film Chapaev. One wonders if Crima was aware that Vasilii Ivanovich is also the butt of many Russian jokes. Be that as it may, it was at the Pedagogical University where Crima, now Vasia, earned an education in chemistry and physics, and met his wife Anait, a native of Armenia.
After finishing his degree, Crima decided to remain in Russia and moved to Srednaya Akhtuba. There, he bought three hectares of land and became a watermelon farmer. To Americans, the idea of a black man becoming a watermelon farmer feeds right into some of the worst racial stereotypes. But the mythical black man-watermelon nexus might not really apply in Crima’s case. The truth is that Akhtuba is one the Russia’s main watermelon growing regions. And if Crima wanted to be a farmer, well, watermelons was a practical choice. This is not to say that Crima’s race didn’t play a role in his success. It was as a African watermelon seller that he became a local celebrity. As Trud writes, “The smiling dark-skinned seller attracted the attention of many to the point where extra publicity is unnecessary.”
So why did Crima decide to enter “big politics”? “I love to be in the public eye. I love being a leader,” he told Rossiiskaya gazeta. “I was the head of the parliament at school, a monitor in my high school back home and chaired the Guinea-Bissau student association in Volgograd province, and now I’ve decided to go into big politics.” That said, Crima is also aware of his potential place in history. “Money is not important for me. I don’t even know how much the head of a district gets paid. I’m interested in writing my name into history. And although my skin is dark, the district’s accountant will be white. And as for money, well my watermelon farm will feed me and my family. And if I have a bad harvest, I will work as a tutor as I usually do in winter. In addition to chemistry and physics, I know five languages–my native, Russian, English, French, and Portuguese. Now I practice my French and English at night because foreign reporters will be coming.”
But entering history and honest work is not his only thing that drives this Afro-Russian. Another one of Crima’s inspriations is none other than Vladimir Putin. “I’ve lived in Russia many, many years and I see how Vladimir Vladimirovich runs the country. I think that if the country had a hundred of such people like Putin, Russia would be the first in the world. I respect him very much and want to follow his example. He’s an excellent person, and a serious figure on the world stage.”
Indeed, Crima’s candidacy, which has yet to be finalized by the local electoral commission, has put him on his own little world stage. But not so much because of his political views. So far they remain cursory. In an interview with Agence France Press, Crima vowed to address the dire state of roads and drinking water in Serednaya Akhtuba. He also possesses a measure of democratic idealism. In response to questions about the seriousness of his candidacy and the uphill fight he faces, he said, “If this is a democracy, then why should I withdraw? Let the people decide!”
Crima’s promise to repair roads and clean up the local water supply and his admiration for Putin is all well and good but, frankly, it is his race that makes him a political curiosity. Russia isn’t exactly known for its racial tolerance, to put it mildly. One need only cite the headlines of Russian articles on the political outsider to get a sense of how Crima’s race is playing out. Rossiiskaya gazeta‘s headline: “The Leader of the Colored.” From United Russia’s news page: “Joachim Crima: Black on the Outside, White on the Inside.” There are also the countless references to Crima as Russia’s own Barack Obama and how if elected he promises to “toil like a Negro.”
And then there are the pictures of a smiling Crima holding watermelons.
As Crima himself admits, the travails of being a black man in provincial Russia are not easy. But he’s optimistic that they can be conquered. “When I first arrived to Srendaya Akhtuba, when people saw me for the first time they, especially women, crossed to the other side of the street,” he told Dni. “Now people know me and my watermelons. Many people approach me and say hello. The color of my skin has no meaning, time is simply needed for people to see me as the person that I am. If you have black skin, it doesn’t mean you are black on the inside. The main thing is that your thoughts are honest and people will understand you.” Nor is Crima concerned about the racial stereotypes about him. “If Russians are accustomed to calling dark-skinned people ‘negroes’ then so be it. I am not in the least bit offended because you have to be proud of who you are,” he said in an interview with Agence France Press.
Crima’s political campaign is only beginning. To put things into further gear, United Russia held an online press conference today. For those non-Russian readers, I’ll try to provide some excerpts tomorrow.Post Views: 275
By Sean — 10 years ago
Two of my favorite magazines, the London Review of Books and Vanity Fair, have two must read articles on Russia in their recent additions. Vanity Fair‘s annual “Green Issue” is full of amazing articles, particularly Phillippe Sands’ well researched article “The Green Light,” which exposes how White House lawyers “legalized” the use of torture.
In regard to Russia, Alex Shoumatoff’s “The Arctic Oil Rush” delves into the logic behind Russia’s scramble for the North Pole. This time, however, the rush back to the Pole isn’t solely driven by the exploratory urges of Frederick Cook or Robert Perry. The Cold Rush, as Shoumatoff calls the Arctic Great Game, is spurred by, you guested it, oil. Scientists estimate that 25 percent of the world’s remaining fossil-fuel reserves sit under the Arctic floor. Russia, the United States, Canada, and Denmark are now in a renewed effort to claim possession over the the globe’s ice cap.
But the main contribution of Shoumatoff’s article is not so much the Cold Rush, as it is how global warming is affecting the million residents of Yakutia. The capital, Yakurtsk, is a boom town, mostly because of diamond mining. In good Putinist fashion, Alrosa, the diamond company which dominates the region, is jointly state owned by the Russian and Yakutia governments. Vyacheslav Shtyrov, the president of the Republic of Sakha, is a former president of Alrosa.
Life for Yakutia’s native population is far removed from the the political and corporate machinations of Russia’s political elites. The three main ethnic groups, Eveny, Evenki, and Yukaghir, like many indigenous peoples around the world are more victims of the double pronged assault of modernity. The first is cultural. Much of their nomadic life, language and religion has been destroyed by a two century old effort of Russification and modernization. One of the oldest groups, the Yakaghir, only number 1,509 people, and only 23 of them still speak their language with fluency.
The second prong is of course global industrialization and its ecological consequences. Global warming, which most Russian scientists reject (they actually think the world is getting colder), is having detrimental effects on the two staples of the Eveny, Evenki, and Yukaghir people: reindeer herding and fur trapping. As Shoumatoff explains:
The Eveny and Evenki people (same way of life, different linguistic heritage) have been relying for centuries on reindeer (known in the Nearctic as caribou), which provide transport, food, shelter, and clothing. There are still a few thousand nomadic reindeer herders in Siberia, moving with their animals in the largest territory of any remaining traditional people. But the wild and domesticated reindeer have been experiencing massive die-offs in the spring and fall, I’m told by Eveny and Evenki activists. Reindeer eat mainly lichen, and now when the seasons change there is more rain that freezes at night, often with melted snow, into a sheet of ice that the reindeer can’t break through with their hooves, so entire herds are starving to death.
Vyacheslav Shadrin, the head of the council of Yukaghir elders, tells me that in the Upper Kolyma basin, 700 miles north of Yakutsk, where he is from, last November and December, when it is normally minus 40 degrees Celsius (also Fahrenheit—Celsius and Fahrenheit converge at 40 below), it rained. That means it was 72 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual. The Yukaghir are one of the oldest aboriginal peoples of Siberia. There are only 1,509 of them left, as of the last census, and only 23 who still speak the language fluently. They are a culture on the way out, unless something is done fast to keep it going.
The Upper Kolyma Yukaghir are hunters and fishermen whose main source of income is trapping sable. “Usually in one season a hunter can get 20 to 25 pelts, half of them in the middle of October, when the sables all go to their winter hunting ground,” Shadrin says. “By then the snow comes thick and the lakes are frozen and the hunters can go out to the winter routes on snowmobiles. But now it’s no longer safe to go out until mid-November, because the snowmobiles can fall through the ice, so the hunters are losing the most important month and a half for their income.
“Every year the pasture for the wild reindeer, which the Yukaghir hunt, is getting less and less because the taiga is coming up from the south,” Shadrin goes on. “Grasses, birches, and some bushes like willow are covering the lichen. And the reindeer no longer come to their traditional river crossings, which is the best place to kill them. The hunters no longer know where they are going to be, so they lose time and are less successful.
“The quantity of wolves is growing,” he says. “Before, we used to have only tundra wolves. Now we’re getting taiga wolves, too, which run in bigger packs. The wolves kill many reindeer and give trouble to the herders. So for all these reasons, both wild and domestic reindeer are disappearing. Also, geese and sea ducks have changed their migratory routes and schedules. Hunters used to wait for them where they rested at night in the beginning of June; now they don’t know what time to go. Last few years the waterfowl have been appearing in very small quantity. They must have changed their route to another river basin. Trapping polar foxes was a big part of our traditional life, but in the last 10 or 15 years there have hardly been any. No one knows why.
I recommend reading the whole article, if not the whole issue.
The London Review of Books is unsurpassed in its book reviews. They’re in depth, engaging, and well written. I eagerly await its delivery in my mailbox every fortnight. For Russia watchers, I highly recommend Lewis Siegelbaum’s “Witness Protection,” which disassembles the analytical logic of Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. Unfortunately, the review is only available to subscribers. Here a lengthy but key passage:
Figes’s own narrative is constructed around the idea of the family as a site of ‘human feelings and emotions’, a ‘moral sphere’ that was opposed to the ‘moral vacuum of the Stalinist regime’. The antithesis is striking but unsustainable. First, it is based on an ahistorical notion of the family. Millions of abandoned and orphaned young people roamed the cities of Russia in the early 1920s not because of Bolshevik hostility to the family but because the combination of war, revolution, civil war, penury, epidemics and famine had carried off their parents. In these historical circumstances attempts by the state to take over responsibility for functions previously associated with the family both assumed urgency and attracted widespread interest abroad. Figes is silent about them.
Second, associating the family with morality and the ‘Stalinist regime’ with its absence may give us a comfortable feeling that we are on the right side of history, but historians have a responsibility to try to explain what those alien beings from the past thought they were doing. This is not a matter of ‘tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,’ but of granting Stalinists – yes, even Stalinists – the capacity to believe they were acting morally. Claudia Koonz entitled her book The Nazi Conscience: why is the notion of a Communist morality impermissible? Figes puts the words in inverted commas and asserts the impossibility of being ‘a Stalinist in public life’ without letting ‘the morals of the system infect personal relationships’.
There is another reason why the dichotomy cannot be sustained. From the middle of the 1930s, as Figes says, ‘the Party adopted a more liberal approach towards the family and the private home.’ If not exactly a volte-face, the ideological promotion of the family – including images of Stalin as the ‘father’ of the Soviet people and a ban on abortion – made it possible for male members of the elite to tell their wives that their place was now ‘in the home’, even while most urban families continued to live in communal apartments. The family, it turned out, was very adaptable. So adaptable that Figes can claim it ‘emerged from the years of terror as the one stable institution’, the only place where people ‘felt a sense of belonging’. I suppose many people did feel this way, but there is evidence of other customs and social institutions emerging from the years of terror, everything from the keeping of pets and the cultivation of friendship to the strengthening of ties among people from the same village or district (zemliachestvo) or the bonds forged in desperate circumstances between soldiers, workers and camp inmates. Many of Figes’s witnesses cite these new forms of association, which in some cases were a substitute for the family. Figes, though, reads into their testimony evidence of split identities. On the one hand, ‘millions’ of children bearing the ‘stigma of a tainted biography’ needed to ‘prove themselves as fully equal members of society’. On the other, they ‘could not help but feel alienated from the system that had brought such suffering on their families’. They were thus ‘constantly torn’. Figes presents this as a Manichean struggle, made all the more tragic by the capacity of the system to ‘infect’ personal relationships with its perverse morality. This evidently is what Mikhail Gefter, the Russian historian quoted here, meant by the ‘Stalinism that entered into all of us’. To adopt Stalinist ways was ‘a necessary way of silencing . . . doubts and fears’, a ‘way to make sense of . . . suffering’. The whispering of the parents thus resulted in a ‘silent and conformist population’, the ‘one lasting consequence of Stalin’s reign’.
Leaving aside the question of how to explain the Stalinism of other people, what we have here is a modified picture of the individual in a totalitarian society: not the brainwashed automatons of Cold War nightmares, but surreptitiously resisting liberals assuaging their fearfulness and shame by becoming complicit in their own and others’ victimisation. ‘It was impossible to be oneself,’ one of the interviewees says, as if such an authentic self existed. This may have been the case in some instances, but applied universally it flattens out all complexity. People were fearful not only of persecution or arrest but of being excluded from the giant project of building socialism, of being out of step with history at a time when the capitalist world appeared hellbent on destroying itself. They lived ‘in the expectation of a happy future’; they believed that ‘Soviet history was correct’; they yearned to be ‘part of an enormous “We”’.
This flattening of all complexity of life under Stalin is rendered in part though the interviewer’s lack of interest. The interviews, though rich, have moments in which the interviewee is hectored into a giving an answer that fits into the desires of the interviewer. Here is one example Siegelbaum gives:
[Figes’] assertion that, because witnesses can be cross-examined, oral testimonies are more reliable than written memoirs remains an article of faith – unless one consults the transcripts provided in the original Russian on Figes’s website, orlandofiges.com. There one can find not only cross-examination but occasionally hectoring on the part of the interviewer; or incomprehension, as in these extracts from an interview with Leonid Saltykov, the son of a priest who was shot in 1938:
Q: What did you think of Stalin in the 1930s after the arrest of your father, and in the 1940s?
A: Well, first of all, we knew little of politics, very little; second, even if my father suffered and so many others did too, we related to Stalin better than to our leaders now. He was an honest man . . .
Figes renders the passage somewhat misleadingly: ‘Yes, my father suffered, and so did many others too, but Stalin was still better than any of the leaders that we have today. He was an honest man.’ The interviewer continues:
Q: So it didn’t occur to you that the country’s repressive policy was mainly at Stalin’s initiative? That your father suffered because of Stalin, such thoughts didn’t arise?
A: We weren’t given to such philosophising. First, throughout the country factories and roads were being built. Practically every year Stalin was lowering prices, bread arrived and there was no more hunger, we could buy things . . .
After Saltykov has explained that he didn’t learn of his father’s execution and posthumous rehabilitation until 1962, the interviewer asks at what point he changed his opinion of Stalin:
A: Well, we felt that under him there was more order, although granted, he was guilty of many things.
Q: But I’m asking when did you start to feel that he was guilty?
A: [Sighs deeply. Begins to speak very emotionally] I will tell you something else. A lot of people are saying on the contrary that if Stalin were around now there would be order, more order . . .
Saltykov then starts talking about the way Stalin related to his own children, is interrupted, and gets onto the subject of the army. Again he is interrupted and asked about his own family: ‘A: We did our work, we fulfilled our duty as people, we fulfilled . . .’ Although Saltykov had more to say, the transcript indicates that ‘no substantive information’ was forthcoming. The interviewer tries one last time:
Q: So, throughout your entire life, when you were working in the 1960s and 1970s, it never occurred to you to be sceptical about the Soviet system?
A: No. Now there are few hard workers like those with whom I worked, whom I directed, and who when we meet will always say: ‘Oh, Leonid Konstantinovich, how well we worked with you.’ They trusted me and I trusted them.
Again, ‘no substantive information followed.’ This is a good example of the trickiness of oral history: it all depends on what one is looking for. Figes speaks of ‘nostalgia’, noting (twice) that Saltykov kept a picture of Stalin on his desk right up until his retirement. What seems to be difficult for him and the interviewer to accept is that Saltykov’s identity as a hard and successful worker, an identity intimately and inextricably tied up with that of his country, may have nothing to do with the victimisation of his father and his own ‘spoilt biography’. Whether it should or should not is another matter.
And such is the analytical challenge for understanding Stalinism. To sidestep its horrors is an injustice not just to its victims, but to humanity. But to reduce all life under Stalin to terror fails to understand the often contradictory complexity the human condition. A balance must be struck if we are ever able to understand Stalinism as a period where happiness and horror often existed as concomitant experiences within the individual.Post Views: 151
By Sean — 6 years ago
It’s a few days old, but I wanted to draw readers’ attention to an article I wrote for the Exiled on Alexei Navalny as a potential unifier of Russia’s middle class and nationalists. Here’s a snippet:
On December 5, the day after Russia’s Duma elections, the anti-corruption crusader and popular blogger, Alexei Navalny, told a raucous crowd, “I want to say to you: Thank you. Thank you for playing you part as a citizen. Thank you for telling these assholes, ‘We’re here!’ For telling the bearded [Electoral Commission head Vladimir] Churov and his superiors: ‘We exist!’ We have our voices. We exist! We exist! They hear that voice and they are afraid! They can chuckle on their zombie-boxes. They can call us “microbloggers” or ‘network hamsters!’ I am a network hamster, and I will slit the throats of these cattle!” Shortly after giving this speech, Navalny was arrested, and by the next morning, sentenced to 15 days in a spetspriyomnik (special detention center) outside of Moscow. Navalny was released on December 20, and has been considered among many the de facto leader of the Russian opposition.
Why Navalny? One reason is that declarations like “I will slit the throats of these cattle,” though metaphorical, are no mere puffery. Unlike many in the Russian opposition, Navalny puts his words into action, and in a climate where more than a few government critics have met their demise, this action puts his life on the line. Yet, he remains fearless. “It’s better to die standing up that live on your knees,” he told the New Yorker’s Julia Ioffe last spring. With that kind of gumption, it’s safe to say that Navalny has become a nagging pain in the ass of Russia’s corrupt elite. He’s done so not by staging rallies, leading a political organization, or seeking political office. Navalny is an activist of the 21st century: his weapons are a blog, Twitter, and a crowdsourcing website. His army is motley of “network hamsters” ready to root out big moneyed corruption by combing through dry contracts posted on his site Rospil. The results are impressive. Since Rospil’s creation in December 2010, Navalny and his army are responsible for the cancelling of $1.2 billion worth of state contracts. Given all this, it’s amazing that someone has yet to slit his throat.
But Navalny is more than an anti-corruption crusader and renowned blogger. The thirty-five year old Muscovite lawyer is also emblematic of two forces that were once supporters of Putin, but are now increasingly turning against him: the urban, educated middle class, or ROG (russkie obrazovannye gorozhane) as pundit Stanislav Belkovskii has dubbed them, and Russians with nationalist sympathies. On the surface these two groups appear antithetical to each other. The former are often described as “hipster-gadget-lovers” (khipstery-gazhetomany) more interested in Moscow’s cafes, clubs, and sushi bars, and, until two weeks ago, showed no interest in politics besides ranting on their Live Journal blogs and Twitter accounts. The nationalists are portrayed as racist working class street thugs whose sense of Russian victimhood speaks through fists and boots to the heads of migrants from Central Asia and the North Caucasus. Nevertheless, both groups share common ground: they’re by and large suspicious of the West and the Russian liberals who extol its values, patriotic, despise corruption, view immigrants as destroying the integrity of the Russian nation and increasingly loathe Putin and his cronies. With a foot in each world, Navalny is emerging as the logical person who could unite them around a new mass political movement based on what Alexei Pimenov recently called “an anti-corruption pathos plus the national idea.”
You can read the full article here.Post Views: 245