Passport

The strange case of “Volgograd Obama”

Joachim Crima — a 37-year-old immigrant from Guinea-Bissau is trying to become Russia’s first black elected official, running in district elections in the Volgograd region. Naturally, Crima, who has lived in Russia for 12 years, has been dubbed “Volgograd Obama,” though as RIA-Novosti reports, his campaign rhetoric isn’t exactly “Yes we can.” I want to ...

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Joachim Crima -- a 37-year-old immigrant from Guinea-Bissau is trying to become Russia's first black elected official, running in district elections in the Volgograd region. Naturally, Crima, who has lived in Russia for 12 years, has been dubbed "Volgograd Obama," though as RIA-Novosti reports, his campaign rhetoric isn't exactly "Yes we can."

I want to make the lives of people who I consider my compatriots better. I am ready to work from morning until evening to resolve their problems. In other words, I am ready to toil like a negro," he said

I must admit, when I saw that quote in RIA-Novosti's story, and the fact that Crima apparently sells watermelons for a living, I wondered if the whole thing wasn't a very nasty hoax. But AFP's Anna Smolchenko called up Crima, who says he doesn't mind using racial stereotypes to his advantage:

Joachim Crima — a 37-year-old immigrant from Guinea-Bissau is trying to become Russia’s first black elected official, running in district elections in the Volgograd region. Naturally, Crima, who has lived in Russia for 12 years, has been dubbed “Volgograd Obama,” though as RIA-Novosti reports, his campaign rhetoric isn’t exactly “Yes we can.”

I want to make the lives of people who I consider my compatriots better. I am ready to work from morning until evening to resolve their problems. In other words, I am ready to toil like a negro,” he said

I must admit, when I saw that quote in RIA-Novosti’s story, and the fact that Crima apparently sells watermelons for a living, I wondered if the whole thing wasn’t a very nasty hoax. But AFP’s Anna Smolchenko called up Crima, who says he doesn’t mind using racial stereotypes to his advantage:

If Russians are accustomed to calling dark-skinned people ‘negroes’ then so be it. I am not in the least bit offended because you have to be proud of who you are.”

If he says so. Something still feels very off about this whole thing. Crima seems to not have a chance in hell at beating the local United Russia candidate, and despite the credulous media reports, it seems like no one is really taking him seriously:

There is an impression that he is laughing at himself, saying ‘I am a Russian Obama’,” Viktor Sapozhnikov, chief of the district election commission, said.

If he goes through with his plan to run for office, said Sapozhnikov, voters would cast ballots for him either “for the sake of a joke” or as an act of protest against Russia’s moribund political life.

Sean’s Russia blog also has a round-up of some of the uglier racist reactions from Russian Web commenters. Rather than being a sign of social progress, the fact that the very idea of a black man running for office is being treated as a joke seems like a sign of just how entrenched racist attitudes are.

None of the articles I’ve read so far have looked into who’s backing Volgograd Obama’s run, but I think it’s fair to wonder if they really have his interests — or those of Russia’s black population — in mind.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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