Racism in Russia, or How to Not Rent an Apartment

My initial idea was not to get political in this blog, but everyone is talking about racism these last few weeks. Or days. Or months, self-isolation has it own timeline. In any case, my idea is to share a few funny situations but not really because they’re about racism that happened to me in Russia.

I am going to do this not because I want to denounce some perverse mentality. On the contrary, I feel like I should highlight the different faces of this issue in this country. Like the time I was walking in Gorky Park and a kid pointed a finger at me and said “Look, mom, a n*****!”.

Before you ask, yes, there is an equivalent word in Russian, and no, I am not joking. It was a kid! I don’t expect a kid to understand what they are doing. I also didn’t expect a kid to know that word, to be fair. 

You look white…

If you feel like going to the Comments Section of this article right away to tell me I shouldn’t talk about racism because of white privilege or something, this paragraph here is for you: Despite my mostly “European” looks, I don’t consider myself white, and never did. In Brazil, I would call myself a “pardo”, which Google translates into English as “brown”, but I’d rather just go with “dark-skinned”. Seven years of living in Russia kind of washed my tan away, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t suffer from discrimination due to my skin color in Brazil and Russia.

Russians come in very different kinds of people and, of course, most of them are not filled with anger towards black or Latino people. In fact, as soon as people find out I am from Brazil, it is very easy to have friendly conversations. Of course, they come with lots of questions about soccer and Brazilian women, which I find a bit racist and sexist. Nonetheless, I managed to stop paying attention to that after the 100th such question. 

What I must admit, though, is that in Russia there is a significant discrimination towards Central Asian immigrants, which is why the title of this post is “How not to rent an apartment”. 

How did you notice this discrimination?

I’ll explain everything, don’t worry. People, in general, and landlords, in particular, tend to be very judgmental when it comes to renting an apartment in Russia, which I had the astounding opportunity of experiencing myself, despite not being from Central Asia. Who would have known, right? Ignorant racist people don’t know the difference between Brazil and Uzbekistan! 

At one point in my life, I made the mistake of getting buzz cuts because I was a poor student, and it was cheaper to just cut my hair myself. That, combined with my not very elegant clothes, turned out to be an amazing invitation to have conversations with police officers all throughout Moscow because I was being stopped all the time to have my documents checked. Speaking Russian with an accent also didn’t help much, though I must confess it was fun to see their puzzled faces when I would show my Brazilian passport. 

One such event of the same kind was not that fun, though. It was not fun at all, actually. As I was walking in a subway station, I was asked to come with the police officer to a closed room, which was, by the way, full of eastern-looking men and women. This in of itself was already unusual and frightening for me. Then she started to check all my documents, one by one. Without telling me a word of what was going on.

At one point she asked me for my registration. If you don’t know what a registration is, I wrote this article about it. The problem is, I had left mine at home on that particular day. I was sure I was going to get fined, or worse, as she called someone and told them my full name and passport number. I was scared to death at this point, but I guess she realized there was nothing illegal about being a foreign student, so she let me go. 

Yes, having a Brazilian passport spared me from further scrutiny a few times, but it is not always effective, specially when looking for an apartment. I got refused so many times for being a foreigner! This discrimination is so blatant that you can find ads that are literally written as “One-room apartment ONLY FOR SLAVS!!!

This map is from the above-linked Moscow Times’ Article, showing the apartments reserved only for white people in Moscow. Quite telling that the red color is way more present than it should be, like, at all, right?

Why ‘Slavs’ and not Russian?

Well that’s because they are conscious of the fact that not all Russians have Slavic descent and people from other countries can be Slavs as well. Isn’t that adorable how their racism is conscious about citizens from other countries? They mean “white”. That’s why.

You have to be white to rent some apartments. Being a dark-skinned Brazilian does not help me with that, even though I am pale as a vampire now. I get thrown in the same basket as all the other non-whites, and meet constant cases of discrimination when trying to rent an apartment, depending on the region you are looking at. 

Even then, it would be wrong to say that this reflects the mentality of the whole country, despite being a recurrent practice when renting apartments. My personal experience, which is not to be confused with facts, is that most people will be quite friendly towards you when they get to know you better. The discrimination people face is motivated by fear of the unknown, and not hate towards non-whites, or at least I prefer to believe that. Once you have exchanged a few friendly words, which might be awkward at first, the fear dissipates, and you notice people in general are not assholes, just shortsighted. 

Unfortunately, those are not all the stories of discrimination in Russia. I can assure you I have been through a lot of awkward situations because of my dark skin, and because I speak Russian with a foreign accent. Additionally, I am sure that people from Central Asia and other minorities suffer much more and more frequently, every day, but this article is already longer than planned, so I’ll stop here.

Have you ever had any such experiences in Russia? Maybe you have witnessed something similar in your home country? Feel free to let me know in the comment section.  

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