The decision of former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Roy Jones Jr., to become a Russian citizen may be less about race relations in the US and more about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing campaign to collect political trophies.
Mr. Jones is now a Russian citizen, confirmed by a decree published by Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Kremlin’s Web site on Saturday.
According to ABC News, Jones asked Putin for citizenship last summer. The two met in person in August over a cup of tea in Crimea. Jones is reported to have told Putin that citizenship would make it easier for him to do business in Russia.
This move by Jones does not bear the hallmarks of a revival of the 1920s African-American celebrity exodus to foreign soil for the purpose of racial equality. At that time, dancer/singer Josephine Baker famously left America to enjoy greater civil rights and acceptance in France, and performer Paul Robeson moved to England where he could more freely express his support of Communist politics and the Soviet Union. Langston Hughes, author at the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, flirted with the notion of defection to Russia for the same reasons.
Nevertheless, in an interview with Gazeta.ru, Jones indicated that he was at least partly motivated by a feeling that he would meet with more acceptance in Russia. He said that, “After my arrival in Russia, I saw that there is a large community of boxers. I also felt appreciated in Russia. Maybe even a lot more than I was valued and appreciated in my own country.”
Chad Marlow, Advocacy and Policy Counsel for the ACLU says in an interview, “As an American [Jones] has the right to express his dissatisfaction in any way that he wishes to and if he chooses to do that by defecting to Russia that’s his option – as an American.”
“There’s no comparison between the civil rights and civil liberties [someone] in American is entitled to vs someone in Russia. It is vastly, vastly superior civil rights and liberties in the United States to those in Russia. There’s no question about that,” Mr. Marlow adds.
Garry Kasparov, famed Russian chess grandmaster turned dissident and author of the new book “Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped,” says in an interview that this is more a case of Putin cherrypicking celebrities from around the world for political purposes.
“This is just a typical trick to get some headlines and needle Putin’s enemies,” Kasparov says. “He hosts Gerard Depardieu to complain about French taxes, Edward Snowden to attack the US on cybersecurity, and now maybe Roy Jones Jr. on racial injustice. It’s a standard propaganda ploy to troll the West and to deflect attention from the economic problems and lack of rights in Putin’s dictatorship and as such it should be ignored.”
In 2011 Examiner.com reported that Jones faced liens from the IRS over unpaid taxes to the tune of just over $3.5 million.
Back in 2013, Russia welcomed French actor Gerard Depardieu who fought the French government over taxation issues.
Speaking out against Russia’s crackdown on human rights and online freedom before the Norwegian Academy of Literature and Freedom of Expression's Bjornson Prize on September 5, Edward Snowden said he had "never intended to go to Russia."
"I applied for asylum in 21 countries. They were all silent. Russia was actually one of the last countries in that sequence that I applied for," said Snowden, according to the L’Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Kasparov adds, “Putin’s oppression is driving educated Russians out while he’s rolling out the red carpet for [foreigners]."
Putin is reported to have told Jones that citizenship was possible if he intended to live in Russia much of the time. Jones answered that he hoped sport could help "build a bridge" between the US and Russia.
Jones also said that he hoped to speedily learn the Russian language, develop his rap career, and also to "earn two or three billion dollars," opening boxing schools in Russia.