Will This Man Be Russia's Barack Obama?
A Russian man aims to overcome widespread rascism at the polls.
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.