Weeks after an Italian Cabinet minister of African descent had a banana thrown at her, a far more prominent black politician was apparently racially slurred with a photoshopped image linking him with the yellow fruit.
A pro-Kremlin Russian MP named Irina Rodnina tweeted a photo (since deleted from her account) which showed a picture of U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle attending some public function (probably a sporting event), with a banana mysteriously hanging in front of them.
Linking bananas to black people is considered extremely insulting and inflammatory, but has become a regular feature of life in Europe, especially on soccer pitches where black and African players are frequently taunted with bananas. And in late July, a banana was thrown at Italy’s Congolese-born Integration Minister, Cecile Kyenge, during a political rally.
Now, Rodnina, a member of Vladimir Putin's United Russia party (and, bizarrely, an Olympic champion figure-skater), posted the offending picture on her personal Twitter account.
Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, accused Rodnina of "outrageous behavior, which only brings shame to her parliament and country,” on his own Twitter account.
Tikhon Zyadko, a Russian journalist, tweeted: "Irina Rodnina doesn't hide she is a racist."
"Maybe this is everyday racism. Maybe it's that she was badly brought up and has a warped sense of humor," wrote Aider Muzhdabayev, deputy editor of Moskovsky Komsomolets, a newspaper.
"The main thing is that Rodnina did this, and she doesn't regret it a bit."
In response to criticism over the racial nature of the photo, Rodnina said the picture was sent to her by friends in the U.S. and declared: "Freedom of speech is freedom of speech, and you should answer for your own hangups.”
Refusing to apologize, Rodnina even suggested that the criticism was tantamount to a political conspiracy engineered by “liberal” journalists and other Russian opposition figures.
"Are there still some of you who haven't had their say on Daddy Navalny's orders?" she tweeted in a snarky reference to opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Interestingly, Navalny himself defended Rodnina, calling the photo a “joke.”
Moreover, Rodnina found some succor in Russian media who defended her.
"What Irina … put on Twitter is her business; it is her own personal space," wrote Vladimir Soloviev, a pro-Kremlin television host. "This is not a big scandal,” adding humorously, “I advise everyone who attacked her that the next time they go out for a coffee, they should not call it a black coffee but an African-American coffee."
The Guardian Express reported that some of Rodnina’s fellow MPs, including Vladimir Gartung and Yan Zelinsky, both members of the parliamentary ethics committee, also defended her and claimed she broke no laws.
"She sees the president of the United States as liking bananas. What's the big deal?," Zelinsky told Russian News Service radio.
But racism against blacks and Africans is deep-rooted and widespread in Russia, and has been accompanied by neo-Nazi and skinhead violence against immigrants and minorities.
Julie Ioffe, a Russian-American journalist, told AmericaBlog.com that “there’s quite a bit of violence against people considered to be black.”
The Moscow-based Sova Center, a human rights group, reported that last year 19 people were killed and 187 wounded in racially motivated attacks against “non-Slavic-looking individuals,” although such numbers have been declining since the mid-2000s.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.