Russia is often perceived from the outside as a “white” country, which couldn’t be further from the truth. From so-called “European Russia” to Siberia to the Far East, Russia is populated by people of many ethnicities, the result of eastwards and southwards expansion by the tsarist and Soviet empires over centuries; the communist era saw political support for, immigration between, and cultural exchange with India, China, and African and Caribbean post-colonial states. This diversity, however, is often wilfully ignored, and a casual and habitual racism is still engrained in many Russians — and thus remains a part of life for those who don’t fit the white Russian stereotype.
For Russians of diverse ethnic backgrounds, the question of belonging is a difficult one. Russia may be their only home, but that doesn’t mean it’s always a welcoming one. But despite struggles with racism, many have found a way to thrive. Johnny Pitts’ Afropean or Liz Johnson Arthur’s portraits of Afro-Russians are among the outstanding works to have shaped narratives around diaspora communities in Russia — but there are still plenty of stories which remain untold.
In this photo project, produced exclusively for The Calvert Journal, photographer Miliyollie photographs Russians of different backgrounds in St Petersburg, a city with a particularly pointed role in Russia’s self-image. Built with the explicit intention of connecting the country more closely to Western Europe, Petersburg is both known as the tolerant cultural capital of Russia, and also as its hotbed of racist violence, especially in the 90s. These portraits are taken on the streets, quite often next to famous landmarks — postcards from a Russia which needs to be celebrated much more loudly.
Miliyollie’s photography often pushes back against the rigid boundaries of the conservative patriarchy: she has documented Russia’s body-positive, feminist, and queer communities. With this work, she adds to the photographic and media representation of diversity, which is more important than ever. Her work is about visibility, beauty, and reclaiming space — and about courageously sharing stories which constitute a valid aspect of the Russian experience, and should teach us all about tolerance and self-determination.
I was born in Kyrgyzstan. I look Asian, which is what I am. I was mainly raised by my grandmother because my mother was working in other countries to keep me fed. As for my father — well, you get the picture. My mother left him because he raised his hands to her, and I point-blank refuse to speak with him.
It was difficult for me to rent a flat when I really needed to — every other advert would say “Slavs only”. Sometimes I would get turned away after I’d already arrived at the flat. I saw the same thing, “Slavs wanted”, when I was looking for a job. Even for a waitressing vacancy in a dive bar. Looking for work was even more complicated by the fact that I’m also an out lesbian; my blog is public and I don’t plan on making it private
What helps me get by? Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe self-belief and staying conscious of the fact that the problem isn’t me, it’s these stupid people. An “I’ll show you” kind of attitude. But it’s shameful that in principle I have to work more to receive the same amount compared with the average white person.
The list of things I don’t like could go on forever. I don’t like that we have uneducated people in power, that they allow themselves to openly hound LGBTQ people on a legal level. The fact that it’s basically only men in power, and that a blind eye gets turned when they openly harass women. The fact that they decriminalised domestic violence. On the legislative level, I’d replace everyone in this damn government. I don’t want to pay taxes into the pockets of the kinds of bastards who close their eyes to this shit.
My family is pretty unusual. My mother and father came to Petersburg to study, my mother from Murmansk and my father from Bamako, Mali. Dad opened a club here where he worked for a long time together with my mum, but at the beginning of the noughties it stopped being profitable and they closed it. Dad had an organisation, African Unity, that helped African and mixed-race children. He went on TV, gave interviews. But when the money dried up, the organisation also disappeared, unfortunately.
I’ve been dealing with prejudice my whole life, from the time my schoolteacher asked my mother “weren’t there any regular Russian guys available?” to people telling me they’ll only rent a room “to Slavs”. My classmates would caption photos of me “stupid negrita” and “person of the colour of shit”. Things are better now, but people still consider my skin colour a negative characteristic.
It helps to make everything absurd. When people ask me if my dad is Barack Obama, I say yes. The mixed-race community in Petersburg also helps: we share the shitty situations we find ourselves in and together we get through them. It’s good that there’s enormous potential for development here. I truly believe that people here are good and kind, they’re just downtrodden by their awful lives and as a result they try to locate the problem in someone concrete — in people of different races, different orientations. There are people who are convinced that crows are the main problem afflicting our cities. When you understand that people just need someone to hate — whether it’s people of colour or crows — then it becomes easier to handle.
My family history is pretty confusing: part of it is historically Finnish — hence my surname, Savolainen — and on my father’s side it comes from Palestine. He met my mother when he was studying to be a surgeon in Leningrad and she had just left her second husband. Until the age of 10 I spent a lot of time in Jordan. Then my mother and I were forced to return to Russia and we never went back. My great-grandmother wanted to take me away from my parents to Saudi Arabia. So, my dad put us on the next flight to Russia and that was the last time we saw him.
My life took a different path when I got on that plane. In Russia I went into secondary school and that’s when the problems with socialisation started. As the years went by, the problems intensified. If at first I was mocked and beaten because my skin was a few tones darker, then by the end of school they were attacking me for the fact that I’m also gay, which also makes me stand out from the crowd. Once, some kids from a neighbouring school knocked me under a moving car; another time they put fireworks under my clothes. There were many such incidents.
Now I’m 30, and over the last seven years I’ve not encountered any physical violence, though sometimes people tell me to “go home”, call me “black” or “wog”. At the same time, I’m often taken to be “one of us”, since people think they can make racist jokes around me and that I won’t be affected. When I bring it up and remind them that by extension, I’m also the butt of their jokes, they don’t see the connection.
Nothing helps me to “cope” — I’m not the one who needs to cope with anything. They’re the ones who need to cope, with their ignorance and prejudice. Of course, I have my own prejudices, and I try to address them. I’ll probably leave Russia soon, simply because I want to live on my own terms from now on.
My mum is Buryat, my dad is Russian. Importantly for my identity, he’s also part Belarusian. So, I usually say that I’m half Belarusian, half Buryat. As far as the Buryats are concerned, of course, I’m Russian. My mum left to study in Leningrad, stayed there, and married a “Russian”, which is frowned upon in Buryat families. But she stood up for herself and didn’t let me feel ashamed.
It’s strange when someone who’s only known you for three minutes asks who in your family is Russian and who Asian. For me, that’s a very personal question. Questions about my nationality have followed me since kindergarten, but at school in Petersburg they became particularly pointed. People threw stones at me, pushed me down the stairs — seriously. Older kids thought it was normal to come up to me and cuff me. I was called a “Yakut” and “slit-eyed”. It was tough to get through. Every morning I had to watch the cartoon Mulan before I could leave for school. The idea of an Asian princess somehow saved me. Eventually I was moved to another school, where the teachers at least acknowledged what was going on. At some point, the class relaxed and accepted me, but not before I fought to prove that I wasn’t inferior to my Russian classmates.
These days, I immediately call out any comments that make me feel uncomfortable. Often, I’m told to chill out and laugh. When I suggest making fun of Russian pigs instead, for some reason no one finds it funny. Then there are people who love to tell me that they don’t even notice that I’m Asian. That I’m just like a Russian. I don’t like that either: it carries the idea that being Russian is the norm.
I don’t want to leave — I’ve moved around so much that I just want stability. But in Russia, that’s a pipe dream if you don’t look “Slavonic”. If you forget for a second, you’re quickly reminded by a question about your citizenship, for instance.
I was born in Petersburg and I’ve lived here almost my whole life. My mum moved here at 16 from a small village called Okulovka. My dad is from Angola. He moved here in the 90s to study. They met at university. I won’t go into too much detail, but I know from my mum’s stories that they received all manner of threats, including violence against their future children. Even my maternal grandmother would say: “why couldn’t you find a regular white guy, you’re screwing up your kids.”
I remember how, as a kid, some children were afraid of me, some insulted or attacked me, and some really wanted to be friends. Once I even had to change kindergarten because a boy used to throw sand on me every day. But those were isolated incidents, it wasn’t all bad. I just didn’t understand why I was being singled out — weren’t we all the same?
There are things that drive me mad, but I have to make peace with them — I can’t change my body, or other people’s narrow-mindedness. When I was looking for work after school, I would get through the online interview, only to turn up and be told that my appearance was “too conspicuous”. I heard that last one a lot. If people are so closed-minded that my appearance puts them off, then there’s no point in my engaging with them anyway. And humour helps too, of course. Once I’d learned to make fun of myself, I no longer cared what others thought.
From day to day I don’t like always being the centre of attention, no matter what I’m doing. Everyone always stares, it’s uncomfortable. When I meet people, they often ask without thinking where I’m from. I get stopped and asked for my passport on the street. People come up to me and start speaking in English. Lots of people are surprised that I don’t have an accent. Sadly, that stuff never changes. I just have to smile.
I’ve lived in Petersburg for 25 years now. In the 70s, a student from Rwanda (my grandfather) and a student from Leningrad (my grandmother) fell in love and got married. A little later, my uncle and mother were born. In 1977, my family left the USSR for Rwanda. In 1993, I was born. In April 1994, the genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus began. In the first six weeks, the Hutus murdered more than 800,000 people, including my father. In May, my family managed to escape the country and return to Petersburg.
At school people would poke me, call me “nigger”, shout “go back where you came from”, spit on me. I’m a child of the noughties, and I remember when there were many nationalists in Russia — many African students were killed. I remember days like 20 April, Hitler’s birthday, when you couldn’t go out for fear of getting killed. Today, even living in a big city like Petersburg, even after Russia has hosted the World Cup and the Winter Olympics and Eurovision and welcomed people of all different nationalities, even though Russians have had to get used to the idea that not only white people live amongst them — even now, I still have to deal with this. At least they’ve stopped killing us — at least there’s that.
Then there are the questions that black people always get asked in Russia. “How come you speak such good Russian?” “Do you find the winters here cold?” “Do you get sunburnt?” “How do you look after your hair?” (It’s always funny when barbers ask me that one.) Hearing these questions periodically from all sorts of different people, I realise that Russia is lagging about 100 years behind the “decadent West”.
The only thing that helps is humour, self-irony. Yes, I’m black, yes, I like Snapple, watermelon, and KFC wings! When you say these things, people are left with nothing to add. The desire to aggravate and demean disappears.
In Russian society, the majority are still open and kind people, always ready to help. Every year, prices go up and wages stay the same, but people don’t complain. But I don’t like the lack of tolerance. People live and think in terms of stereotypes.