Black Russian

12 Oct

“Order a White Russian,” a friend suggested over the pulsing beats of the club. The name made me giggle. A White Russian?  Now, that’s redundant, I mused. I had just spent a month in St. Petersburg. Though I certainly wasn’t the lone brown speck in the beautiful city, it often seemed that way.

“What’s it like being Black in Russia?” one drunken American tourist slurred in the hotel’s bar during my stay.

For me, it was part dream, part nightmare. It was a weird dichotomy: At tourist spots, people would snap pictures of and with me–with or without my permission.  In the subway, eyes would automatically find me and linger, some filled with awe, others with disgust. I slowly grew accustomed to all of the attention and learned to brace myself for a little celebrity status every day before leaving the hotel.

But over the course of the month, weird things started to happen. My credit card and I.D. pulled a disappearing act and then magically reappeared at the hotel’s front desk, without consequence. An imposter called the hotel pretending to be my mother, berating the hotel’s staff and service. An intruder broke into the sleeper car I shared with three other classmates  and singled me out, (good job, genius, pick the scholarship kid) and almost escaped with my passport, card and cash.

The city was beautiful (yes). Interesting (quite). I had traveled to the country to experience its business environment and culture first-hand. Russia is one of the BRIC countries, one of the four countries projected to be economic pillars of the 21st century by Goldman Sachs in 2003.

I loved the learning the lay of the land.  I loved its unparalleled architecture. Loved seeing porcelain-skinned beauties strutting about as braid and dreadlock extensions swung down their backs. Loved learning about the rich and complex history of the former Soviet Union. Loved reading the works of Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in their homeland. I even liked eating the occasional Borscht.

But it also freaked me out.

In one fell swoop, I downed the sweet “White Russian” concoction. Itching for a second, I headed back to the plush bar.

“Give me a Black Russian,” I joked, pounding down the empty glass down.

Every day, as my classmates and professors strolled up the river-lined streets, we  passed a statue of Russian literary great, Alexander Pushkin.Every day as we headed to and fro class, the grim-faced, bushy-haired man iron man stood watch. Apparently, this guy was a big deal. Some even crown him Russian’s greatest poet. One day, I paused before the statue. As I admired it, my professor, with a twinkle in his eye, told me that Pushkin was Black.

A Black Russian.


Tell me more.

From that day on, every time I passed his statue, I smiled, happy for even the smallest sense of connection to the distant land. I poured over his work with pride and purchased a huge English biography of Pushkin from St. Petersbrug’s most famous bookstore, anxious to learn more.

John Bayley’s intro to Alexander Pushkin: The Collected Stories states “Pushkin was very proud of his African ancestry on his mother’s side, that of the Gannibals, and his black hair and swarthy complexion gave him a distinctly African appearance. His friends had an affection for his ‘negro face,’ and he attributed to the same source his own volatile temperament and strong sexual passions.”

Well, alrighty then.


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