Russia’s Obama: No, He Can’t, At Least Not Now

Karina Ioffee, AP, August 5, 2009

An African-born farmer is making an improbable run for office in Russia, inspired by President Barack Obama and undaunted by racial attitudes that have changed little in decades.

Joaquim Crima, a 37-year-old native of Guinea Bissau who settled in southern Russia after earning a degree at a local university, is promising to battle corruption and bring development to his district on the Volga River.

In Russia, a black man running for office is so unusual that Crima is being called “the Russian Obama.”

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In truth, Crima’s quest to be elected head of the Srednyaya Akhtuba district in October is highly unlikely, not least because he lacks the political capital and connections to make it happen. He faces the reality of being a black man in Russia, a country where racism and racial stereotypes are deeply ingrained.

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Crima gets along well with his fellow townspeople, but to play it safe he is accompanied almost everywhere by his muscular brother-in-law.

Last December, a black American exchange student was stabbed and badly wounded in Volgograd, the nearest large city, in what was believed to be a racially motivated attack.

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Crima wanted to come to the Soviet Union because it supported his West African homeland when it gained independence in 1974. He describes Russia as a “great power” and admires Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He married a local woman, learned to speak fluent Russian and earned his citizenship.

He farms 50 acres (20 hectares) of land, growing watermelons and other melons, which he and his wife sell along the town’s main road. He employs about 20 people to help.

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Privately, however, some laugh at what they see as Crima’s naivety. A department store saleswoman who refused to give her name said she would not vote for him because she doesn’t want to “live in Africa.” Another said she would not vote for a black person.

In Russia, such baldly racist sentiments are common. Crima himself put up billboards that read: “I will toil like a Negro”–a phrase Russians use to mean they will work hard.

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