It was December, the start of a dreary Russian winter, and Barack Obama's face was staring down at pedestrians walking along Moscow's gray streets. But the photograph of the U.S. President wearing a black suit and a smile had nothing to do with his election win a month earlier. It was part of an ad for a chain of tanning salons called Sun People, which was using Obama's picture to promote the benefits of booking some time on their sun beds. In March, the President's image appeared in another new ad campaign: this time for ice cream. On posters for Duet, a stick of vanilla ice cream with a shot of chocolate running through the middle, a cartoon Obama stands grinning outside the White House underneath the caption "The Flavor of the Week! Black in White!"
When Obama first entered the race for President, many Russians could not get past his skin color. Prior to his win, tabloids constantly referred to him as "the black-skinned candidate" and the Russian public, not overly concerned with political correctness, seemed happy with the label. But as Obama prepares to visit Moscow on Monday, there are bigger issues at hand, and Russians are starting to warm to the American President as they look beyond his pigmentation and turn their focus to his policies.
"I remember during the U.S. election campaigns, Russians always brought up the fact that Obama is black, and some newspapers linked it to his abilities as a President," says Galina Kozhevnikova, deputy director of the Moscow-based SOVA Center, which monitors racially motivated crime in Russia. According to Kozhevnikova, the spike in hate crimes toward black people living in Russia at the end of last year including one incident in December in the southern province of Volgograd where a black student from Rhode Island survived a brutal stabbing was related to the attention that the Russian press was giving Obama's election race. But Kozhevnikova adds that since Obama took office in January, racially motivated crimes against black people in Russia have dipped to pre-election levels. "Racism in Russia has always been widespread and will always be a problem," she says. "But I don't think the fact that he is black is an issue today."
For many Russians, interest in Obama's color has been replaced with a raft of other, weightier concerns. Relations between the U.S. and Russia eroded to a Cold War low under the Bush Administration, with tension developing over issues such as Russia's refusal to recognize the statehood of Kosovo and America's proposal to build an antimissile shield in Eastern Europe. People like Yevgeny Abashin, 40, who works in the travel industry, see Obama as a breath of fresh air after George W. Bush. "For me and for most of my friends, color doesn't make a difference," he says. "We think, if anything, it makes him more original." But when it comes to just how differently Obama will deal with Russia, Abashin, like so many others, is taking a wait-and-see approach. "We watch the elections in the U.S. very closely because, in theory, Russia and the U.S. are potential enemies," he says.
No doubt, when Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev meet in Moscow July 6-8, the two leaders will be testing the waters of a delicate friendship. The focus of their talks will be the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, an epic disarmament agreement that was formed during the Cold War and expires Dec. 5. If the treaty is renewed, Obama gets closer to reaching his goal of having a world without nuclear weapons. Russia is ready to make major reductions to its nuclear stockpile, but only if the U.S. gives up its plans for a missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe. "I am not an optimist about the upcoming talks, but they will be the start of something" says Gleb Pavlovsky, a pro-Kremlin political scientist and director of the think tank Foundation for Effective Politics. "I do think Obama has a rational approach, and I believe that an intellectual discussion will take place."
Even if the talks come to nothing, some Russians are hoping that Obama's visit will help improve the country's image in the rest of the world. "We are always portrayed as harsh, with horrible human rights and no democracy," says Abashin. "We have been trying to change this image for 10 years."
But only time will tell whether Obama's policies will prove effective. "We don't know Obama, but we are testing him to see what he can do," says Pavlovsky. "I think in either case the Kremlin will give him a chance. It will be like repaying a debt we owe to the United States for their faith in Gorbachev." When it comes to the U.S. President, at least, it seems Russia may have finally gone color-blind.