My post about Joachim Crima, the so-called “Volgograd Obama,” has received a lot of traffic thanks to Joshua Keating’s link to it at Foreign Policy. So given the interest in this Russian political novelty, I figured I’d do an update on the first Afro-Russian to run for public office.
The first articles I read about Crima suggested that his candidacy was a scheme of local politicians to potentially suck votes from United Russia. I still can’t figure out how this would be possible, and so far there has been no evidence to prove that Crima’s candidacy is merely a political gimmick. Russian political commentators seem baffled, viewing Crima’s campaign as something that would appeal to voters “for the sake of a joke” or as “an act of protest against Russia’s moribund political life.” Indeed, Crima’s being an outside is part of his appeal. As Rossiiskaya razeta found out, all the people they talked to were unified around one thing: a distrust in the government. Crima is also not some wacky oppositionist. It turns out that he’s been a member of United Russia since 2007, as one reader of this blog noted.
In fact, Joachim Crima’s biography could be held up as a kind of post-Soviet Horatio Alger. Crima left his native Guinea-Bissau twelve years ago for Russia. Like during Soviet times, Russia remains a place for Africans, Middle Easterners, and Asians to get a university education. Crima enrolled in the Volgograd Pedagogical Institute in the Natural Geography Department. It was there that he adopted the nickname Vasillii Ivanovich in honor of the hero in the film Chapaev. One wonders if Crima was aware that Vasilii Ivanovich is also the butt of many Russian jokes. Be that as it may, it was at the Pedagogical University where Crima, now Vasia, earned an education in chemistry and physics, and met his wife Anait, a native of Armenia.
After finishing his degree, Crima decided to remain in Russia and moved to Srednaya Akhtuba. There, he bought three hectares of land and became a watermelon farmer. To Americans, the idea of a black man becoming a watermelon farmer feeds right into some of the worst racial stereotypes. But the mythical black man-watermelon nexus might not really apply in Crima’s case. The truth is that Akhtuba is one the Russia’s main watermelon growing regions. And if Crima wanted to be a farmer, well, watermelons was a practical choice. This is not to say that Crima’s race didn’t play a role in his success. It was as a African watermelon seller that he became a local celebrity. As Trud writes, “The smiling dark-skinned seller attracted the attention of many to the point where extra publicity is unnecessary.”
So why did Crima decide to enter “big politics”? “I love to be in the public eye. I love being a leader,” he told Rossiiskaya gazeta. “I was the head of the parliament at school, a monitor in my high school back home and chaired the Guinea-Bissau student association in Volgograd province, and now I’ve decided to go into big politics.” That said, Crima is also aware of his potential place in history. “Money is not important for me. I don’t even know how much the head of a district gets paid. I’m interested in writing my name into history. And although my skin is dark, the district’s accountant will be white. And as for money, well my watermelon farm will feed me and my family. And if I have a bad harvest, I will work as a tutor as I usually do in winter. In addition to chemistry and physics, I know five languages–my native, Russian, English, French, and Portuguese. Now I practice my French and English at night because foreign reporters will be coming.”
But entering history and honest work is not his only thing that drives this Afro-Russian. Another one of Crima’s inspriations is none other than Vladimir Putin. “I’ve lived in Russia many, many years and I see how Vladimir Vladimirovich runs the country. I think that if the country had a hundred of such people like Putin, Russia would be the first in the world. I respect him very much and want to follow his example. He’s an excellent person, and a serious figure on the world stage.”
Indeed, Crima’s candidacy, which has yet to be finalized by the local electoral commission, has put him on his own little world stage. But not so much because of his political views. So far they remain cursory. In an interview with Agence France Press, Crima vowed to address the dire state of roads and drinking water in Serednaya Akhtuba. He also possesses a measure of democratic idealism. In response to questions about the seriousness of his candidacy and the uphill fight he faces, he said, “If this is a democracy, then why should I withdraw? Let the people decide!”
Crima’s promise to repair roads and clean up the local water supply and his admiration for Putin is all well and good but, frankly, it is his race that makes him a political curiosity. Russia isn’t exactly known for its racial tolerance, to put it mildly. One need only cite the headlines of Russian articles on the political outsider to get a sense of how Crima’s race is playing out. Rossiiskaya gazeta‘s headline: “The Leader of the Colored.” From United Russia’s news page: “Joachim Crima: Black on the Outside, White on the Inside.” There are also the countless references to Crima as Russia’s own Barack Obama and how if elected he promises to “toil like a Negro.”
And then there are the pictures of a smiling Crima holding watermelons.
As Crima himself admits, the travails of being a black man in provincial Russia are not easy. But he’s optimistic that they can be conquered. “When I first arrived to Srendaya Akhtuba, when people saw me for the first time they, especially women, crossed to the other side of the street,” he told Dni. “Now people know me and my watermelons. Many people approach me and say hello. The color of my skin has no meaning, time is simply needed for people to see me as the person that I am. If you have black skin, it doesn’t mean you are black on the inside. The main thing is that your thoughts are honest and people will understand you.” Nor is Crima concerned about the racial stereotypes about him. “If Russians are accustomed to calling dark-skinned people ‘negroes’ then so be it. I am not in the least bit offended because you have to be proud of who you are,” he said in an interview with Agence France Press.
Crima’s political campaign is only beginning. To put things into further gear, United Russia held an online press conference today. For those non-Russian readers, I’ll try to provide some excerpts tomorrow.