MOSCOW, August 5, 2009 -- Joachim Crima's campaign billboard pictures the African immigrant in a white shirt and tie with his suit jacket slung over his shoulder, photoshopped smiling in front of a winding blue river with the message "Vasily Crima – New District Chief." Except for the Cyrillic lettering, it could be a campaign poster from almost anywhere with a black population.
But in Russia, it turns heads.
Crima – who has adopted the Russian name Vasily Ivanovich – is running for a district seat on the Municipal Council in the southern Volgograd region where he grows and sells fruits and vegetables, mostly watermelons. A black person has never held office in Russia and very few have ever run.
He has been nicknamed "Volgograd Obama," though the only thing that Crima, 37, and President Obama appear to have in common is African heritage. Crima is hesitant to compare himself to America's new president though he admires Obama for "showing the world what black people could do. He made the dream of Martin Luther King real."
"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," he told Russian news service Ria Novisti. "In other words, I am ready to toil like a Negro."
The cringe-inducing phrase is an all-too-common expression in Russia that Crima has adopted as his campaign slogan to convey his work ethic to potential constituents.
"If you call yourself a Negro it means you don't care if other people call you that," Crima told ABC News, explaining that he doesn't find the term offensive. "Racism is everywhere, in some places more than others. It will disappear sooner or later."
Russian society is notoriously racist. Beatings of immigrants are a regular occurrence. In the first six months of 2009, 36 people were killed in xenophobic attacks while 171 have been injured in Russia, according to the SOVA human rights group.
In a 2008 poll by the Levada Center, a Moscow-based think-tank, 57 percent of respondents agreed with the phrase "Russia for Russians." African immigrants, even in the capital, Moscow, often don't venture out alone for fear of harassment, or worse.
Crima's Not Had it Easy Either
Crima admits he has had run-ins with skinheads and some people in his small town used to cross the street when they saw him coming. He shrugs it off, saying that people have come to know and respect him for his hard work and tenacity. Now that he's running, he says, they walk over and shake his hand, and ask him for his take on local issues.
Crima arrived in the Soviet Union as an exchange student 20 years ago from the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau. He enrolled at the Volgograd Pedagogical University and studied biology and chemistry. After graduating, he married his college sweetheart and moved to her hometown where they raised their 9-year-old son.
Now a naturalized Russian citizen, his platform includes repairing his district's roads and improving the quality of the drinking water. Political observers and election officials laugh off his candidacy, calling it a stunt and saying that those who vote for him will do it as a joke.
"Maybe people think that it is a joke, but I will prove that it is not," Crima responds, saying he wouldn't have started the campaign if he didn't think he had a chance. "The people will decide who will win."
Tanya Stukalova contributed to the reporting of this story.