For my friend W. Ralph Eubanks
“Run to pursue a minor mitzvah (good deed/commandment) & flee from a transgression.”
Rabbi ben (son of) Azzai, Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 4:3
It was late one winter Saturday evening/Sunday morning. I was driving from the suburbs past Yugo-Zapadney in the Southwest area of Moscow. I had dinner with friends and was returning home. It was a very cold night, and there was little traffic in this far away area of Moscow. There were few apartment buildings on the road home. It was an empty and long road.
After driving 20 minutes, I slowed down as I saw a short man in a big black fur hat standing by the road trying to flag down a car for a ride.
This was typical in these days. Every car was a taxi. You would hold your hand out, and a car would stop. If you were both going in the same direction they would take you for a few rubles.
In my entire life, I have never picked up a stranger in my car. As I slowed down, I looked and my mitzvah gene (good deed gene to those who don’t know the Jewish concept of mitzvahs) kicked in. I had to pick him up. I had no choice once I realized once the mitzvah feelings hit.
On this night, this poor man had several challenges.
First, for the last 20 minutes, I saw no other cars. Second, he was Black. I knew all too well that Russians really didn’t like Black people.
Russia was a place where white supremacist Russians, had few visible minorities to attack so they would attack white Russians who listened to Rap music!
I realized if I did not pick him up, he would be stranded here until daylight at best. This was the famous Russian winter, daylight was not at 7am. Sunrise would hit around 10am.
After I stopped, he opened the door. In my best non American accented Russian, I asked in a gruff way “Where are you going?”
“Near Patrice Lumumba University.”
Patrice Lumumba University was a University established to educate students from the developing world during Soviet times. It had numerous African, Asian and South American students.
“Come on. Let’s go.”
“Where are you from?” I asked him after we started driving.
“I’m from Nigeria.”
Then in English with my perfect American accent, I said, “so you speak English?”
“Da. Ya govoryu (yes, I speak it)” he responded in Russian.
In English, I said, “I’m American.”
“No I’m not from America, I’m from Nigeria.”
“Not you! Me! I’m from America!”
“Oh! You are from America? Thank you so much for picking me up! Oh, thank you so much! How much will this ride cost?”
“Usually you would negotiate that at the before the trip. I’m doing this as a favor for you. ! I know that no one would pick you up here in Russia! How were you planning on getting home?”
“I would walk until I could get to a metro [probably a 10 mile walk] or a car would take me. You are right, no one would pick me up. You are such a good man! Thank you for picking me up!”
We drove about 30 minutes and chatted about life in Moscow. We discussed our experiences with Russians. He kept reiterating that he faces such racism, discrimination, and being treated with an incredible level of disdain just because of the color of his skin. He was explaining Black Like Me except this was not the deep South and the Nigerian could not become white after a few weeks.
As we reached his neighborhood, he thanked me profusely. He wanted to pay me, and I kept refusing, explaining I knew he would be stranded there. He asked for my phone number. I gave it to him. The next day, he called me thanking me again, giving me effusive praise all for a car ride. I said it was my pleasure.
On Monday, I was in my office and talking with an American and a Russian colleague. I was telling the American what I did.
In jest we said that because of how the average Russian feels towards people of color, that this Nigerian would probably be still be standing by the side of the road if I had not picked him up.
Our Russian colleague, Larissa blurted out “that’s not true at all. He would have gotten a ride.”
“Oh please, Larissa, Russians are such racists! They would never pick up black man!”
Sternly she said “Russians are NOT racist!”
I incredulously looked at Larissa “would you ever marry a black man?”
With a contorted look she said, “I would never marry a black man. Not only that, I would not even walk down the street with one!”
My American colleague and I immediately were trying to figure out how to pick up our mouths off the floor. Our eyes were at cartoon-level popping out of our heads.
“See! Russians are racist!”
Score 1 for me, and 100 for Russian racism!
After that, we returned to our desks.
Later, Larissa said to us “you know, that conversation made me think. In my entire life, I had no exposure to black people. I guess that is why I said that comment. It was from ignorance.”
“After thinking about it, I don’t hate black people. How can I not like someone I have not met?”
Several years later, Larissa called me.
She invited me to celebrate her marriage to a man from Mozambique*.
*This last sentence is a complete fabrication, but wow, it would make an incredible ending!