First Black Elected Official Defies Racism In Russia For decades the Soviet Union recruited African students to study at its universities. But there are very few blacks in Russia today, and racism is prevalent. Jean Gregoire Sagbo, the country's first black elected official, says his responsibility is not to fail: "I want them to see that it doesn't matter what race you are."

First Black Elected Official Defies Racism In Russia

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm David Greene.

And this is actually my last day sitting in this chair. I'm going to be heading back to Russia soon and to my job as NPR's correspondent in Moscow.

Before I leave though, there is a story from Russia that I wanted to share with you. It's the story of a man named Jean Gregoire Sagbo, a councilman from Novozavidovo. It's a town of 8,000 people, about 60 miles north of Moscow.

Councilman Sagbo's story is inspiring, but it also opens the book on a darker element of Russian society: racism.

Sagbo made news this summer when he became the first black elected to public office in Russian history. You can understand why he's been nicknamed Russia's Obama - something he's not too pleased about.

Mr. JEAN GREGOIRE SAGBO (Councilman, Novozavidovo): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: The Obama of Russia, just because I'm black? If you say that I'm as serious a person as he is, working for the good of the country I live in, then yes, sure. However, I don't like this cynical boasting of, look, we've got our own Obama too. No, that I don't like.

Jean Gregoire Sagbo has dark rich eyes, an infectious smile and salt-and-pepper hair which you'd think would be more gray after all he's been through.

He was born in the West African nation of Benin, and he came to the Soviet Union in 1982 as a student. The Soviets recruited thousands of Africans to institutes in Moscow, where they would hear about the benefits of communism. Back then, Russians had a name for Sagbo and other black students: monkeys.

Mr. SAGBO: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: When I first got here, I kept hearing the word monkey on the street. So I asked my Russian teacher what that meant. She said, where did you hear it? They weren't saying it about you. Such things don't happen here.

But such things did happen and worse. Sagbo fell in love with a Russian girl at his institute named Svetlana. When she became pregnant, she was kicked out of the institute for dating a, quote, "foreigner," and her mother beat her. The couple struggled for acceptance, living for a time in Benin, returning to Russia, finally discovering peace in Novozavidovo.

Sagbo got a job. He quietly made a name for himself, helping those in need. Residents started calling him Santa Claus. And earlier this year, they elected him to the town council.

Drive around with Jean Gregoire Sagbo and you'll find he shares the same concerns of any small-town politician.

Mr. SAGBO: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Before the elections, the town was a dump. There was trash everywhere. We didn't have much money, but we cleaned it up.

Still, Sagbo says his sense of responsibility extends beyond the town.

Mr. SAGBO: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: This is the first time anyone from the entire African continent has managed to become elected here. My responsibility is to not fail. If I fail, it would be an embarrassment for my entire race. I wouldn't want them to say that I failed because I'm black. So I must do well, very well.

In Novozavidovo, Jean Gregoire Sagbo is seen as an honest, hardworking man. Near the train station, resident Tatyana Fomkina shrugged when I asked her about the race of her councilman.

Ms. TATYANA FOMKINA: (Through Translator) What's the difference? As long as he is a good leader and a good person, that's all that matters.

GREENE: But here's the ugly truth: The ease with which Sagbo walks the streets of Novozavidovo is not something he feels in the rest of the country. He won't even get on the train to Moscow. He drives. Skinheads are active in the capital and elsewhere, and blacks - not to mention other minorities like Central Asians - have been beaten on trains and also on the Moscow subway.

The Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy, an outreach group, surveyed about 200 Africans in Moscow and found that more than half had suffered physical attacks.

Jean Gregoire Sagbo's wife, Svetlana, says she worries about her husband and the whole family.

Ms. SVETLANA SAGBO: (Through Translator) I worry for my boys, my sons who live in Moscow. Yes, racism does exist, and it hasn't gone away. Whenever my husband goes on TV, I always tell him to keep his family out of it. Don't show me. Don't show our sons.

GREENE: My visit to see the Sagbos left me with a lot of questions about racism in Russia and also what life is like for blacks. And so I reached out to a man named Jelani Cobb, who teaches history at Spelman College in Atlanta. The last time I saw Cobb, though, he was on a Fulbright at Moscow State University. He was teaching a course rarely if ever offered at the school: African-American history. Cobb said he thoroughly enjoyed his class and all of his students.

But I asked him to talk about being a black man in Russia. He said soon after he got there, he kept having these encounters.

Professor JELANI COBB (History Department, Spelman College): When I was on the subway, people of African descent would pull me aside and, almost without bidding, they'd begin telling me, you know, don't go here. Don't ride the subway after 10 p.m. Don't ride the subway when there are big events. Don't be any place where you can attract attention to yourself.

I was conscious every time I left my apartment and certainly every time I got on the metro. And I realized after I'd been there, maybe two months, that it was really draining. It was mentally draining because I was alert all of the time when I was out in public.

GREENE: What were you afraid of?

Prof. COBB: Well, there had been people who had been stabbed, people who had been jumped and beaten up. You know, the kind of drumroll of regular assaults. You know, it was fortunate for me that nothing actually happened. But there were certainly instances where I was certain that if I was 5'7" instead of 6'3", and if I was, you know, 160 pounds as opposed to about 260 pounds, things would have been very different.

GREENE: Things might have been different.

Prof. COBB: Things would have been very different.

GREENE: What is the difference? I mean, we have groups like that in the United States. Is it just a matter of there's a feeling that they can get away with anything because the police won't clamp down on them or - what is the difference?

Prof. COBB: Well, you know what I found to be fascinating about it was that to call these things racial attacks kind of oversimplifies them. One of the things that the Africans who I spoke to talked about, as well as many other people, said was that, you know, race was part of this, but it also was in some ways a reaction to what many young Russians feel is their loss of prestige in the world.

You know, the argument is that the Soviet Union spent so much time and energy and resources trying to inspire revolutions in the so-called Third World, and they gave so much money to the African continent that they had none left for themselves. And there's a kind of post-Cold War resentment toward, you know, the Africans who are there as almost a symbol of Russia's declining status in the world.

GREENE: Was there a lack of familiarity with blacks? I mean, I'm so interested. If we talk about racism in the U.S., I mean there's obviously a long, long history that everyone sort of confronts and is the backdrop when we talk about racism.

In Russia, I mean, you know, in the village that I visited and even in Moscow, I mean, I think, there are people who have just never met or spent much time with someone who's black. How does that change the equation?

Prof. COBB: Well, what's funny is, you know, when I was in the city, I would count actually the number of black people I'd see on any given day. And it might be two or three, you know, in a city of 11 million.


Prof. COBB: You know, there would be circumstances, like I attended a art opening at a gallery. And I think about 11 people came up and took pictures of me. In another instance, when I was in Red Square, a gentleman ran up to me and enthusiastically hugged me, and I had no idea why, then he points at his wife has a camera and he's, you know, photo?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COBB: You know, so I took a photo with the guy.


Prof. COBB: And to this point, I have no idea why he was so thrilled to see me. I guess, he assumed I was, you know, an American athlete or something. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. COBB: So there were those kinds of weird moments that kind of speak to a lack of familiarity with, you know, a different set of people.

GREENE: Professor Cobb, thank you very much for talking to us.

Prof. COBB: Thank you very much.

GREENE: That's Jelani Cobb, recently a Fulbright scholar teaching African-American History in Russia. He's also author of the book "The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress."

And, Robert, when I do head back to Russia after this day, I'm certainly going to be checking in also with Councilman Sagbo to see how he's getting along up in his town.

SIEGEL: I look forward to that.

And this is as appropriate a moment as any to say thanks for two great weeks of hosting ALL THINGS CONSIDERED with us here in Washington. I'm sure you won't miss the 90-degree heat when you're back in Moscow.

GREENE: But I'll miss you. It's been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Thank you, David.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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