Like many Russian stories, Johny Pitts’ began with dark humour. While organising his visa at the Russian consulate, he was first asked whether he was a member of a terrorist group, before being told to avoid going out alone at night or wandering the streets on public holidays.
A writer and photographer originally from Sheffield, Pitts has spent months documenting the lives of black people living in cities across Europe. His new book Afropean — the artistic culmination of his pan-European project — has just launched, and he embodies that familiar combination of confidence and coyness that comes with being a debut author. “What I’m most proud of in this book,” he tells me, “is tying narratives together and making sense of collective issues.”
These collective issues relate to the experience of being “a black citizen living in Europe”. The book — illustrated by gritty, original photography — details Pitts’ quest to offer up a more unified picture of black communities across the continent. His aim was to explore “blackness” as something “taking part in shaping European identity at large” as opposed to a sub-plot in a frequently whitened history. He writes that the term “Afropean” suggests “the possibility of living in and with more than one idea: Africa and Europe, or, by extension, the Global South and the West, without being mixed- this, half- that or black- other. That being black in Europe didn’t necessarily mean being an immigrant.”
Carrying a camera and “this glorious Afropean imagery” in his mind’s eye, Pitts travelled to Lisbon, Paris and Brussels, cities where black communities comprise a sizeable chunk of the population. He also travelled to Russia, whose black population is estimated at 70,000 people, a tiny fraction of its 140 million citizens.
“I almost didn’t go,” he says, when I ask why he chose to go to Moscow. Ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, there were widespread concerns for the safety of black fans and players in attendance, owing to Russia’s reputation as a hotbed for racist hooliganism. One England player urged his family not to come over concerns for their safety.
“Russia isn’t a great place for black communities — there is a troubling rise of racist aggression,” says Pitts. “On the one hand, I was full of trepidation, but on the other, I kept thinking, ‘this is Western propaganda’. I felt that so much intellectual black thought had passed through communism and passed through Russia, I really couldn’t leave it off the list.”
Afropean adds to a rarely acknowledged but rich body of literature detailing black experience in Russia. The most famous account comes from a group of African-American writers and artists who traveled to the Soviet Union in 1932. Frustrated with the lack of fair representation in Hollywood, they saw the Soviet Union as a place where people of colour could be portrayed in the arts as more than white projections of black identity. Though many eventually became disillusioned with the communist project, their initial impressions were overwhelmingly positive. “I’d read so many pieces of literature by the likes of Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Claude McKay, black actors and poets and writers who had all gone to Moscow and had a great time,” says Pitts. “A lot of those writers — Harlem renaissance writers specifically — were looking for places they might get equality and Russia seemed like it was leading the way. It seemed here was a real viable alternative.”
Soviet support for anti-colonial movements in Africa and a desire to create a Soviet class that transcended race and origin, meant that black people were, on the whole, accepted
Soviet support for anti-colonial movements in Africa and a desire to create a Soviet class that transcended race and origin, meant that black people were, on the whole, accepted. It is the shift from the Soviet Union’s racial neutrality to today’s increasingly hostile atmosphere that interests Pitts. “Russia wasn’t always seen necessarily as a racist country,” he says. “I was fascinated by how a culture that was international became nationalistic.”
A recent report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance concluded that although the number of hate crimes and racist murders has declined in Russia, “comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation is still lacking and racist and homo/transphobic hate speech is widely used in public discourse”; in March 2019, a professional Russian footballer was fined and given a suspended ban for telling a local newspaper it was “laughable” to have black players in the Russian National team, before later apologising for his comments.
Against this sea of media headlines and legal reports, Pitts offers a more urgent, street-level perspective. He mixes sharp observations with historical context, more concerned with the arc of an individual story than political analysis. In Moscow, he meets a Nigerian — “buoyant and full of banter” — dressed as a tsar selling tat on Red Square. “This was a parody of the Afropean,” he writes, “a surface-level interplay more widely accepted and even enjoyed by Europe because it ironically contradicted the idea that an African could ever really be European.” It is a poignant description, intensified by the entertainer’s staged happiness concealing an inner terror: “‘Brother is fucked here,’” the man, James, tells Pitts. “‘In last three weeks they kill two blacks from Ghana… this is no place for a black man.’” I ask why people such as James stay. “In lots of ways a desperation to get out was keeping him there,” explains Pitts. In other words, he couldn’t leave Europe with nothing to show.
Compared to a discernible Afropeanism in other cities across Europe, Pitts struggles to find an integrated black culture in Moscow. He talks to students at the People’s Friendship University of Russia (formerly the Patrice Lumumba University), whose relationship to the city seems markedly transactional. It is here, on the university’s icy campus that Pitts distinguishes between those who felt “Afropean” and those “who were more intelligibly African in Europe”. In Moscow, it seems Pitts could only see the latter.
In Afropean, Pitts mixes sharp observations with historical context, more concerned with the arc of an individual story than political analysis
Under the towering surveillance of the Soviet modernist building, Pitts problematises his own project: “They weren’t black students,” writes Pitts, “they were just students, on tour and studying in a bit of a horrible place to get qualifications they needed to pursue their chosen career paths, and though it’s true that I saw these students as black, it made me feel less sure of my own blackness than ever before, and less sure about the usefulness of any label when searching to understand my own identity or that of a community.” This onus on reflexivity and reflection is what makes his Russian journey multidimensional and artistically compelling. “I felt it was really important to show my own prejudice at times,” says Pitts.
Like many Russian stories, Pitts’ ends with confusion and a yearning for more. As if suspended between the axis of Langston Hughes’ rosy recollections and England footballers’ fearful trepidations, Pitts remains in orbit, still surveying a potential landing spot. “I definitely want to go back there,” says Pitts. “I saw so many different Russias. But I could never get past how it was a place of extremes: extreme wealth, extreme poverty, extreme kindness, and extreme racism. I could never get behind all the extremes and find some middle ground.”