Are Russians racist towards black people? My experience

My experiences travelling as a black woman in Russia.

If you read this blog or follow me on social media, you’re probably already aware that my husband and I spent 10 days in Moscow and St. Petersburg a few months back. (Not following me on there yet? Get thee to my Facebook page or Instagram, stat!)

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In the time since, I’ve gotten a lot of interest and questions from people about our trip.  This isn’t entirely surprising, because while Russia gets its fair share of visitors, it’s not a hugely popular destination for most holidaymakers.

That Russia is not on the average traveller’s radar could be due to a few factors. The weather is brutally cold most of the year,  it has a reputation for being eye-wateringly expensive, and its sordid political past (and unstable political future) make it far more attractive to vacation in tourist hubs located in nearby Western Europe.  (In 2015, London and Paris were ranked the 1st and 3rd most visited cities in the world, respectively.)

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Moreover, though it may be purely conjecture, Russians are not renowned as being the warmest or friendliest people.  Russia thus remains largely unexplored by the general tourist population.

Given all the above, I totally get why people are interested in our Russian holiday– their interest comes from a place of simply not knowing. But apart from the frequent “So, what’s it like?” questions, my trip has also elicited a lot of curiosity from fellow black travellers who ask, time and time again, what it was like to travel there as a person who is melanin-blessed.

As I share my pictures and observations online, I get variations of the same question over and over:

“Is it true that Russians are racist towards black people?”

“Did you suffer any racial discrimination in Russia?”

“What was your experience in Russia travelling as a black woman?”

In this post, I’m going to share my experiences.

Some historical context: African-descended people in Russia

In order to understand why this question pops up so much, it’s necessary to understand the history of African-descended people in Russia and former Soviet republics. In my research on the web, I was surprised to discover that black folks have long had a presence in what was known as the USSR: according to this article, hundreds of African-Americans travelled to the region between 1920 and 1930 in an attempt to make a better life for themselves, as well as to escape the economic strife and racial persecution they faced in the USA.

Blacks from the African continent weren’t far behind: this article explains that they relocated to the Soviet Union in large numbers, recruited by officials promising a free university education. The social climate for black people at that time was thus good, with skilled black labourers and professionals often receiving red carpet treatment in the form of enviable salaries and subsidized housing.

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But this contrasts sharply with recent depictions of race relations in Russia. A quick Google search reveals articles about hostility against blacks across the country, which at its “best” has included verbal abuse (like the racial epithets hurled at black soccer players by fans during matches) and at its worst has culminated in outright physical violence during games on Russian soil.

It’s thus no surprise that black travellers of the present day are concerned about their safety and well-being while travelling in Russia.  Will “Travelling While Black” on Russian soil put them in harm’s way?

Travelling While Black in Russia– My experience

The short version: I had no issues at all during my  time in Moscow and St. Petersburg– in fact, I was treated exceptionally well.  I got a *lot* of love from local people and this was shocking to me based on what I’d heard and read about race relations in Russia.

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The long version: I felt like I was received with open arms during my stay.  I got some curious looks, but none of the long, laser-focused stares I’ve encountered in many parts of Asia.  People were extremely polite, helpful and cordial, especially in Moscow, which is decidedly the most “Russian” of the two cities (St. Petersburg looks and feels very Western European. I also found it to be way more touristy and easier to navigate as English, as opposed to just Russian language, is written and spoken far more widely than in Moscow).  Here are some examples of the encounters I had in Moscow that stuck out to me most:

  • Russian people, unsolicited, approached us on the street and on the subway to offer help with getting around. Moscow’s subway can be daunting as all the signage is in the Cyrillic alphabet and most guidebooks and maps have the stations’ names written in Roman characters. At times, we struggled, but never had difficulty receiving assistance. On one occasion, seeing the look of puzzlement on our faces, a gentleman stopped and, despite his halting English, took five minutes to point us in the right direction.
  • The elderly lady in the subway car who smiled at me and patted the seat adjacent, beseeching me to sit down beside her.
  • The security guard at the Europeisky mall who, upon discovering I was from Canada, engaged us in an animated discussion about his love for my country— he once lived and worked in Nova Scotia.
  • The young man working in the Adidas shoe store who treated me with care and provided me with exceptional service.  He thanked me for visiting his country, and implored me to explore more of it. He also lamented the fact that Russians have a reputation the world over for being “bad people”.
  • The older man in the same shoe store who came from the other end of shop to tell me which shoes to buy. “Lady, the black one better,” he said.  “You need shoes to run from Russian man!”

These are a few (anecdotal) examples that show why I found my experience in Russia to be extremely pleasant overall.  In no way did I ever feel myself to be discriminated against because of my race. However, please note that these are my personal experiences and that there are a variety of factors that may or may not have impacted how I was treated.  What are they? Read on.

Why you should perhaps take my assessment with a large grain of salt

+I’m a black woman, not a black man. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge this.  Black women that travel are less of a perceived threat than black men– blame mass media, who seem hell bent on propagating the idea that black men are imposing, dangerous, criminal.

+I’m petite and appear non-threatening.  At 5 foot 3, and 130 lbs, I’m small–I constitute no physical threat. I’m also very smiley.  My countenance oozes positivity and that puts most people at ease.

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+I only went Moscow and St. Petersburg. These cities are very cosmopolitan and though they are not on the same level as London, Paris, or Rome, they get many visitors yearly.  Russians in these cities are well-educated and used to both seeing and interacting with foreign visitors.  Had I ventured “off the beaten path”, to more rural cities, my experience might have been different.
+I spent 90% of my time in the company of a white man.  My husband is Caucasian and, though he hails from Germany, was often mistaken as a local.  It would be reckless to not acknowledge that being in his presence the vast majority of the time possibly shielded me from untoward reactions.  That being said, aware of this, I made sure to spend two afternoons exploring on my own.  Strangely enough, I found people treated me way more nicely when I was by myself (see my encounter above, in the shoe store) .

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+I speak “American” English and present as a distinctly North American person. Again, it’s important to acknowledge that my “American-ness” , blue passport, and “American” physical aspect provide a layer of security, even in places that are known for being racist, prejudicial, and/or discriminatory.  My voice and my clothing scream Western tourist and in many places this is an advantage. Don’t believe the hype, in many countries Americans are put on a pedestal and given preferential treatment.

So is Russia racist against black people? Should they travel there?

This is a question that I still find difficult to answer. My experience was extremely positive, but there are so many factors dictating this that it’s difficult to provide a definitive response that would apply to all.  Personally, I would (and will) return.  The architecture is stunning, the history and culture immersive, the food divine.  However, on my next visit, I would like to venture outside of the main cities and explore elsewhere– Russia is too large to rely on just Moscow and St. Petersburg for an accurate depiction of what it’s about.

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One thing is for sure, however, you’ll never know what Russia is truly like until you go over there and see it for yourself–this is the same for any country, city, or territory.  So, to my fellow black people: I say go forth and explore, always taking care to arm yourself beforehand with information, anecdotes, and evidence.

Watch my Youtube video about my experiences in Russia:

 

Black people, I’d love to know: has the threat of racism in Russia (or any other country) stopped you from travelling there?  Have you ever been the victim of racial discrimination abroad? Where?  And for those of you who have been to Russia, what were your experiences?

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Is Russia Racist? Travelling While Black in Russia

26 Comments

  • I love your wording in this post, you’ve approached the subject with much thoughtfulness and not with, “Hey, I was in Russia, and I’m black and therefore they love blacks!!”
    One of my brother’s studied in Russia for seven years, it was in the late 90’s to early 2000’s..he came back in 2005, he was in his thirties, but his hair turned white (stress + winter?) he was visibly traumatized. He had begun in Moscow Friendship University, but had to leave because of the fear of skinheads. Some Africans and Asian students had been targeted and lynched just because of being a different darker shade. In public transportation, he was often poked in the ribs by elderly Russian women, and shoved out of the way. The police constantly stopped him and asked for identification. My brother ended up moving to Kursk, but when he went back to Kenya, he swore never to step in Europe after that.

    Obviously, experiences are very unique, but I do agree that black females have it better. I have a female friend, black Kenyan as well studying in Volgograd, it’s manageable for her, she is doing okay.
    Despite the stories, I’d love to see Russia. My brother had other positive stories, that Russia had the best pastries and a very unique architectural aesthetic with colourful dome-shaped buildings. That vodka was cheaper than water?
    I’d go into these countries without fear, because my experience has been that every place has it’s negatives and positives, but because humanity is everywhere, things will always pan out alright.
    I live in the Netherlands and find it tolerant; but Ive faced discrimination. I’m almost always followed around in stores. I’ve been shouted at in buses and boats. The dutch are pretty cool..it’s just a few folk that act really racist.

  • Adalia says:

    The potential of racial discrimination hasn’t kept me from going to any specific country. I would say that I do like to know just how much physical violence I might encounter. Being refused service or called names still happen to me in the US (not often but it does happen) so that alone won’t stop me from traveling.

  • Honest says:

    I traveled to Ukraine in 2009 for work and while walking down a street with an Asian colleague in central Kyiv was slapped in the face by a guy which knocked me down to the ground. When I got up he was gone. So yeah I’m not sure I would risk my safety. I know a black US foreign service officer who was beat up so badly the agency who sent him decided to steer AA from posts in that region. I have traveled in the Balkans and in more southern former soviet countries with no issues.

  • Melissa says:

    This is great and very nuanced, there are so many factors besides race that make up your impression on others. I find that solo travel for me is exceptionally easy, I appear non threathened. I’ve been told I have a baby face so people feel maternalistic or paternalistic towards me and try to help. In Rome I felt it the most, I was even mistaken for this one shop owner’s daughter for a few minutes….who is 11, it was quote a few years ago but I was no no where near that age.

    While you can’t assess in one visit if an entire country is racist at least you have put out a balanced post and all you can do is speak from a place of truth and that is also about being with a white man the whole time, staying in large cities. I’ve seen many of a report that the people are homophobic and racist and it isn’t fair that those should tarnish the image of a whole country. But I do have to say that Russia is so low on my travel list that it doesn’t place at all. This is just because of the history I’m interested, and culture etc there are other places I’d like to go first.

    Good job and as always amazing pictures. I love the doll one the most! I’d love a print of that, hint hint 🙂

  • Melissa says:

    Yeah that needed a good edit, but you get what I’m saying 🙂

  • LadyNa says:

    As an African American who traveled abroad frequently I noticed I received better treatment when traveling with my Caucasian male companion then with my Black husband or alone. What I found even more interesting, I was treated more warmly then either the Caucasian or my husband when travelling as a couple but not as much when I travelled alone. Travelling alone in the Caribbean my problems were primarily with the female hotel staff and “pushy” unwelcomed attention from some of the men. No difference from home or abroad but you do want to be on your guard a little more. Big, sincere smiles and enthusiasm goes a long way making people comfortable along with genuine interest in the people and the location. This post is extremely interesting and I look forward to more!

  • Ashley says:

    Thank you for your honesty! I was so glad to see you address that you were with your husband most of the time and that you spent time away from him and still had a positive experience. My husband and I are Black, he being 6’3 and me being 5’8 so we tend to stick out even though we’re very bubbly and smiley too. I admit I was waiting anxiously for this post on your experience in Russia as I am very curious to visit Moscow and Saint Petersburg some day 🙂

  • Alyssa says:

    I’m glad to hear you had a positive experience in Russia and I really appreciated the nuance with which you wrote the post! Adventurous as I like to think of myself, the treatment towards the melanin inclined is something I always look into. It wouldn’t stop me from going somewhere but I definitely like to be prepared!

  • Dana says:

    With everything that’s going on now (Nice, Paris, Germany, Turkey), do you feel more apprehensive about being abroad, or has it not been a factor?

    • Brandi says:

      Dana,

      This is a very good question and I’d like to know the answer to this as well. I have the time and money to travel extensively, but recent events do concern me.

  • Jazzy says:

    I am in Austria now, and I do notice the stares which doesn’t bother me much… but just like you I wonder if having a white partner “shields” me … Nonetheless, the people have been great so far no complaints!

  • Igor says:

    Why do Americans say that Russians are racist even though we’re the most tolerant people in the world outside South America thanks to 70 years of Marxism? You won’t see this amount of racemixing anywhere in Europe or USA.

    And Russia is not “brutally cold” most of the year, it’s a myth. Or is -10 to -5 in winter too cold? Come on, most relevant places here have the same climate as many areas in Europe and USA. It hurts the most 🙁

    • Kat says:

      I think people associate Russians with racism because it is has been widely reported that Putin encouraged the racism against President Obama. There was the birthday projection, the monkey images, the Obama chocolate covered ice cream banana etc. Even our most conservative journalist spoke out about it. I must say that I have not traveled to abroad as of yet, I first must concur this fear of flying, however, I have made friends with Germans, Russians, Polacks and they have been some of the nicest people. I don’t know if they would act differently in their home countries, but honestly meeting all of these Germans really changed my preconceived idea of German people.

  • Jules says:

    Great post! Just got back from Italy, Montenegro, and Greece and the only place I felt an undercurrent of racism was in Naples, Italy. Even with the shock of Athens being a gritty, rough looking city, I found Athenians to be friendly, helpful, and shockingly honest. I don’t think I would do southern Italy again, but I had no troubles in Rome, so I will definitely revisit there.

    My old apartment had many Russians, actually the entire neighborhood was full of Russians. I never had any issues with them even though there were few blacks around. Yes, there was the pervert two doors down, but that was an individual situation. The men tend to be heavy drinkers, so I would caution solo female travellers to be cautious of their choices for evening entertainment. St. Petersburg is on my bucket list.

  • sarah says:

    do you not get tired of answering this question? Do you ever plan on saying you will no long answer?

  • Halee says:

    Wow, this was such a fascinating post! Thanks for putting a fresh perspective out there in the world of travel blogging. 🙂 I’m glad your experience in Russia was so positive.

  • Bloom says:

    Oneika, this was such a thoughtful and well-written article on your experience traveling throughout Russia. Kudos to you for it!

    I recently came back from a trip to Moscow, and it was 95% great. The city is lovely, and I found Russians to be very kind, curious and friendly towards me as a Black American woman, although there was quite a huge language barrier 🙂

    Unfortunately, near the end of my trip, as I was walking alone near the Kremlin, I was physically attacked (he grabbed my butt, slapped and shouted at me in Russian) by a random stranger who ran over to me as I was casually strolling through a busy path (think about 10 minutes away from the equivalent of Times Square in NYC), then quickly ran away after hitting me. Since I have many friends in Russia, I was rarely walking alone during the trip. It was a bit surprising, to say the least! The total lack of reaction from the passerby around us was even more shocking, and frankly, spoke volumes about the culture with regards to how hate crimes are handled 🙁

    For those who are wondering, in terms of appearance, I am somewhat of a “glam” black American young woman. There is no mistaking me for a non-Western / African / etc. woman.

    Due to the negative incident, I unfortunately would generally not recommend travel to the country at this point in time for black women. I truly had an incredible time, but as mentioned earlier, I was mostly with a super hospitable group of Russian (mostly male) friends during my trip. It did seem as if I could have been seriously assaulted that day with no consequences to the attacker, which was and still is extremely unsettling. And there are so few black people in the city, that a group of black women travelers will easily stand out. Let’s hope for a more culturally open Russia in the future, because it truly is a lovely place.

  • I think racism exists in every country and it is not good to say ALL russians are racists, because that is just not true. A city like Moscow is built for tourists and it lives on tourists too. So people in there just want to reach as many people as possible with their stores and their tourists business, and this includes black people.
    On the other hand, Russia is a very nationalistic states, and since black people are a minority in the country, they will not be seen as pro nationalist, therefor can be hated by hardcore nationalists.

  • Anna says:

    Hi Onieka, thank you for sharing your experience of Russia! It’s refreshing to read such an honest and thoughtful piece. Since I was born and raised there, I always feel a bit apprehensive when coming across similar stories, but I am happy to hear that you had a good time there. It would be interesting to see what you think of the rest of the country!

  • Rico says:

    I am a 6 foot 3 inch black man who loves to travel internationally. I get questioned at the airports to exhaustion all the time.

    I used to travel in a suit. That raised eyebrows. and I was questioned as to my source of income etc.

    When I traveled with four pieces of luggage, they were searched because i had too many bags.

    When I traveled with two pieces of luggage the very next year, they were searched because i had too few bags.

    My wife stepped away from me and I was questioned as to weather or not I was traveling alone. My wife is Brasilian and light skin toned.

    Although I am under greater scrutiny when I travel, I am accustomed to it because at 60 years old I’ve seen it all.

    My advice to to young Black Men is, TRAVEL! Let the world see us. If we don’t tell our story, someone else will.

  • Marilyn says:

    Oneika you have did what most of us dream of, I have did some traveling as a single person and I can truly say traveling is an education, cutural, historical and given the chances to be around the locals we learn so much from one another, I will say ” Oneika do it all if you can while you can while you are still young & have your health, keep your focus and goals to shared our travel with others by writing your blogs, you tube videos, and one day someone will ask you, to do a Diverse Travel Channel, the old saying “where one door closes another opens” congratulations I look forward to hearing more from you!

  • Afronita says:

    I am an African woman, sometimes solo traveller and I have been to many countries though not yet to Russia. I personally believe that the African American experience is clearly different from the African experience. And people can make the difference. Also, the fact that you were with a Caucasian male. I am happy that you mentioned both factors because they do matter.

  • Chris says:

    This is a very interesting article. I habe travelled a lot too and as a black man I habe never been attracted bybm Russia especially because of fhe Russian people I met here in France, or Canada or elsewhere. Unfortunately O found them very cold. Also I think your trip went smoothly because you are a lady but they don’t appreciate men especially when they date their beautiful russian dolls. Plus your fiance is white so maybe it s more ok lol. I am not saying that they are all like this of course . And I am sure that some might be very curiouq and happy to see other races and colours around. But it’ s a old country. I am sure the architecture must be amazing .. thank you for sharing

  • Art says:

    Thank you for your candid insight. I found the most telling section of your article to be the area regarding your personal observations vs the potential experiences for black men. My wife and I (I’m dark skinned 6′ tall 220lbs and she is 5’5″ 130lbs ) have traveled to many places where we have been the only people of color over the past 10+ years. More times than not the initial reactions I receive when I’m alone vs when I am with her are very different. Regardless of the reception I receive, I view each new encounter as an opportunity to share my story / personality and hopefully leave them with a positive image of people of color. An Image contrary to what most mass media would have them believe.

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