From the Editor’s Keyboard

Russia and Race: Being African in St Petersburg

28 March 2006 at 10:17 | 901 views

Across Europe, African football players face weekly abuse from fans chanting racial insults. In Russia, racial attitudes have extended beyond the football pitch to include violent attacks against Africans, some of which have resulted in death.

With International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination ( marked this week, Pambazuka News interviewed Nassor Said Ali, co founder and leader of the St. Petersburg African Union, which has been working to support the victims of race-based violence in Russia.

Pambazuka News: Who are the African people that live in Russia? What are the attitudes towards African people in Russia and why do these attitudes exist?

Nassor Said Ali: Most of the African population currently living in Russia is comprised of students. There are also a number of graduates who, for one reason or another have been unable to leave and fall into the trap of the Russian legal system where they face restrictions on their residential status and the inability to gain work permits. In addition, there is a small population of illegal immigrants, as well as legitimate residents. There are also children from mixed Afro-Russian families - in many cases, these children face discrimination and some are deserted in state orphanages.

African people in Russia are increasingly finding themselves living in fear of being the object of increasing racial attacks. Africans believe that these attacks are part and parcel of a prejudice towards them due to a lack of information about Africa and any culture alien to Russia. Aliou Tunkara, head of the St. Petersburg African Union, an organisation dedicated to helping Africans in Russia, argues that "Russian racism comes out of the social misconception that we are people from another planet abusing the generosity of the Russian people by turning into criminals and drug dealers."

Pambazuka News: What is St Petersburg African Union doing to combat racism and support those who are affected by it?

Nassor Said Ali: The African Union has embarked on an awareness raising campaign. After a round table session on interethnic and interracial relations, attended by St. Petersburg’s city administration, migration and political authorities, as well as a number of local NGO’s, specific mutual terms were reached with local law enforcement authorities. The outcome included the decision to conduct lectures and discussions concerning Africa as a continent with cultural, geographical, economic and historical diversity to be held with police academies and schools. This was done with the hope of fighting racism and xenophobia. The African Union has also been active in raising awareness of these issues in more public ways - street demonstrations and numerous media interventions.

Pambazuka News: Are local authorities active in supporting anti-racist views, or do they in fact actually contribute to the views that many people hold?

Nassor Said Ali: While the African Union has been able to collaborate with government and police departments, they have also encountered problems at this level. A sociological survey among Africans in the city found that authorities have been indifferent to racist attitudes, or are even permissive in some cases.

Indeed, some police officials have been dismissive of the cases in which African people have been attacked or killed, arguing that the victims have been connected to the "lowest of the locals," or blaming the attacks not on racism, but simply on the public drunkenness of hooligans out looking for a good time or someone to rob. There have also been allegations that the attacked Africans have been misrepresenting Russian society, and that ethnic minorities have exaggerated "the scale of race-related crimes to divert attention away from their own wrong doings," according to the head of the St. Petersburg police press office.

Pambazuka News: Are these isolated incidents, or are nationalist and racist sentiments on the rise?

Nassor Said Ali: While some officials would like to blame these incidents on drunkenness or low-level crime, it appears that racist and xenophobic crimes are in fact increasing. Extremist organisations, such as the Freedom Party, have claimed responsibility for some of these murders, asserting that their "byely patruli" (white patrol) operates in the city centre to "cleanse the city of unwanted elements where the police had failed." It is not only Africans that are targeted - a Vietnamese student was killed recently, and the local Jewish community has reported a rise in acts of vandalism. Further, human rights organisations are worried about a recent tendency among nationalist movements in assuming a major role in the opposition forces of the country, in an environment where the ruling democratic forces are losing ground.

Pambazuka News: Does the media report accurately on these incidents (ie. are the African students blamed for instigating the violence)?

Nassor Said Ali: A recent front page story from the local weekly, Novy Petersburg, branded the anti-racist campaign undertaken by the African Union as a "promotion of African culture of cannibalism, drugs and the dissemination of infectious diseases among the children." The implications of this are obviously widespread, and when the African Union entered into classes as a part of their awareness campaign they were met with both students and teachers echoing these sentiments. Further, the head of the St. Petersburg police press department admitted to lying about the extent and causes of attacks on Africans, claiming that he didn’t want the media to pick up on the issue. That the media is therefore unable to report accurately is alarming. News outlets have also been accused of reporting on the incidents, but not addressing the responses of authorities, law enforcement agencies and public.

Credit: Pambazuka News

Photo: Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation