Being brown

I’ve been thinking about this issue quite a bit which is why it’s my first Moscow Musing entry. For the sake of context, I am of Indian origin and most of the time pass for East Asian or Pacific Islander depending on how tan I am (or not) and my hair color.

Whenever I meet people of color and tell them I live in Russia, the first question they ask is whether it is safe for me to be in Russia. It’s a fair question. I had the same question before I came to Russia, having read about ultranationalist Neo-Nazi attacks on darker skinned people. A lot of guide books even specify that policemen tend to stop and harass darker-skinned visitors. Articles like this about race-related violence didn’t do much to make me feel safer.

When I came to Moscow, I realized that these perceptions of Russia, while not without basis (given their less than stellar political history with regards to acceptance) were exaggerated. Diversity in Moscow, while not as blatant as in USA or UK, is going through the same growing pains as a lot of major cities in other developing countries. Just walking around the city, you see tons of East and Central Asians. Moscow itself has inhabitants that hail from many former USSR countries. While I certainly get stares (everywhere I’ve traveled in Central/Eastern Europe), they are usually harmless and I haven’t felt unsafe walking around the city. I haven’t gotten hassled by the cops, except once in St. Petersburg and they left me alone after I showed them my passport. Having said that, the class system is quite obvious as well.  It doesn’t take much observation to note that most East and Central Asians have blue collar jobs: I hardly see any one of color in professional settings.

Russia is facing the weight of a (recent) past that clouds the image of those who have never visited the country. But the truth is, Moscovites, like many others in today’s globalized society are opening their eyes, arms, and minds to people from all over the world.