I recently found out that Alexander Pushkin's great grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, came from Africa and was black. Apparently he was abducted as a slave and given to Peter the great as a gift, who released him. He also became member of the Russian nobility.

This surprised me because I thought the vast majority of European nobility (or of all Europeans for that matter) were extremely prejudiced against black people at that time. I can't find any source describing if he faced any kind of discrimination. According to Wikipedia his first wife hated him, but it doesn't say if this had to do with his race (and his second wife didn't hate him).

So were Russians/Europeans at that time not as racist as I thought? Or did he and/or his descendants face considerable racism? I would appreciate good sources on this matter.

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    – MCW
    Feb 14 at 18:54
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    Revised title to ask a question, but I suggest that you further revise to cite the Wikipedia article you reference. It would also help if there were a more objective way to express the standard of racism. Something along the lines of "how likely was it for a non-white to prosper in Xth century Russia?"
    – MCW
    Feb 14 at 19:02
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    You might be interested in the story of Gustav Sabac el Cher. ( de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustav_Sabac_el_Cher ) I do not really think stories such as this one prove that people back then were not racist - there are lots of examples for the contrary. It just shows that racism was not turned into laws and institutions in the same way as happened in the US.
    – Jan
    Feb 14 at 20:31
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    The genral rule about Europe at that time was that they were not "Racists" (treating people of different skin colour differently) but "classists" - treating people from different social background differently. I've read a diary of a British lady who was treating the wives of a rich African chief as her equals, contrary to her American white maid, who was treating them as just "dirty negroes". In response, the lady told the maid that she should "know her place, as she is just a plain commoner and the wives are of nobility".
    – Yasskier
    Feb 14 at 22:28
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    Note that the fact that some people in a society, or even a majority, are racist (or classist, or whatever-ist) doesn't mean that everyone is.
    – jamesqf
    Feb 14 at 23:54

I will share some excerpts from the highly relevant article, "The Negro in Imperial Russia: A Preliminary Sketch" (1976), in which Allison Blakely argues that imperial Russia was

a land of opportunity where [blacks] could not only survive, but could attain high social position. This is striking not only because of the absence of the stigma attached to their color in the United States and certain other places. It is also significant that this is a group which was not part of the regular upper class and was conspicuously non-Russian.


Negroes present in tsarist Russia fall into three main categories. The first is the small native Negro population which for at least two centuries was scattered in small settlements in the Caucasus mountains near the Black Sea. Until the beginning of the 20th century even the general Russian public was not aware that they were there. [...] The second category of Negroes in Russia is comprised of the servants and workers who were present in large numbers in the 18th and 19th centuries, owing to the fashion among the wealthy nobility and tsars of maintaining a certain number of black servants. They were denoted by a number of terms; the one I will use here is "arap." [...] The third category of Negroes in Russia was comprised of visitors of various types, including artists, athletes, and foreign service officials. Some of this category of visitors actually stayed for periods of several years.

In addition to the specific example of Gannibal, Blakely mentions the prominent visitor Ira Aldridge, a Shakespearean actor who was made an honorary member of the Imperial Academy of Fine Art. Although negative racial stereotypes toward black people did exist in Russia, there were not the same kinds of discrimination and social barriers as in more profoundly racist societies such as the United States.

  • Russia is just as "profoundly racist" (more to the point, xenophobic) as all the other societies (xenophobia being one of the "human universals"). It's just that the target of the Russian bigotry are not Africans (because, as you correctly explain, there are far too few Negros there), but, during different periods, Caucasus mountains peoples, Poles, Jews, central asians, Chinese &c &c.
    – sds
    Feb 23 at 22:19
  • @sts Xenophobia and racism are quite distinct if related concepts. I did not imply that Russia is non-xenophobic, nor do I think the author I quoted is implying that. To your point, it's actually not actually very surprising it anti-black racism barely existed in 17th century Russia. Xenophobia in general is a different story.
    – Brian Z
    Feb 25 at 0:55

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