A Russian Milestone: 1st Black Elected to Office

National Public Radio, July 26, 2010

People in this Russian town used to stare at Jean Gregoire Sagbo because they had never seen a black man. Now they say they see in him something equally rare–an honest politician.

Sagbo last month became the first black to be elected to office in Russia.

In a country where racism is entrenched and often violent, Sagbo’s election as one of Novozavidovo’s 10 municipal councilors is a milestone. But among the town’s 10,000 people, the 48-year-old from the West African country of Benin is viewed simply a Russian who cares about his hometown.

He promises to revive the impoverished, garbage-strewn town where he has lived for 21 years and raised a family. His plans include reducing rampant drug addiction, cleaning up a polluted lake and delivering heating to homes.

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“His skin is black but he is Russian inside,” said Vyacheslav Arakelov, the mayor. “The way he cares about this place, only a Russian can care.”

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Inspired by communist ideology, Sagbo came to Soviet Russia in 1982 to study economics in Moscow. There he met his wife, a Novozavidovo native. He moved to the town about 100 kilometers (65 miles) north of Moscow in 1989 to be close to his in-laws.

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They already knew him as a man of strong civic impulse. He had cleaned the entrance to his apartment building, planted flowers and spent his own money on street improvements. Ten years ago he organized volunteers and started what became an annual day of collecting garbage.

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Russia’s black population hasn’t been officially counted but some studies estimate about 40,000 “Afro-Russians.” Many are attracted by universities that are less costly than in the West. Scores of them suffer racially motivated attacks every year–49 in Moscow alone in 2009, according to the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy Task Force on Racial Violence and Harassment, an advocacy group.

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