Talking racism and Black Lives Matter in Russia

4 months ago 30
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"Yes, I'm mixed race. I have more than one million haters. How come? Read the posts."

This is how 22-year-old Maria Magdalena Tunkara introduces herself in her Instagram account before proceeding to bust the most wide-spread and entrenched racist and sexist beliefs in Russia.

"I think people don't understand what they are saying when they tell me that I'm lucky to look the way I do. My appearance in Russia provokes all kinds of associations which people readily shout out in the street," she writes in one of her Instagram posts.

"I hear all the time the following: That I had forgotten to wash up. That I am a child of the 1980 Olympic Games [in Moscow] or the 1957 Youth and Students Festival […] That my father lives on a palm tree […] That I have pubic hair on my head […] That interracial relations are not normal and mixed-race children have health problems […] That I am thinner because children in Africa are starving."

"It's not that cool to be different in Russia," she concludes.

A daily blog

More than two years ago, feeling the need to share her thoughts on issues that deeply bothered her, Tunkara transformed her Instagram from a regular Russian teenager's account into a daily blog on racism, feminism and lifestyle in Russia.

Born to a Russian mother and a Malian father in St Petersburg, the engineering student has braved online abuse to discuss topics deemed sensitive or controversial in Russia - from sexuality to hate crimes and discrimination to sexism, ethnic hair and positive body image.

"In the beginning, it was very difficult, getting hate especially from people close to me, from friends, classmates […] Then it got better - the hate started coming from strangers," she told Al Jazeera.

She sees her blog as a platform not just to discuss racism and feminism in Russia but also to help herself overcome the trauma of racist abuse she suffered as a child. She also wants to help others, especially people of colour and parents of mixed-race children who worry about bullying.

Maria Magdalena Tunkara

Tunkara lives, studies and writes in St Petersburg [Courtesy of Maria Magdalena Tunkara] 

Tunkara said she had a normal childhood until she started school. That is when she started getting picked on, insulted and even physically attacked.

Her teachers partook in the harassment as well, often asking her why her mother could not find a white Russian man to marry or if her father was Pierre Narcisse, a famous Cameroonian-Russian singer. 

In high school, her friends would not stop cracking jokes about her skin colour or using racial slurs to address her. In college, she stopped talking to her best friend after he got drunk and messaged her: "Black people = slaves." 

She never told her family about any of it as she felt ashamed.

Yet her parents never shied away from discussing racism. Her father, Aliou Tunkara, is a well-known activist who founded an organisation called African Unity to help Africans who faced racist abuse or violence in St Petersburg. 

The far right

It was through her father's work that Tunkara followed in detail the violent attacks and killings that far-right groups perpetrated against people of colour across Russia during the 2000s.

In 2007 and 2008, the violence peaked with more than 600 hate-motivated physical attacks and more than 100 murders.

At that time, the Russian authorities supported local ultra-nationalist groups, hoping they would help prevent a pro-democracy movement from emerging in the aftermath of the revolutions in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004).

Eventually, the government decided to crack down on the far right, especially after some of these groups sided with the Ukrainian protest movement of 2013-2014, which brought the number of violent hate crimes down to several dozen per year. 

According to Tunkara, this has not necessarily diminished racist or far-right convictions among Russians. 

"I feel that racist attitudes may be increasing with growing internet access [among the Russian population]. I see increasing online harassment and growing spread of ultra-nationalist and neo-Nazi views. This scares me," she said.

George Floyd

When, in late May, the Russian public started paying attention to the nationwide protests in the United States sparked by the death of unarmed Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer, Tunkara saw this as a great opportunity to draw more people into the discussion of racism. 

"For the first time in the past few years, I see on the Russian-language internet some form of discussion (that lasts longer than a day) of the racism issue," she wrote in a June 5 post.

‘I can’t breathe’: George Floyd dies in US police custody (2:50)

While there was some sympathy for the plight of the African American community on Russian social media, many Russians, including celebrities, focused on and criticised the incidents of looting and violence. 

Former presidential candidate and self-proclaimed member of the opposition Ksenia Sobchak, for example, posted about Floyd's criminal record and called him an "armed robber".

She also complained about HBO's removal of the film Gone With the Wind, saying "I told you that it will all end in insanity". 

Tunkara tried to explain to her readers what was going on. She put US police brutality into context, talked about institutional racism, the civil rights movement, nonviolent protests and radical political groups. She got some support under her posts, but also much opposition and a lot of hate. 

On June 5, she posted a video on TikTok in response to the predominant sentiment on Russian social media that Russia does not have a problem with racism, unlike the US.

To the background music of "This is Russia, bro", a remix of Childish Gambino's This is America song, Tunkara wrote about killings and beatings of people of colour in Russia, the knife attack on a nine-year-old mixed-race girl and the murder of a nine-year-old Tajik girl in St Petersburg, the far-right Russian march, and the overwhelming impunity that hate crime perpetrators enjoy.

This unleashed not just more hate but also death threats.

Maria Magdalena Tunkara

Tunkara said she has received death threats over her blogging on racism in Russia [Courtesy of Maria Magdalena Tunkara]

Death threats

"It was not the first time I received death threats […], but this time it was on a mass scale," Tunkara said. She filed a complaint with the police and the prosecutor's office and is still awaiting action from authorities.

Asked whether Russia needs a Black Lives Matter movement, she says that context in her country is different and that needs to be taken into account.

"I don't think we should copy the West. Racism in Russia is different from racism in the US. Racism here is more 'household' racism," Tunkara said.

Despite the sway far-right ideas have in Russia society, the country has never had racism enacted in law, as it was the case in the US, she said.

Others have pointed to the Soviet legacy of anti-racism and anti-imperialism.

In an article published on June 15 in the Moscow Times, Sean Guillory, a Russian history scholar, wrote about the strong connections Bolshevik Russia established with anti-racism movements in the US in the 1920s and 1930s and positive experiences African Americans had visiting the country at that time. 

"Perhaps the most profound experience Soviet anti-racism gave to African Americans was the ability to momentarily step beyond their skin," wrote Guillory, quoting American poet Langston Hughes, who described a train trip he took in the USSR in 1930s in rather positive terms: "I am riding south from Moscow and am not Jim-Crowed and none of the darker people on the train with me are Jim-Crowed."

"I've quite forgotten that I'm Black. I simply feel like a human being; that's all," wrote another African American, Margaret Glasgow, who moved to Moscow in the 1930s after being unable to find a job in New York City.

Maria Magdalena Tunkara

Tunkara and her family [Courtesy of Maria Magdalena Tunkara]

About 90 years later, Tunkara is unable to "step beyond" her skin colour. She faces verbal abuse regularly in Russia, including communist-era racial slurs, such as "festival child" and "Olympics child", derogatory terms used as insults against Russian mixed-race children.

They refer to international events that the USSR hosted, attracting foreigners from outside the Eastern Bloc, who - per the stereotype - would enter into sexual relationships with Russian women - something the conservative white majority disapproved of.

Indeed, people of colour faced much discrimination during the Soviet era, despite the official anti-racist and anti-imperialist rhetoric the authorities insisted on, Tunkara said.

'I can't just give it up'

She said she does not want to have children in Russia because she does not want them to face bullying and harassment.

"I don't feel that safe here. I'm looking into emigration to Western Europe and I feel like I will eventually have to do this because I want to feel comfortable in the country where I live […] and be able to raise children in safety," Tunkara said.

Yet, despite the abuse and threats, she is determined to continue blogging.

"I realise that there will always be people dissatisfied with me if I refuse to follow a certain path society wants me to take. The blog is an opportunity for me to gather around people who think like me, to feel that I'm not alone," Tunkara said.

"The blog is my child, who I've been nurturing for a long time, I can't just give it up."

Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter: @mkpetkova

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