Black people in Russian: why « negr » is a neutral word, and why that matters

In Russian, Black people are referred to as negry (singular negr). This article explores the reasons behind this, the debate it sparks, and why it questions Russia’s relationship with the West.

⚠️ Warning: This article discusses racial slurs. They are occasionally spelt out for educational reasons.

Table of contents

  1. Context
  2. Negr ≠ N-word
  3. The word negr today
  4. The various terms to refer to Black people
  5. Delving further
  6. And we Westerners, what should we think about it all?
  7. Conclusion
  8. Sources


One of the things we take to heart when moderating online communities on Discord is ensuring that the chats are free of racist discourse. It’s often a simple task as it (unfortunately) mainly involves dealing with attention-seekers who join only to spam the N-word. This word, which is considered the most violent word in the English language on average, is at the core of one of the most heated sociolinguistic debates at the moment. My natural habitat.

On October 24, 2023, the team of a Discord server I moderate noticed that one of our members’ profile contained a single word: негр. Some of us could read Cyrillic and immediately identified this Н-word as an N-word: negr – which is especially reminiscent of the French N-word, nègre (we happen to be a French-learning Discord). A lively discussion ensued on whether or not we should exclude the individual from the community.

Had I been there at the beginning of the conversation, I would have added the little nuance I was aware of: in reality, the term is neutral in Russian. This was quickly confirmed by a colleague who, after some research, found a Russian speaker stating that:

It is a 100% neutral word that describes people with dark skin and African heritage.

That being said, the person was using the word in their Discord profile without any other context, which made it hard not to associate it with the dreaded racial slur. They also happened to have just made transphobic remarks, proving that we were dealing with a fairly typical and easily manageable troll.

But that left me unsatisfied. If the word could be manipulated and distorted so easily, could it really be ‘100% neutral’? Having my doubts, I asked the question on Reddit, leading to a long and rich discussion. Finding the post’s success inspiring, I decided to write this article, supplemented by a survey also advertised on Reddit, which gathered no less than 617 respondents. So here’s everything I learnt about the word ‘negr’ in Russian, and more.

Negr ≠ N-word

It is in the American plantations, in the 17th century, that the N-word as we know it was born. A ‘normal’ term in a context where slavery was also ‘normal,’ this borrowing from Portuguese ‘negro,’ Spanish ‘negro,’ or French ‘nègre’ (sources may disagree) contributed to cementing the ideology that African Americans were an inferior population, even after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865.

Segregation then took hold, officially until 1964. But even afterwards, the N-word never ceased to be used to remind black Americans of ‘where they belong,’ in a continuation of racist mentalities that obviously persist to this day. It is this history that gives the word its weight in North America, but also in Western Europe, where participation in the triangular trade has long begun to prick consciences. That is why ‘nigger’ and its French equivalent ‘nègre’, amongst others, have become words to avoid at all costs.

Pro-segregation protest in Alabama in 1965
Pro-segregation protest in Alabama in 1965.

Russia, in contrast – though not unfamiliar with the concept of slavery –, has never practiced black slavery. The Russian word ‘negr,’ despite having the same origin as the N-word, has thus evolved in a very different way and has never developed a racist sense. This is evident in the results of the first question of the survey:

Statistical diagram showing that the word "negr" is generally considered neutral.

That is the historical context – ultimately quite straightforward and often put forward by Russian speakers to defend the word ‘negr.’ But is the current situation so simple? The short answer is nyet.

The word negr today

Our perception of words results from the influences to which we have been most exposed. Thus, a young French speaker is likely to perceive the word ‘nègre’ as pejorative or insulting. However, in today’s globalised world, cultural spheres frequently intersect, and the Western sphere is the one with the upper hand, all the more its English-speaking part. Due to this growing pressure, a portion of Russian speakers has started to associate the word ‘negr’ with the N-word and to perceive it as negative. Some identify the 1990s as the starting point for this new trend, as Russia during that time opened up to rap (especially Black rap) as well as movies from the United States after emerging from the former USSR. Today the Internet is, of course, another major factor. Moreover, the association of Africans with the triangular trade was already present in Russian education, giving a basis for this trend to rise from.

Statistical diagram showing that approximately half of the respondents believe that the connotation of the word "negr" is changing.

While the proportion of Russian speakers acknowledging a change is not a majority in the results I obtained (43.6%), it is significant enough to suggest an important trend in the Russian language today, likely to be the reason for social debate. It is this debate and the reactions it causes that I aimed to explore.

The Russian social debate

The Western character of Russia has always fluctuated since the reforms of Peter the Great in the early 18th century. Still, it can be generally stated that the country is adjacent to the West, geographically as well as culturally or politically. For many Russian speakers, this is not merely about agreeing on the use of a word; the connotation of the word ‘negr’ deeply questions the place of Western influence and the reception it should be given. As is often the case, a linguistic question thus conceals a cultural, and even intercultural issue.

Note: Due to a translation error on my part, ‘it’s a shame’ was perceived as ‘it is a disgrace.’

By cross-referencing these proportions, we also see that 95.8% of respondents who lament the change identify the West and/or the United States as the cause (making up for 44.1% of the 469 respondents to the feelings question).

The reason for that is understandable: while the West considers it a ‘duty’ to erase the word as a way to come to terms with its colonial past, Russia does not have to blame itself for such dark events. For many Russian speakers, transferring the connotation of the N-word onto the word ‘negr’ is more or less akin to ‘asking them to pay the price for Western colonialism’; for them, the N-word is not, and should not be, a Russian issue. Although not everyone feels or expresses this reluctance, it is often fueled by the historical tensions between the United States and Russia.

This excerpt from the movie ‘Brother 2‘ by Aleksei Balabanov provides a good overview of the question, already relevant in 2000.

[0:00] Look at yourself! Black as an asshole! Do you know what a brush is?
[0:05] Leave him. Negr, go, go!
[0:07, with overlapped dubbing] Nigger!? Are you calling me a Nigger? I’ll show you a real Nigger.
[They walk away]
[0:12] You shouldn’t have called him negr.
[0:14] Then what?
[0:15] Afro-American.
[0:17] What’s the difference?
[0:19] Negr is like an insult to them.
[0:21] But that’s what I was taught in school. In China, there are the Chinese, in Germany, the Germans, in Israel, the Jews, in Africa, the Negry.
[0:29] I feel like strength is in them. They have something brutal… something animalistic. Something we lost a long time ago. That’s why they’re stronger. The Whites sense it and fear it.
[The fighting starts]
[0:51] We should go.
[0:52] The bastards, we didn’t get to eat!

I was unfortunately unable to access the opinion of Black Russians, although I have been assured that those living in Russia share the views of other Russians, which my research tends to confirm.

Fortunately, awkward situations can be easily avoided, as not all words to refer to Black people are sensitive.

The different terms used to refer to Black people

According to the survey I conducted, the term that has the most consensus to refer to Black people is temnokóžij* (‘dark-skinned’); ‘afrikánec*’ (‘African’) and ‘černokóžij*’ (‘black-skinned’) come in second and third place. Conversely, the most severe Russian racial slur towards Black people seems to be ‘černožópyj**’ (‘black-assed’), followed by ‘černomázyj**’ (‘black-smeared’) and ‘nigger‘ (as written in Cyrillic).

* Темнокожий, африканец, чернокожий / ** черножопый, черномазый, ниггер.

Statistical diagrams showing the acceptability of several synonyms of the word "negr."

Note that some Russian speakers may prefer these terms to ‘negr’, not necessarily because they consider it to have turned negative, but rather because they now find it too uncertain to use. This reaction can contribute to the decreasing use of the term even among speakers who would rather it remain neutral.

To determine the order of preference among these terms, I assigned a (purely indicative) score based on the responses.

Indicative adequacy score calculated for various synonyms of the word "negr."

The term ‘cvetnój,’ meaning ‘coloured,’ is encountered by only about 4 out of 5 respondents, indicating a certain rarity. The survey also included the terms mavr* and arap* (words that share the same origin as « Moor » and « Arab »), which are now restricted to literary or historical contexts (such as Othello for mavr or Abram Petrovich Gannibal for arap, whom I discuss in the section §Pushkin, a writer of African origin).

* Мавр, арап.

Bruce Willis holding a sign that says "I hate niggers" in the Harlem neighborhood of New York.
This sign in Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) is translated in Russian as « Я ненавижу черномазых » (ya nenavížu černomázyx), making it clear to Russian-speaking audiences that it is particularly offensive.

What also becomes evident in these results is that a word causing even more division than ‘negr’ is ‘čornyj.’

The case of čornyj (чёрный)

Čornyj‘ is merely the adjective ‘black,’ yet it is indeed an insulting term for immigrants in Russia, although… not originally directed towards the Black community. As it has always been an extreme minority in the country (0.03% of the population to this day), it has hardly ever been targeted by hatred, unlike Caucasian and Central Asian populations who primarily fall victims to the term ‘čornyj,’ especially in the context of the Russo-Georgian War or the Chechen-Russian conflict. Under these circumstances, ‘black’ should be understood as a reference to dirtiness, a trait attributed to these populations out of racism or xenophobia. The term has naturally been extended, without losing any of its violence, to people with dark skin.

Statistical diagram showing the usage of the word "Čornyj."

This is why it is sometimes very schematically considered that Russian ‘does the opposite’ of French or English: ‘in Russian, the term nigger is appropriate, while the term Black is not.’ This misconception is even sometimes extrapolated as general proof that ‘Russians are racist.’ We see here how things are more complex and nuanced, as even regarding the term when strictly applied to Black populations, the respondents are divided.

Things differ yet again between Russian speakers in Russia and those outside the country, whether physically (emigration, travel) or virtually (via non-Russian-speaking online communities). Russians in the United States may sometimes prefer ‘čornyj’ to ‘negr,’ if only because of the risk of confusion with the N-word. Sometimes Westernised usage is imposed by force: the streaming platform Twitch, for example, censors ‘negr’ but not ‘čornyj.’

The term ‘čornyj’ is therefore torn between different uses: negatively applied to unrelated ethnic groups, applied to one or both, normalised nevertheless by a significant proportion of Russian speakers, and used differently depending on whether one is in Russia or not, in real life or on the Internet… Its very uneven perception by Russian speakers reflects this linguistic tug-of-war, and ironically demonstrates how our culture influences our view of societal problems: I wrote this article because it is the word ‘negr’ that the West is concerned with – yet, the use of ‘čornyj’ seems much more urgent and contentious to determine for a Russian speaker.

Delving further

The word ‘negr’ in the context of American-Russian relations

There is a rather well-known quote in Russia: « rabótaj, negr, sólnce ješčó vysokó!* » which translates to « To work, Black man, the sun is still high! » The quote comes from The Headless Horseman, a Cuban-Russian red western from 1973 that sold nearly 52 million tickets, the equivalent to the population of France at the time. The film, set in Texas, and like many works of its kind, contributed to offering Russians with a critical view of the United States during the Cold War. The American anti-Black racism was often portrayed in such films under a relatively « pro-Black » or denunciatory light, as is also the case with the phrase « a u vas négrov linčújut* » (« And you are lynching Negroes« ), a common response to American accusations of human rights violations in the Soviet Union and later in Russia. This form of communication has had its critics for its whataboutism or its instrumentalisation of Black populations for often propagandistic purposes.

* Работай, негр, солнце ещё высоко!
* А у вас негров линчуют.

The full movie is available on YouTube (unsubtitled).

In the movie, the quote is particularly interesting because the word ‘negr’ is indeed used as an equivalent of the N-word, yet it imparts a positive connotation to it: that of an oppressed and hardworking person. The expression ‘rabótatʹ kak negr‘ (‘to work like a Black’) is still used, rather positively, to convey the meaning of ‘taking one’s work to heart, dedicating oneself to the task.’

* Работать как негр.

Pushkin, a writer of African origin

Many Russians take pride in having had a writer of African origin, namely Alexander Pushkin. The artist’s great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, was captured by the Ottomans in Central Africa, enslaved, and later purchased for the court of Tsar Peter the Great (as it was fashionable at that time for influential figures to have Black servants). There, Gannibal was emancipated and received an education among the nobility. Pushkin wrote The Moor of Peter the Great about his ancestor, an unfinished novel known in Russian as Aráp Petrá Velíkovo*.

* Арап Петра Великого.


Due to an interesting coincidence, ‘negr’ is also the abbreviation for ‘negraždanín*,’ which has no etymological connection since it is constructed with ‘ne-graždanin,’ literally meaning ‘non-citizen.’ The term is typically used for non-citizens of Estonia or Latvia.

* Негражданин.

From an adaptation of English, Russian speakers sometimes refer to Black people as ‘Afro-Americans*’ (not taken into account in the survey), even if they are not American. This usage appears to be somewhat criticised.

* In the singular, afroamerikánec / aфроамериканец.

Several respondents mentioned that the N-word, particularly due to Black American rap, has been adopted by young Russians who identify with the living conditions of some African Americans (the ‘ghetto’). In this context, it is used in the same way as among African Americans, that is as a positive sign of recognition and not in a derogatory manner. This may explain why 3% of the respondents consider this term as appropriate, or even as the best one to use.

In Russian, the name of Niger, the African country, is ‘Нигер‘ (Niger). The word can be stressed on either syllable, and it is homophonous with the N-word when stressed on the first syllable.

Versions of the word ‘negr’ can be found in Armenian (նեգր, negr), Hungarian (néger), and Bulgarian (негър, negăr), where it is currently considered more or less neutral and undergoing changes as well. The word ‘negr‘ also exists in Czech, a Slavic language like Russian, where it is already a racial insult. The word ‘černoch,’ equivalent to the Russian ‘čornyj,’ is neutral in Czech.

And we Westerners, what should we think about it all?

Above all, and regardless of disagreements, I believe it is important not to view this as proof that the Russian population is isolationist and narrow-minded, but rather that it deserves recognition for the divergence in certain key points in its history from that of France, the United States, and other overrepresented Western nations.

That being said, the subject remains particularly complex. In a globalising world, it seems logical to accept that social criteria naturally become more uniform. However, one cannot deny that Russia is on the margins of European history, and advocating for the word ‘negr’ to become negative amounts to rendering Russian history invisible. Yet the invisibilisation of certain groups is precisely what the West seeks to prevent by avoiding terms like the N-word.

On the other hand, discrimination against Black populations does exist in Russia, with some arguing that racism is no less present there than it is in the West, but less conscious. Several commentators perceive ‘negr’ as an abbreviation for ‘negroid’ (although that is etymologically inaccurate), arguing that it is simply an anthropological description of the human race, a neutral one as it was coined by science. This very description was denounced in 2019 by the American Association of Physical Anthropologists as part of a racist ideology now obsolete in anthropology.

The last important point relates to pragmatics: while it is good to have statistics on the use of certain words, one must keep in mind that they can have a variety of applications in a single speaker, and that context makes all the difference. For instance, many respondents pointed out that a designation term is different from a term of address: one does not talk about Black people the way one talks to Black people.

Taking a stance can be extremely delicate: either one supports uniformity at the expense of diversity, or diversity at the expense of the comfort of others, including the comfort of those most affected – for let’s not lose sight of the fact that this involves debating among Whites on a topic that does not directly concern us.

To me, it seems possible to use whichever words we prefer, while making sure we do so in appropriate circles. If I might take liberties with my family and friends, I also pay attention to my choices of words when addressing people I’m not close to. The argument ‘it’s not the words that hurt, it’s the people,’ that I read several times, opposes notions that, in my view, are not mutually exclusive: people hurt through their intentions when they are hateful or divisive, but even the best intentions cannot justify the use of certain words sharpened by history. Neglecting this aspect would amount to disregarding a vast portion of the history of oppression.


Since the 18th century, Russia has been a source of contention with the question of whether or not it is a Western country. In some aspects, it is clearly not one, and slavery is an example. Since Russia has never practiced the trade of Black slaves, and the Black population in the country is still minimal (0.03%), the term ‘negr’ has remained a neutral word to refer to Black people. In contrast, terms like the French ‘nègre’ or the N-word, while sharing the same origin, have become racial insults.

In contemporary times, globalisation has led to the convergence of major cultures. Due to Russia’s exposure to American culture since the 1990s, and the influence of the Internet later on, the connotation of the word ‘negr’ has started to turn negative, as perceived by almost one half of Russian speakers to this day. The social debate sparked by this change, or the idea of it, is particularly rich and heavy with historical context.

For many Russians, if there is a new connotation to the word ‘negr,’ it is due to its assimilation with the N-word, forcing them to recognise the impact of a history of slavery with which Russia has no connection. Many lament the idea of such a connotation, especially because it distorts Russian culture and history, and because they feel like the baggage of slavery and racism towards Black people should remain a Western problem (although it is not completely absent from Russia).

The last two decades have seen a resurgence of antagonism between Russia and the West, sometimes leading to authentic ideological battles, even within the country itself. While other languages are revising or have already revised their use of similar words under pressure from the West, Russia still values being a nation on the fringes of the Western world. Among the many questions this raises is who is legitimate in wanting things to change.


Огромное спасибо всем респондентам, их словам поддержки, забавным фактам и личному опыту, а также просто за время, которое они потратили на участие в опросе. Вы сделали написание этой статьи прекрасным опытом!

Thanks to Andy for his assistance in drafting the survey, to Chris for proofreading and to Alby for helping with the English translation.

The raw survey results are available here. It was posted on the Reddit communities r/russian, r/AskARussian, and r/rusAskReddit, which have a couple comments. You can also take a look at the original thread posted on r/russian and its 175 comments.

⚠️ Disclaimer – While diverse and numerous, the results may be biased, especially considering that respondents are Internet users, which predetermines the age groups and social classes that the survey reached (which are not taken into account), as well as the exposure of respondents to foreign languages and culture. Despite the care taken in formulating the questions, they were written from a Western perspective.

  1. Racist language in Russia/USA, Stack Exchange, November 12th, 2013
  2. As an Afro-Russian, what do you think/feel about the Russian word “negr”?, Quora
  3. Why Russian-Speakers Call Black People ‘Negry’, The Dialogue, November 1st, 2018
  4. Agustín Fuentes, Rebecca Rogers Ackermann, Sheela Athreya, Deborah Bolnick, Tina Lasisi, Sang-Hee Lee, Shay-Akil McLean, Robin Nelson, AABA Statement on Race & Racism,
  5. Oleg Galimov, Margarita Razumova, На полицейских, проигнорировавших убийство аспиранта из Габона, завели уголовное дело, Komsomolskaya Pravda, October 18th 2023
  6. В Екатеринбурге убит аспирант из Габона, Meduza, August 21st 2023
  7. Yelena Shukayeva, «Добрый человек» с ножом, Novaya Gazeta Evropa, August 24th 2023
  8. ТОП-10 | ИСТОРИИ ГОДА, ПО КОТОРЫМ НУЖНО СНЯТЬ ФИЛЬМ 2020 (at 47:13), Кино Огонь, YouTube, December 26th 2020
  9. The English Wikipedia And you are lynching Negroes et Kammermohr
  10. The Russian Wikipedia articles Негр et Неграждане

Diagrams: Canva
Subtitles: OpenSubtitles (adapted)

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Kelton James

Normally I do not read article on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very forced me to try and do so! Your writing style has been amazed me. Thanks, quite great post.


Hi) I am from Russia and I want to share my observations. I use a translator, so I apologize if some words look strange. The word is really neutral in Russia. There are more interesting observations: when Western news on « black topics » is published in Russian Internet communities, you can often see a lot of comments with racist jokes. And they are not directed against the black community and are not an attempt to insult anyone. I don’t know what it is called in English, but we call it « reverse psychology ». Reverse psychology is when you are asked to do one thing and you immediately want to do the opposite. Russians are annoyed that they are trying to be dragged through culture into the complex relationship between whites and blacks in the West. It’s hard for us to empathize with this problem for reasons you correctly point out in your article. That’s why Russians on the internet often make jokes to label the problem, say, it’s not our problem and we won’t play Western games. We have some amount of racism too, as in any country, it’s true, especially in small towns. And yes, it has to do with immigrants and the clash of different cultures. But my observation is that it’s more xenophobia than racism towards black people. As you correctly point out – we very rarely see black people, and they are « exotic » to us, so more often than not we see a « finger pointing » reaction. Severely ill-mannered or uneducated people will approach a black person, ask about his life in Africa and so on. And this will not be negative, but precisely a demonstration of uneducation.
It is extremely rare to find a convinced racist who doesn’t like black people, and most likely that person was raised on racist books, western racist movies, and so on. After all, in order to dislike someone, you must first start interacting with them. Moreover, I can say that nothing « feeds » local racists like racists from the West. Because in Russia, judgments and stereotypes about blacks are based on the judgments of Western culture, because we ourselves hardly ever encounter blacks in large numbers.
Western culture’s attempts to « apologize » to black people don’t improve the situation either, because to Russian perception it looks very artificial and insincere.
We must remember that slavery existed in Russian history, but with one big difference: whites were enslaved by whites. A small number of black slaves appeared only after Peter traveled to Europe and brought its culture to our country. So we look at this issue in a completely different way.

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