Da, my smozhem! Russia's answer to Obama

That's 'yes, we can' in Russian – which could be the motto of the country's answer to Obama.

Shaun Walker
Tuesday 04 August 2009 00:00

He's standing for elected office, he brings a message of change, and he's black. This has been enough for Joaquim Crima, a watermelon salesman who lives in a small town in southern Russia, to be dubbed the "Volgograd Obama".

Mr Crima, a 37-year-old native of Guinea-Bissau, plans to stand for mayor of the district of Srednyaya Akhtuba, part of the Volgograd Region. If elected, he would become the first black man ever to hold public office in Russia.

Even though the elections are not until October, Mr Crima has started his campaign. He has a Russian passport, has lived in the district for more than a decade and is known locally not as Joaquim but as Vasily Ivanovich. A series of large billboards has appeared in Srednyaya Akhtuba showing him dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie, with the slogan: "Vasily Crima – the new head of the district".

There are thousands of Africans in Russia, most of whom, like Mr Crima, arrived on scholarships to Russian universities. Many are forced to stay on due to political instability or lack of economic opportunities back home, but they are subjected to ingrained everyday racism and the threat of racist attacks.

Unlike Barack Obama, Mr Crima has decided to play into, rather than attempt to transcend, the racial stereotypes. He has promised that if elected he will "toil like a negro" for the good of the district, which has problems with water and gas supplies, bad roads, and allegedly corrupt officials. "There are so many problems in our district, so I decided to run for mayor," Mr Crima said in an interview. "The constitution allows for anyone to run for office, whatever the colour of their skin."

In September, Mr Crima will mark 20 years of living in Russia and the former Soviet Union. He first arrived in 1989 as a student on a Soviet-era exchange programme, and was sent to university in Moldova, then a Soviet republic. After a year, he was transferred to the Pedagogical University in Volgograd where he specialised in biochemistry.

He decided to stay in Russia after graduating, and met Anait, a Russian woman of Armenian origin, whom he later married. The pair moved to her town of Srednyaya Akhtuba more than a decade ago and have a nine-year-old son. Despite his education, the would-be mayor makes a living standing by the side of the road between Volgograd and Srednyaya Akhtuba, selling watermelons grown and harvested by his father-in-law.

Because he lives in a town where everybody knows him, Mr Crima doesn't face the day-to-day racism that plagues African immigrants in Moscow and other Russian provincial cities. In Moscow, many Africans only travel in groups and never take the metro at night; provincial towns such as Voronezh, with a large contingent of African students, have become notorious for racist beatings and even murders.

Now Mr Crima walks around his village with a smile on his face, but things weren't always so easy. "When I first came to live here, it was very difficult. People would cross the road when they saw me coming; little children would point at me and call me names and everyone would laugh."

Now, he says, local people have accepted him, although when he travels to Volgograd itself or further afield, he has to be on his guard. As for his decision to say that he would "toil like a negro", he laughs and says that he doesn't see anything wrong with playing on stereotypes. "I wanted to say something that would be interesting and surprising for people; that would catch their attention."

He also played down the tag of "Volgograd Obama", and said he would not dream of comparing himself to the American President. However, he said that Mr Obama's election was part of a "global process", and that, in time, even Russia would be ready for black officials.

In Russia, Mr Obama's electoral victory has been viewed mostly with indifference rather than inspiration. While many people are pleased to note friendlier geopolitical policies towards Russia, Mr Obama's race and background have found little of the resonance that they have elsewhere in Europe and the world.

Election officials seem unimpressed by Mr Crima's plans to stand. "The poster says he wants to be the 'new head of the region' but it doesn't say which region," Viktor Sapozhnikov, head of the local electoral commission, told Russian news agencies. "Is it Guinea-Bissau or some kind of Maltese islands?" He said that anyone who voted for Mr Crima would probably be doing so "for a joke".

There were suggestions in some local newspapers that Mr Crima might be a false candidate employed by the current head of the administration to make him look better. Mr Crima denied this.

However, some people seem ready to support him. "We're sick of our own officials," local resident Alexei Fedotov told newspaper Izvestia. "They don't do anything for us. Let Vasily be elected; he works hard and he's too conscientious to steal or cheat people."

Mr Crima is philosophical about his chances, saying that he wants to stay positive and believes that he can really change things for the district. But even if he loses, he plans on the small town being home for the rest of his life.

"I've seen some terrible things about Guinea-Bissau on the TV, and I'd like to go back to see what has happened to my country," he says. "But this is home now. My life is here; my son is here. I'm Russian."

Foreign origins: Russia's star imports

*Pierre Nartsiss, from Cameroon, came to Russia over a decade ago on a university scholarship. While studying journalism, he worked as a casino compère, where he was noticed and invited to take part in the Russian version of Pop Idol. His first major release, entitled "I'm A Chocolate bunny", was a huge hit in Russia and propelled him to fame.

*JR Holden, an American basketball player, aged 32, joined CSKA Moscow in 2002. In 2003, after rules were brought in limiting the number of foreigners allowed to play in the Russian league, he was given citizenship and travelled to the Beijing Olympics with the Russian squad.

*Alexander Pushkin, Russia's favourite poet, had an African great-grandfather – a slave who became Peter the Great's godson. Many Russian historians put Pushkin's negative character traits down to his African ancestry. The poet himself, however, was proud of his roots.

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