When people ask me about my background it becomes a long explanation,” says photographer Liz Johnson Artur. “I usually start by explaining how my mum is Russian, my dad is Ghanaian and I was born in Bulgaria…”
Johnson Artur is one of a small population of “Russians of colour” born to Russian mothers and African or Caribbean fathers who were offered free university education in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
After making contact with her father for the first time in 2010, Johnson Artur decided to start documenting the stories of some of the 40,000 other “Russians of colour”, alongside journalist Sarah Bentley.
“Most black Russians I met in Moscow and St Petersburg had also grown up without their fathers. Some had been fostered or grown up in children’s homes and had never met their mothers. But we all agreed that we felt Russian as well as African,” the photographer says.
The presence of black Russians, who often describe themselves as “Afro-Russians”, is a reminder of a time when Soviet state internationalism and support for anti-colonial movements meant attitudes towards race were more neutral.
However, today Russia struggles with a reputation for racism: from the abuse of black footballers to violent policing that in recent years has sparked street protests from African students in St Petersburg.
Most of Johnson Artur’s subjects have grown up without much contact with other black people or with little of the shared culture and identity familiar to African-Americans and black Britons.
What they do have in common is the experience of prejudice and confusion shown towards them by much of the Russian public. “Those who grew up and live in Russia still have to justify on a daily basis the fact that they are Russians too,” Johnson Artur explains.
The photographer hopes her project will go some way making visible the generation of black Russians that have grown up calling the country home.
I came to Russia 10 years ago from the Congo to study engineering, but my love for martial arts took over. When I came to St Petersburg I had a son with a Russian woman. I needed to find work so I started giving martial arts lessons. Russia was good to me: it gave me the opportunity to open my own martial arts studio. I could have never done this in the Congo.
Around 2004 there were a lot of attacks by skinheads in St Petersburg. After the death of an African student we organised a big demonstration in the city. I spoke at the rally and afterwards the FSB [Russian state security service] held me for two days, questioning me about my activities. But I don’t have any hard feelings: it takes time for attitudes to change.
I also tried to join the FSB. I passed all the tests but they wouldn’t take me. But I am stubborn. I applied again for a different unit, and now I work for them on a voluntary basis.
I try to show my appreciation for what Russia has given me. For me that’s the best way to change Russians’ attitudes towards me and other black people.
I was born in Moscow in 1961. My dad was a Cuban revolutionary who came to Moscow to study philosophy. He fought with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba; when I turned one, he went to fight with Che in Bolivia. I only saw him once.
My mum, my brother and I lived in a very small communal flat in Moscow. When I was five, my mum got very ill. She was taken to hospital, and me and my brother were sent to a children’s home. We spent three years there.
When I started school my mum took us back. My childhood was not easy, but I have always been proud of being black. Growing up I got a lot of attention, and a lot of it was not good. Russia is quite a chauvinistic country. They don’t like black people here.
I was born in St Petersburg. Both my parents worked for the UN. My mum is Russian and my dad’s family is from Guadeloupe and Brittany. My mum’s family left Russia after the revolution. Advertisementhttps://5ff2cb600dbb703013c4b9a8b98105f7.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Because of my parents’ work I lived for ten years in Africa – Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon and Ethiopia. I moved back to France for my baccalaureate and after I finished my law degree I took part in an exchange programme. I had a choice: Bangladesh or Russia. I chose Russia, and came to St Petersburg in 1995.
In the beginning I worked as a legal advisor on human rights issues. I also have a degree in economics, so when the exchange program came to an end I started lecturing economics at the university.
I live with my 11 cats in a small one-bedroom flat. It’s not much, but I like my life here. And I see more job opportunities here than back in France.
I have lived in Moscow for seven years. Most of the time I feel fine here, but I would like to live in a different place. I have travelled to Brazil and Spain – people are different there, more friendly and open.
Moscow is a beautiful city, but people here can be quite hard, and very nosy. Strangers trying to touch my hair is something I really don’t like.
My name is Elena. I am 55 years old and I am Peter’s mum. We live on the outskirts of Moscow.
I worked as a cook in the Nigerian embassy and Peter’s dad was working as a diplomat. I always knew he had another family in Nigeria. When he left, my problems started.
I used to find pornographic postcards in my letterbox. When I went out with Peter, people tried to look into the buggy to see what colour he was. Some of my friends and neighbours turned away from me.
When I sent him to nursery, parents started complaining to the nursery about taking on a black child. The staff at the nursery were supportive, but it didn’t stop the children: they would say things like, ‘if you touch him your hands will get dirty…’ It’s easier now that he is older and can stand up better for himself.
Two years ago I won two plane tickets to Nigeria. We stayed with Peter’s dad, his wife and children. It was wonderful. We were welcomed into their house. I have very warm memories of our visit and it was wonderful for Peter to meet his brothers and sisters.
A version of this article first appeared on The Calvert Journal, as part of the Red Africa season exploring cultural relationships between Africa and the Soviet Union.
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