For Russian Blacks, Obama Visit Stirs Special Interest
By Kevin O’Flynn
MOSCOW — The visit to Russia by Barack Obama, the first black man to be elected president of the United States, is significantfor many Russians.
But for Russians of African descent, in particular, the new U.S. leader is a potent symbol of triumph over the same challenges they themselves face in a country where dark-skinned people remain rare and often unwelcome.
Yelena Khanga is one of Russia’s best-known black citizens. The popular host of a top-rated 1990s chat show about sex — “ProEto,” (About That) — she became one of the few black faces regularly seen on Russian television.
Khanga’s grandparents came to the Soviet Union in the 1920s to escape the racism they had endured in the United States as a mixed-race couple.
Today, Khanga says Obama’s election to the American presidency, and his current visit to Moscow, have special meaning for her.
“He did what my grandmother and grandfather dreamed about in their day,” Khanga says. “They couldn’t even have dreamed that, one day, America would have a black president. The only dreams that they had — my grandmother was white, and my grandfather was black — was that Americans would someday allow mixed couples to live in peace, have children, and let the children have decent lives. That is what they dreamed about.”
…Still, Khanga — whose great-grandfather was a slave in Mississippi — says she believes the scourge of racism was far worse in the United States, where there were 4 million African slaves by the time slavery was abolished in 1865 and where it took another century before school segregation and other forms of racial discrimination were formally outlawed.
Khanga notes that there was a very small percentage of mixed-race and black people in the Soviet Union.“I was part of the first generation — now, of course, there are a lot more,” Khanga says. “But…we did not have the history of racism as they did in America. Not everything was easy, and I can be the first to tell you what kinds of problems we had. But, of course, you can’t compare them to the kinds of things that happened in America.”
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