SEPTEMBER 14, 2010 4:50PM
NOVOZAVIDOVO, Russia--A small town with a population of 10,000, has elected Russia's first-ever black public official. Last month, Jean Gregoire Sagbo, an African immigrant from Benin, was elected as one of the town's ten municipal councilors, and by all accounts, the townspeople are happy with their choice. The Mayor of Novozavidovo describes him thusly, "his skin is black but he is Russian inside… the way he cares about this place, only a Russian can care."
What do the people say? "We already knew him as a man of strong civic impulse. He had cleaned the entrance to his apartment building, planted flowers and spent his own money on street improvements. Ten years ago he organized volunteers and started what became an annual day of collecting garbage."
When Sagbo first came to Russia in 1982, he and his family faced racial discrimination. The first black person many in the community had ever seen, he had to overcome a great deal to make Russia his home. Over the years he earned the respect of his community and became a prominent, Russian citizen. The people in this little corner of Russia say they don't see him as black, but only as an honest politician.
This election is a significant milestone for Russia, which has long been known for its racist sub-culture. Russia has an estimated 40,000 "Afro-Russians" in the country today. These African immigrants face systemic racism and are often the victims of hate-crimes, which are rarely prosecuted in the Russian legal system.
Russia has the highest rate of race motivated crimes in the world, so it's unlikely that the racial slurs and violence will abate anytime soon, but Sagbo is hopeful. Pleased to be the historic first for his beloved Russia, he has rolled up his sleeves and settled in for the job of reviving his town. Mr. Sagbo is known to be a congenial fellow, but don't call him Russia's Obama; he scoffs at the oversimplification.
“My name is not Obama…it’s sensationalism, he is black and I am black, but it’s a totally different situation.”