After a break of a year-and-a-half, Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy’s (MPC) 11-year-old “Racial Task Force” (RTF) is back in business.
On July 5, the RTF released its first two quarterly reports for 2012 listing incidents of racially-based, physical and verbal abuse in Moscow.
These reports indicate that if you are a person of color in Russia, April 19-21 of every year is an ideal time to stay at home. April 20 is the birthday of Adolf Hitler. The RTF report cites one 30-year-old male from Congo had a particularly rough day in Moscow on April 21 ― he was attacked three times.
On Feb. 18 a Nigerian in his mid-30s had his face sprayed with gasoline by rowdies shouting racial epithets, seriously irritating his skin and eyes. He died on April 21 following a stroke. Since he is no longer able to send money home to his family, MPC is supporting his desperately poor family in Nigeria for an interim period.
The RTF readily concedes that its limited, largely volunteer forces can only document a tiny percentage of all racially-motivated attacks in the city. The first two reports for 2012 describe 10 attacks and four instances of serious verbal harassment. One of this year’s victims has been physically attacked four times over a 10-year period; another twice during a three-year stay. A man from the Congo has been attacked five times within a two-and-a-half year period and says he is “verbally harassed on a daily basis.”
In one incident on a streetcar this year, an elderly Russian woman weak shouted: “You monkeys are overrunning our country! What are you doing here? Stalin would have dealt with you. Russia is for Russians!”
Ironically, Joseph Stalin was a Georgian, qualifying him as a “black” in current Russian racist terminology.
A major problem here is that persons of color cannot count on protection from bystanders and police. In more than one instance, casual, coincidental onlookers have been seen filming attacks on people of coloor. Civil and moral courage is sadly lacking.
During the night of May 18, a 38-year-old Ghanaian male was beaten seriously while sleeping in the flat of African friends. Five Russian burglars had broken down the door in order to enter. Afterward, the Russian landlord demanded the Ghanaian pay for the door, for his skin color had been the source of the problem. The matter ended with the landlord asking the renters to move out. “The landlord does not want to have this kind of problem,” the now-former tenants said.
Because of the miniscule number of Africans in Russia, their best chance for protection appears to be the presence of Caucasian or Central Asian men in larger numbers. These minorities feel the brunt of Russian racial hatred ― several million of them reside both legally and otherwise in the vicinity of Moscow.
A source on Yahoo lists 0,12% as the percentage of blacks in Russia: a bit over 170.000. The “Metis Foundation” estimates there are 40.000 Russians of mixed, partially-African race. There have nevertheless been Africans in Russia since the 17th century. Indeed, the great-grandfather of national poet laureate Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) came from the region of today’s Eritrea.
The Russian police are still more of a hindrance than an aid to Africans in their plight. On June 8, an African was taken to a forest and robbed by Moscow policemen. In only one of the 14 incidents listed in the two reports is prosecution expected. The very weak legal support of Africans is compounded by the fact that many of them lack sufficient visa documentation and are for that reason highly reluctant to contact police.
Another serious problem is insufficient medical insurance. After being beaten on April 15l, a 17-year-old Congolese youth spent a month at Moscow’s Butkin hospital on food and water. Released with his arm still broken and dislocated, a nurse at MPC’s medical clinic was able to obtain hospital access and the required operation. MPC was able to secure funds for the treatment and the patient is now recovering. The RTF reports this was the second physical attack the victim had suffered during his first six months in the country.
MPC’s mostly-voluntary clinic, called “Medical Advice Center,” has proven to be a bastion of hope and final resort for more than a few needy Africans. It recently moved to the renovated basement of a major Protestant church. It enjoys strong support from Moscow’s “Agape Medical Center” headed by American Baptist physician Bill Becknell.
MPC’s pastor, the United Methodist Matthew Laferty, states: “We believe that our faith in Jesus Christ speaks powerfully to welcoming strangers in a foreign land. We are compelled to provide hospitality to all people regardless of colour or nationality. As an American, I do not point fingers or seek to shame Russians. My country continues to grapple with racism. Our goal is to help strengthen Russia by celebrating its achievements and progress on race issues and struggling with Russians on lingering concerns of racism and race-motivated violence."
Small inroads have been made. The Baptist “Moscow City Church’s” celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Jan. 15 this year ― the first known commemoration of this holiday ever by Russian Protestants. It received worldwide attention and, more importantly, was also widely covered by Russian Protestant media.
Last year, a Cameroonian physician from France, Olivier Akaa, got nowhere in his attempt to be elected mayor of the South Russian city of Lipetsk. But this incredibly upbeat citizen of Russia is running a successful humanitarian organization, called “City of Light,” dedicated to serving the homeless. Fascinated Russian media have been reporting warmly on his efforts.
Besides reporting on incidents and supporting attack victims, the RTF lists the building of a support community for Africans and a new website in English and Russian as two more of its primary objectives for 2012. Cooperation with Russian civil rights initiatives is also on the list; one of them is the secular NGO “SOVA.” Moscow’s small Quaker community is involved in a project on training Russian police to communicate better with people of color.
The highly-international, English-speaking “Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy” was founded in 1962 and is supported jointly by five US denominations: the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Reformed Church in America, the American Baptist Churches, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
William Yoder writes for the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, a partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.