Max Yacoub: Racism and Work in Russia and Ukraine

Published: August 31, 2010

Max Yacoub was born to a Russian mother and a Sudanese father but raised mostly in Sudan and England. Most of his professional life has been spent in Russia and Ukraine working with the World Bank and over the last few years in finance and investments. He is married, living in Moscow and raising a young son.

Max Yacoub in Moscow.
Max Yacoub stands against a Moscow skyline.

SRAS:  What is your ethnic background and what brought you to Russia?

Max Yacoub: My mother is Russian, my father was Sudanese. When I was little my father died and my mother remarried an Englishman who quickly adopted me and hence I got a British passport. My parents subsequently emigrated and became Australian citizens. I therefore have three passports (Russian, Sudanese, and British). I don’t really think about my “ethnicity,” although I feel more at home with the British culture.

I graduated University in England in 1992 and as decent jobs were scarce I decided to play on my only strengths – knowledge of Russia and Russian, so I came over in 1994 to work on a Know-How Fund (now known as DFID, the British equivalent of USAID) project, and apart from 3.5 years in the US have been here in Moscow and Kiev ever since.

SRAS: Did you face any difficulties in trying to start a career in Russia? Did you ever feel that you were treated as an “outsider?”

MY: I have never felt professional discrimination as a result of my ethnic background. Respect for English-speaking foreigners has always been much stronger than innate racial prejudices. However, given that I did grow up outside Russia I have always been somewhat of an outsider, although that is much more to do with me personally feeling like I don’t fit in rather than being treated as an outsider by native Russians.

Outside of my professional life I have found discrimination and racism to be absolutely rife – both overt and subconscious. Not just towards myself but to all ‘outsiders’ in general. Russia is an extremely xenophobic society.

SRAS: Have you ever had difficulties with the police or on the street that you feel may have been caused in part by your ethnic background?

MY: Yes. I have been continuously harassed by the police, both in Russia and Ukraine (although in Ukraine, only in Kiev), and this has been because of my ethnic background (up until obtaining my Russian passport I always pretended not to understand Russian and therefore could hear what the police officers said candidly to each other) and, to a lesser extent because it is obvious that I am a Westerner (and therefore an easy mark for the predatory militsia). I have been hassled on the streets, in railway stations, at check-in leaving Kiev, in short everywhere where there is likely to be militsia.

Interestingly enough I have experienced a lot less hassle in Moscow over the last 3 years or so. Perhaps this is a reflection of my appearance being more “respectable,” (looking older and wearing suits, or maybe looking less of a victim) or perhaps I am avoiding most situations where I might encounter the police, or perhaps they have genuinely changed their attitudes.

Krymskiy Bridge by Max Yacoub
Max Yacoub is also an avid photographer. Above is Krymskiy Bridge.

SRAS: Have you ever been extorted for bribes? Can you describe a specific instance of your having paid a bribe if so?

MY:  No, I have never had to pay a bribe, probably a reflection of the fact that I always try to have my documents in order.

SRAS: Has your harassment been limited to run-ins with the police, or have you felt harassed in other cases by civilians as well?

MY: To date harassment has been limited to the police.

SRAS: Have you ever felt physically threatened – by either the militsia or the public – because of your status as a foreigner or minority?

MY:  I have on several occasions felt threatened by the police in the past, typically on the streets during parades and national holidays, in the metro, at night, at railway stations, airports, etc. In some instances this has turned into outright hassle. I’ve been stopped by the police on numerous occasions, been detained, and even kept overnight in a jail cell. As a result I tend to avoid places where I could draw the attention of the police or racists – e.g. walking about near some demonstration or protest, avoiding areas where there are concentrations of rowdy young men, etc.

Poklonnaya Gora by Max Yacoub
Poklonnaya Gora as captured by Max.

SRAS: In the time that you’ve lived in Russia, would you say that Russian society itself has become more or less diverse? Has it become more or less tolerant?

MY: My personal opinion was that Russia originally wasn’t very tolerant. However most of the genuine nastiness was swept under the rug by the Soviets and the system worked (e.g. you weren’t hassled by the police on a continual basis). In the 90s and early 2000s I feel that Moscow society became more relaxed. Recently over the last few years there has emerged a very obvious tendency (spurred on by the Kremlin) towards nationalism and increased xenophobia. All the usual safeguards against extremism have been swept away.

However, there is no doubt that society as a whole has become more diverse judging by the number of people of non-Slavic appearance that I encounter in Moscow.

SRAS: How would you compare your time in Kiev with your time in Russia? What were some of the major differences you experienced between the two places in terms of the culture and tolerance levels?

MY: The contrast between Moscow and Kiev is quite stark. Superficially the cultures are almost identical. However Kievites tend to exhibit much less xenophobia and general rudeness compared to Moscow. Whilst living in Kiev there was absolutely no question on any one’s part as to me being non-local. The respect exhibited to foreigners was even more extreme than in Moscow. In short, arriving in Kiev after Moscow was like a breath of fresh air. Less surliness, rudeness, more smiles and respect.

SRAS: What ultimately made you decide to come back to Russia?

MY: I had a choice of attending business school in Europe or the US, and I opted for the US as that is the home of business education, but I never intended to stay. So the decision was always to return to Europe, either Russia/Ukraine or the UK. My old employer the IFC (World Bank) made me an offer to return to Russia and I accepted. In general I find Russia much more challenging and interesting to live and work in.

SRAS: I find this last statement, after such strong words about xenophobia and harassment in Russia to be quite striking. Obviously, then, there are definite pluses to living here – what would you say are the top reasons you enjoy living here?

MY:  Russia is definitely an exciting country in transition. It may have its difficulties but one thing you can never accuse it of is being dull. There is a very palpable sense of change in the air and you can see history in the making. Although it can be very volatile, as a large emerging market the economy is also growing very fast and there are numerous opportunities for enterprising foreigners, and if your skills are in demand the rewards can be great indeed.

SRAS: Do you plan to stay in Moscow? If so, what influenced your decision to do so the most?

Chet (bottom left) pictured with some of the now more than 50 Russians and foreigners that he manages at Alinga.
Max vacationing with his family in the Czech Republic.

MY: Whilst I can’t predict the future, especially somewhere as volatile as Moscow, I do not intend to live in Moscow indefinitely. I have a family and a 15 month old son and at some point I would like him to get a British education.  So I do see myself moving back to the UK within a few years. I am presently in Russia as that is where I have been for a few years and in my chosen profession of investments and private equity I haven’t found it easy to find jobs in other countries, mostly because all of my experience to date has been Russia/CIS focused.

SRAS: What advice would you offer students of color who wish to enter Russia to study or work?

MY: Russia is a very exciting place but can also be very difficult. Students should definitely do their homework and fully understand what they might be letting themselves in for. There is no doubt that Russia is becoming increasingly racist and in certain places dangerous. Whilst I personally have been less hassled by the police over the last few years, in general police predation is high and in the last few years the rise of neo-nazi skinhead groups has been alarming

In general, if any students of colour wish to study the Russian language or any aspect of Russia that does not require them to be physically located in Russia they should consider studying somewhere safer (quite a few FSU states to choose from). If they positively have to be in Russia I recommend they avoid problem areas such as like Voronezh and St. Petersburg where xenophobia and racism are rife.

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About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for SRAS. He has been managing publications and informative websites covering geopolitics, history, business, economy, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He is based in Moscow, Russia. For SRAS, he also assists in program development and leads the Home and Abroad Programs

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