A few insults, an illegal invasion—throw in a visual jab involving bananas and a spanking—and the relationship between Russia and the United States has seen better days. At first glance, many Russians seem to delight in attacking President Barack Obama personally and racially in a way that is shocking even for a people known for their caustic humor.
But what explains some of this hostility toward Obama and a general xenophobia gaining ground in Russia? The best answer comes from Phil Jones, aka Philochko.
You may never have heard of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-born actor and YouTube star, but he’s doing a better job of explaining Russia’s views toward the Obama era than any number of PBS specials.
Two years ago, Phil Jones was a small-time actor scraping together a living in bit parts of Sex and the City and We Own the Night. In other words, living the life of most black actors trying to make it big in New York. Then, fulfilling a lifelong curiosity, in 2013 he took a job teaching English in Russia, and videos of him teaching American slang to Russians and his Borat-like cultural adventures quickly turned him into an Internet star.
Philochko, as he’s known in Russian, has more than 95,000 YouTube subscribers, and his commentaries on race, culture and the sex life of a young black man living in Russia has transformed him from a teacher to a traveling celebrity in the former Eastern bloc. Philochko says he was inspired by YouTube celebrities like Tommy Sotomayor, although his commentary can easily fall into the same category as folks like Kain Carter and Raven Masterson.
But with strained relations between Russia and the United States, Philochko’s adventures bring an enlightened perspective to an American audience wondering what’s up with all the saber rattling coming from Moscow. His stories of race and racism from Chechnya to Ukraine to more than 30 cities in Russia detail a changing and increasingly hostile racial climate in Russia that spills over into international affairs.
Russia was not always known for blatant racism. In fact, for decades, communist propaganda attacked the United States for anti-black institutional racism, claiming that communism had eliminated such social ills. Many black radicals and revolutionaries from the ’60s through the ’80s were invited to the former Soviet Union as a safe haven from bigotry in America. (See Derek Luke’s character on FX’s The Americans or Gregory Hines’ character in the ’80s flick White Nights.)
But strangely, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the slow but painful adoption of capitalism over the last 30 years, racism toward other European ethnics and especially people of African descent has been on the rise. Nowhere has this been made more clear than in Russia’s view of Obama. Although he was embraced by the young, educated elite in Russia when he was elected in 2008, increasingly, it is in vogue to attack the president using whatever crude racialized caricatures that are handy.
Philochko, in his own way, has detailed this increasing hostility over the years without even realizing it. He’s no philosopher; in fact, his fetishizing of Ukrainian women, willingness to traffic in black stereotypes and often contradictory views on race are frustrating, but even he has reflected the changes in Russia in recent years. In early Philochko videos, just months after moving to Russia, he smiles a great deal, greets his fans and introduces himself as “the American dude with the incredible mood.” He even tries to passionately justify the Barack-and-Michelle banana picture tweeted out by a Russian Olympic official as just a cultural disagreement. But as time goes on, and as he features more stories about racism against blacks in Russia and the violence that often accompanies it, his tone begins to change. By the end of his first year in Russia, he was greeting fans with a Stinkmeaner-esque “What up, nyuggas?” and he’d become the target of neo-Nazis online.
It’s no coincidence that these changes on the ground for black people in Russia coincide with more instances of racialized anti-Obama propaganda in the wake of the Syrian crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. By the time a group of college students “celebrated” Obama’s 53rd birthday by displaying pictures of him as a monkey and eating a banana across the street from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Philochko was already discussing how he would never raise children in Russia and wanted to return to the United States.
Russia has a complicated relationship with black folks. On the one hand, you have African rappers praising the Russian president with hit songs like “I Go Hard Like Vladimir Putin,” and on the other hand you have artists depicting President Obama as a monkey, or as a schoolboy to be trained by the Russian people. That love-hate relationship with black folks and, by extension, Obama has real-world consequences for how sensitive international issues are viewed and negotiated. It’s just a shame that it takes a small-time actor to stumble onto a truth that the American press and many political analysts don’t want to discuss.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.