Imperial Russia, one of the largest empires that thrived from 1720 to 1917, had only about a dozen permanent Black residents out of a population of over a million.
It has been documented that during this period, Russia “waged wars, conquered surrounding lands, and produced some of the most well-known, and highly feared, monarchs in modern history.”
Despite being a period that kept many in poverty, many Africans in the U.S., especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, saw a move to Russia as an opportunity for a better life, to escape the brutalities of American slavery.
Apart from the well-known Black person, Abram Hannibal, who lived in the 18th century and is famous because he was the ancestor of Russia’s great national writer Alexander Pushkin, many Black people who headed to Russia ended up working as Araps (potters or gatekeepers) at the Russian court.
Historians say that in the Russian Empire, Blacks were not enslaved. The ruling class met their labor needs through a system known as serfdom. Serfs, unlike slaves, owned property. With “no Black slaves” in Russia, the first Black people there performed an entirely different duty — “they were seen as an object of wonder, a curiosity and something exotic from overseas,” a report by Russia Beyond said.