"Russian Obama" battles, plays off racism

Vasily Ivanovich would be the first black public official in racism-plagued Russia

Published August 11, 2009 8:44PM (EDT)

American politics gets frustrating sometimes. With our Glenn Becks and our Birthers and our “town hall meetings” that have nothing to do with towns, halls or meetings -- well, it’s enough to make you wish for a different set of politicians, now and then.

On the other hand, a quick look abroad can make our politics look healthy and normal, at least compared to Russia’s. The Independent reports on Vasily Ivanovich, born Joaqim Crima, a native of Guinea-Bissau who is running to be mayor of the district of Srednyaya Akhtuba, part of the Volgograd Region. If elected, Ivanovich would be the first black person elected to public office in Russia. (Hat tip to Ben Schott.)

So naturally, he’s acquired the nickname “the Volgograd Obama.” In fairness, Ivanovich hasn’t exactly mimicked Obama’s strategy of generally avoiding campaign talk about his skin color. Instead, the Russian has promised, if elected, to “toil like a Negro” at his work. Ivanovich says he’s got no problem with playing off stereotypes. “I wanted to say something that would be interesting and surprising for people; that would catch their attention.”

Russia has developed a deep and nasty streak of racism against African immigrants and other black people in recent years. If there’s any doubt about what kind of environment Ivanovich is running in, check out this comment from Viktor Sapozhnikov, the head of the local electoral commission: “The poster says he wants to be the 'new head of the region' but it doesn't say which region. Is it Guinea-Bissau or some kind of Maltese islands?” Sapozhnikov added that Ivanovich would only get joke votes.

That kind of thing makes it pretty hard not to root for Ivanovich, even lacking any knowledge of Volgograd’s local politics. Just a word of campaign advice: be careful if there’s any talk about healthcare. You don’t want to get accused of trying to impose some sort of Russian-style system.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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