Are there blacks in Russia?

“Different than you think”: An African about his life in the Russian provinces

Accepted and integrated, but unemployed: Denis Sawadogo. / Private

Denis, it doesn't seem like there are many black Africans in Russia. At least you don't see them.

In Moscow, yes. There a great many study at the University of Friendship of Nations. But here in Kostroma I'm one of maybe three or four, at least apart from the military academy where soldiers are trained.

The more you will probably stand out in the streetscape.

You can say that. Some people have just never seen a black African. It often happens that children point their fingers at me: "Mom, look ..." Adults also turn to me.

How do you find that?

I have no problem with that.

They are a local attraction.

(Laughs) Seems to be so. That's funny. Often people greet me on the street who I don't even know, but who do know me, even by name.

And the attention you enjoy never turns into the opposite?

Most people are really nice. Of course there are also those with whom one would rather not have anything to do with, for example drunk people, for whom every second word is a dirty word. But I don't take that seriously, they don't know what they're saying. And they talk to each other in exactly the same way. By and large, everything is going well. And it's no secret that the police can't stand it when someone acts aggressively towards foreigners.

Have you had positive experiences with the Russian police? It is otherwise known for targeting specific groups of immigrants when it comes to identity checks.

Sometimes I am checked too. The police then ask which country I'm from, and we're in the middle of a chat. But despite everything, that is rarely the case.

Would you say that you avoid certain places or situations so as not to challenge fate?

Oh, I move here absolutely freely, as it suits me.

On the phone, Denis suggested the stadium of Dynamo Kostroma, the city's leading football club, which only plays in the fourth division, as a meeting point. Why the interview should take place here of all places quickly disappeared: For Denis, the stadium is a kind of second living room, where he spends a lot of time.

Denis during a photo shoot in a summer camp for children and young people. / Maria Volkova

What was your idea of ​​Russia when you didn't know it first hand?

In Africa you hear a lot of things that certainly don't make you want to go to Russia. But when you are here, you will notice: The country is different from what you think. Racism is such an issue. Allegedly the Russians are racist.

You say "supposedly".

There are racists everywhere. Look to America, where whites and blacks are killing each other. But I have to honestly say that in the entire time I have not met anyone who I would say is a racist. Everything is normal.

What brought you to Russia, despite all your reservations?

I was previously in Indonesia as a footballer. During my vacation in Thailand I met my current wife: a Russian from Kostroma. We got married here some time later. And now we've been living together for three years.

You had no resistance to overcome in your two families?

If something was difficult, it was the language. I didn't speak a word of Russian before I came to Russia. But otherwise they made it easy for me here. My mother-in-law is a very nice woman, and I get on well with my wife's grown son. Then there is my wife's brother with his family. We all get along well. Africans live in large families. It's similar for me in Russia now.

And how did your own family react to the news?

My parents died a long time ago. But I have three brothers and two sisters. They must have been worried. I already mentioned that Russia doesn't have the best reputation with us. But I think everyone is happy for me now. I was already at home after the wedding and visited all the relatives. And one of my brothers was here to see if everything was going well. Now everything is good.

What do you do for a living?

I was hoping to play for the local football club Dynamo Kostroma. But I've been told that lower-class clubs are not allowed to sign foreigners. That's why I train with the boys, but I can't be used in normal league operations, only in the cup and the city championship.

Nevertheless, you surely have a paid job.

That's the problem! I am allowed to work here officially, but nobody wants to hire me. Everywhere it says: only with a Russian passport. I would do anything, even start washing dishes. I am still looking for work to this day.

How do you get money then?

I repair electronic devices, just like I used to do in Burkina Faso, only that today I have to do it unofficially. And I teach French privately, my mother tongue. However, the demand is not particularly great. I am currently tutoring two children who have French at school.

Do you have contacts with compatriots who live in the west?

Yes, in the USA, France, Belgium, Germany. So I know that as a foreigner it is easier to live in these countries because there is work and this work is paid better than here.

Russian winter fashion also looks good on Africans. / Private

It's warmer there too.

Oh, the famous Russian cold! I've really got used to that for a long time. And I knew what to expect. We had geography in school after all. In Africa there is even a special term for Europe including Russia: the cold countries, that's what we call them.

Back to football: Russia has repeatedly hit the headlines of the world press because fans of Russian clubs have insulted colored opponents with "monkey sounds" at home games.

I've heard of that. But nothing like that happened to me once, even though I often play in front of spectators here, even in opposing stadiums.

Did football even help you integrate?

Absolutely. My teammates always make me feel like I belong. We laugh a lot together. It doesn't really matter that I'm a foreigner.

Is there anything about the Russians that you still don't understand?

That married couples divorce so easily! People get married early, then they often split up again quickly.

What's the best and what's the worst about life in Russia?

The worst part is boredom. It's still possible in summer, but in the long winters you usually sit at home. In my country people visit each other all the time. Every day! Here it can happen that you don't see friends for months. The best, again, are the many great, warm people who surround me here.

The interview was conducted by Tino Künzel.