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Blacks in the Soviet Union

Soviet cogitations: 46
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 10 Feb 2006, 13:50
Post 14 May 2006, 06:29
Excerpt from "Russia and the Former Soviet Union", Encarta Africana:

[Note: Not that I would trust Microsoft on anything, but the article is interesting nonetheless]



The Soviet Union, the new country formed in 1922 out of the Russian Empire, was a highly attractive destination for many black people. It was, after all, the first country founded on the principles of racial equality, world peace, anticolonialism, and economic advancement of the working class. It seemed to offer an ideal society to those suffering under colonial rule in Africa, or racism and economic depression in the United States. As a result, many blacks traveled to the Soviet Union, and a number settled there.

The Soviet authorities had many reasons for encouraging blacks to come to their country. They believed that blacks, as members of an oppressed social group, would be key participants in the Communist revolution that would topple colonial and capitalist regimes around the world, and they wanted to ensure that potential revolutionary leaders were firmly under the control of Moscow. Giving blacks free education in Soviet universities was a means to that end. Also, by demonstrating the Soviet Union's own racial tolerance and progressive thinking, Soviet leaders were enhancing their country's appeal to liberal-minded white and black intellectuals around the world, thus securing sympathy for the Communist cause.


In 1920, during the Second Congress of the Communist International—the Comintern, the organization formed to spread world revolution—the white American Communist John Reed passed a note to Lenin asking "Should I say something about the Negroes in America?" Lenin wrote back "Yes. Absolutely necessary." After a discussion on the situation of American blacks, the Comintern proposed to invite blacks to study in Russia.

Between 1925 and 1938, several dozen African and West Indian blacks and between 60 and 90 American blacks were invited to study at the Comintern-controlled Stalin Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV) in Moscow. Most completed a 14-month program, which principally dealt with Marxist-Leninist theory, although training was also provided in espionage, guerrilla warfare, secret codes, and techniques of underground political work.

The blacks, like all foreign students, were treated as honored guests, receiving free room and board, clothing and travel allowances, special tutors, paid vacations in the Soviet Union and at home, and access to high officials. At that time, no other country offered blacks such opportunities. Yet some blacks encountered racism from both local people and Communist party workers. In his study on blacks in Comintern schools, Woodford McClellan noted that "The Russian-Ukrainian national experiences did not embrace racism ... on the British, Spanish, or American model, but discrimination directed against minority peoples—Tartars and other Orientals, Turkic peoples, Jews—stained the record of the East Slavs, and black visitors inevitably felt its blows." Indeed, one black student, Pierre Kalmek, reported that he encountered "greater chauvinism here than in capitalist countries ... People have spat on me three or four times."

Because the Soviet authorities often suppressed news of racial incidents, it is unclear to what extent black students experienced racism at KUTV. Like the general public, university teachers were expected to adhere to Communist principles and to suppress all racial prejudices. According to McClellan, it was foreign whites, in particular the Americans, British, and Canadians, who were usually responsible for racial provocations in the Comintern schools. In 1932 black students formally complained about racism to the Comintern, which eventually set up an investigative commission: as a result, two whites and one black were expelled from KUTV.

KUTV students also voiced outrage at the abandonment of the film Black and White, which was to have depicted racial and labor conflicts in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1932, 21 African Americans, including the writer Langston Hughes, were invited to the Soviet Union to participate in the film project. The Soviets apparently canceled the film, already in progress, at the insistence of Colonel Hugh L. Cooper, the white American supervising the construction of the Dneprostroi hydroelectric power station, who threatened construction delays if the film went ahead. Many black students saw the film's cancellation as a sacrifice of Communist ideals to economic expediency.


Many famous black political activists as well as literary and artistic figures visited the Soviet Union, drawn by its reputed racial tolerance and by its attempt to put Marxist ideas into practice. While some were committed Communists, others were artists or writers who upheld the aims of the Russian Revolution, but had no formal ties to any Communist party.

One of the most important black visitors in the interwar period was Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay, who stayed from 1922 to 1923 and wrote about his trip for the American press. Received warmly by such Soviet leaders as Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Bukharin, he was the first black, along with Otto Huiswood, to discuss the American race problem before a Russian audience, at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern (1922). He also became a literary celebrity and was handsomely paid for the publication in the USSR of poems, articles, and a Soviet-commissioned book entitled The Negroes in America (1923)—a propagandistic discussion of the plight of blacks in America as a key component of the class struggle.

Although McKay was interested in Communist party politics, he saw himself as an independent-minded poet, devoted first and foremost to his art. Reflecting on his experience in Russia, he wrote: "The fact is that I spent most of my leisure time in non-partisan and anti-Bolshevist circles ... I grew tired to death of meeting the proletarian ambassadors from foreign lands, some of whom bore themselves as if they were the holy messengers of Jesus, Prince of Heaven, instead of working-class representatives." He did, however, enjoy the respect he received in Russia, saying that "never in my life did I feel prouder of being an African, a black, and no mistake about it."

The African American lawyer and Communist William L. Patterson lived in Russia from 1927 to 1930, and married a Russian, with whom he later had two daughters. In Russia he experienced an exhilarating lack of racism: "It is as if one had suffered with a painful affliction for many years and had suddenly awakened to discover that the pain had gone."

The African American brothers Otto and Haywood Hall, who became Communists after the 1917 Revolution, went to the Soviet Union in the mid-1920s. Like Patterson, Haywood Hall married a Russian. He visited Stalin at the Kremlin in 1927 and became vice-chairman of the Negro subcommittee of the Comintern. He returned to the United States in 1930 to continue his Communist organizational work. Both Patterson and the Hall brothers studied at KUTV.

In 1929 George Padmore, a Trinidadian Communist, abandoned his wife and university studies in the United States to go to Russia. He became an important figure in Profintern, the Comintern's trade union organization. He also lectured at KUTV, had an office in the Kremlin, and was given a special place on the reviewing stand in Red Square for the 1930 May Day parade. In 1930 he was transferred to Vienna to continue his work in the black labor movement. He and fellow African American James Ford were crucial in establishing the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, which was the most important organization in promoting black revolutions around the world. Like many Communist Party Loyalists, Padmore was discredited and expelled from the party in 1934 during Stalin's purges, but he remained devoted to the Soviet system.

Langston Hughes, who traveled to Moscow in 1932 as a consultant on the doomed Black and White film project, provided a humorous account of his Soviet experience in his autobiography I Wonder As I Wander. In one lively passage he described how Sylvia, one of the actors in the film, also sang African American spirituals on Radio Moscow. Since all mention of God or Jesus was forbidden, Sylvia chose to spell "God" backwards, and sang "Rise, shine, and give Dog the glory!" He also wrote of Emma Harris, a 60-year-old African American woman, originally from the American South, who had been living in Moscow since before the 1917 Revolution. According to Hughes, "Everybody in Moscow knew Emma, and Emma knew everybody. Stalin, I am sure, was aware of her presence in the capital." Formerly an actress, Harris joked frequently about the Soviet dictator, saying "anything she wanted to say" in an era when freedom of speech was nonexistent.

The great African American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois visited the Soviet Union four times, in 1926, 1936, 1949, and 1958 to 1959. In his autobiography, published in 1968, he said that he felt more comfortable and inconspicuous in Russia than in any other country. During his 1958 visit, Du Bois, accompanied by his wife Shirley Graham Du Bois, attended a New Year’s banquet at the Kremlin. They were joined by the African American singer and actor Paul Robeson, who sang "The Song of the Plains" to the accompaniment of a Russian chorus.

The following January, the Du Boises met with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. They proposed the creation of an Institute of African Studies, which was founded that same year under the directorship of a friend, Ivan Potekhin, one of the coeditors of the 1954 ethnographic survey Narody Afriki (Peoples of Africa). In 1959 W. E. B. Du Bois was awarded the International Lenin Peace Prize.

Paul Robeson, the black artist who has arguably had the greatest influence on Soviet culture, first visited the USSR in 1934 at the invitation of the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who would become a close friend. Robeson and his wife Eslanda traveled to Moscow by train, and were forced to have a one-day layover in Berlin, where Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party had come to power the previous year. The contrast between the Berlin train station, where fascist storm troopers and passers-by alike glared at the black couple like "wolves waiting to spring," and the welcoming attitude of Soviet officials, who were impressed with Robeson's fluent Russian, left an indelible impression on the American singer. For the next two weeks the Robesons were treated like visiting dignitaries.

Robeson returned to the Soviet Union at least seven times between 1936 and 1961. His concerts included performances of African American spirituals, American labor songs such as "Joe Hill," and especially Russian folk and patriotic songs, which endeared him to his Russian audiences. He was given the highest honors: he received the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, which carried a $25,000 award; a mountain in Central Asia was named after him; he appeared on television; and his songs were played repeatedly on Soviet radio.

Although not a registered Communist, Robeson remained committed to the socialist ideal throughout his life. Long after most American blacks had distanced themselves from Soviet Communism, he continued to feel immense gratitude for the warm welcome he had received in the U.S.S.R. In a 1957 interview with a Soviet newspaper, he explained, "In the Soviet Union I felt like a person for the first time ... I visited many schools, watched the pupils and saw in their eyes that the children ... are taught a very important thing: that it is necessary to treat people equally, regardless of their skin color."

Jazz has been a major vehicle for black cultural influence in Russia. Russians were first introduced to black music by the African American dancer Ida Forsyne, who performed the cakewalk in Moscow in 1911. Beginning in the 1920s, numerous black jazz musicians visited the Soviet Union, including the Leland and Drayton revue, Benny Peyton's New Orleans jazz band (with saxophonist Sidney Bechet), Earl "Fatha" Hines, the Charles Lloyd Quartet, Duke Ellington, and B.B. King.


One of the most striking examples of African American emigration to the Soviet Union is the story of the cotton farmers. In 1931 Oliver Golden, an agricultural specialist who had studied at Tuskegee Institute, organized a group of 16 black Americans of various professional backgrounds to travel to Uzbekistan in Soviet Central Asia to develop an experimental cotton plantation. The men were paid the equivalent of several hundred dollars a month, a fortune by the standards of the Great Depression. They also enjoyed a month's free vacation every year in elite Crimean resorts. The group spent three years crossing Uzbek seeds with American seeds and finally produced a new strain of cotton that took 25 percent less time to mature than cotton in the American South.

At this time even the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, was economically primitive, with few cars, telephones, or other conveniences. Donkeys were the chief mode of transportation. In the village of Yangiyul, where the group was sent, women wore veils, polygamy and harems were common, and few, if any, people spoke English.

The farmers encountered very little racism during their stay, and, being from the rural South, were delighted at the absence of segregation. Joseph Roane, who spent six years in the USSR, recalled only one racist incident. When he and another black man entered a hotel barber's shop in Moscow and asked for a haircut, two white Americans who were having their hair cut said, "What are you niggers doing here? Get out." When Roane explained the situation to the Russian barbers, they expelled the white men from the shop with lather still on their faces.

The Yangiyul group's initial contract expired in 1934. All the farmers signed up for another three years, but many were sent away from Yangiyul because their skills were in demand elsewhere. Roane was sent to Georgia to help operate a tomato-canning plant. George "Whirlwind" Tynes, formerly a Pittsburgh football star, worked as a poultry breeder, and John Sutton developed a new type of rope, using a fiber derived from rice as a substitute for jute. Both Sutton and Tynes married Russian women.

By 1937 Stalin's purges were in full swing. Anyone suspected of being remotely hostile to Stalin was arrested and interned in labor and death camps, and suspicion of foreigners became intense. All the members of the group were ordered to adopt Soviet citizenship immediately. Those who did not were expelled from the Soviet Union.

Oliver Golden, the leader of the group, stayed, becoming a popular and innovative professor at the Institute of Irrigation and Mechanization in Tashkent, where he taught until his death in 1940. Thousands of people came to his funeral. He had brought his Polish Jewish wife Bertha with him to Uzbekistan, and they had a daughter, Lily, who later married the Zanzibari leader Abdullah Hanga. In 1988 Lily's daughter Yelena Khanga, who was raised as a black Russian, became the first black commentator on Soviet television—a result of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy that encouraged Soviets to openly voice their opinions on controversial topics.


Many other blacks came individually as immigrants to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Robert Robinson, an engineer from Detroit, went to the Soviet Union in 1930. He became a leading inventor and senior engineer at the state ball-bearing plant in Moscow. As with Joseph Roane, the only racism that Robinson is known to have experienced in the Soviet Union was from American visitors. In the early 1930s, he was assigned to a tractor plant at Stalingrad where 300 American engineers worked. When two white Americans ordered him out of the mess hall because of his color, they were arrested, convicted of "white chauvinism," and expelled from the Soviet Union.

In 1932 Homer Smith, a postal worker from Minneapolis, came to work for the Moscow Post Office for a salary higher than his previous wage. He also became the Moscow correspondent for the African American press. He reported that he and other blacks were well treated by the Russians, and were often allowed to go to the front of lengthy lines of people waiting to buy food. He married a Russian woman and remained in the country until after World War II.

The African American actor Wayland Rudd emigrated to Moscow in 1932 after realizing that in the United States his race would restrict him to minor acting roles. He remained in the Soviet Union until his death in 1952, participating in the experimental movements in Russian theatre and becoming the first black actor to play the role of Othello in Russian. He stated that the liberated atmosphere of the Russian stage was the most thrilling experience of his life.

Lloyd Patterson, an African American artist, came to the Soviet Union with the 1932 film project and stayed, marrying a Russian and working first in the Meyerhold Theatre, then as a journalist, and finally serving in World War II, in which he was killed. His son James Patterson became a well-known poet, drawing extensively on his dual Russian and African American identity.


As has been discussed, the Soviet Union was eager to encourage blacks in the United States to rise up against capitalist society. The Comintern struggled with the issue of how best to motivate the black masses. Marxist-Leninist theory subordinated all differences among people, including racial differences, to the struggle between the ruling class and the workers. Correspondingly, early Soviet doctrine held that racism was an artificial distraction created by the ruling classes in order to divide the workers and distract them from revolution. Feelings of racial or national pride were considered harmful.

By the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928, it was recognized that the issue of racial feeling was far more important than had at first been thought. James Ford, an African American delegate, criticized the official position and argued that it must be altered if the Communist movement were to attract discontented blacks. As a result, the Comintern redefined the status of American blacks as an oppressed people, much like an African colony, and advocated the creation of an independent black republic in the southern United States. This remained the official Communist Party stance until 1959, despite the fact that it was highly unsatisfactory to many African American leaders (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People characterized it as "Red segregation"). The policy was abandoned in an effort to improve relations with the United States.

Although the Soviets were able to offer few solutions for American blacks, they succeeded in drawing international attention to the plight of African Americans. From the 1950s onward, Soviet propaganda drew heavily on the sufferings of African Americans. In one of countless such Soviet cartoons, two images of the Statue of Liberty are juxtaposed: a conventional view from New York Harbor, and a close-up of the statue's terror-stricken face, with the rays emanating from her head shown to be hooded Klansmen brandishing clubs and guns. Such propaganda disappeared during the Gorbachev era of the late 1980s.


Unlike the European colonial powers, Russia was never significantly involved in the transatlantic slave trade. Russia laid claim to an enormous portion of land in the American far north, yet most of this land was unexplored and unsuitable for the development of a plantation economy. Moreover, Russia had a long history of enslaving its own people: serf populations, made up of Russian peasants, provided an abundant supply of indigenous labor until their emancipation in 1861. Although the Russian government did acquire a small number of black slaves, they were viewed less as an important labor source than as exotic embellishments to aristocratic households. In 1818 representatives of the tsar called for the abolition of the African slave trade, though their motivation for doing so remains unclear, given that Russia maintained the institution of serfdom for an additional 43 years.

Before the 1917 Revolution, the main area of Russian interest in Africa was the ancient, independent kingdom of Ethiopia. Like Russia, Ethiopia was an Orthodox Christian nation. It was also of key geopolitical importance, given its location at the mouth of the Red Sea (the Suez Canal had been opened in 1869) and its potential as a base for Russia to control the western Indian Ocean, a goal dear to Russian leaders past and present. Beginning in the mid-19th century, contacts with Ethiopia were developed. Explorers visited, and Russian diplomats sought to forge a military alliance with Ethiopia against the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

The Soviet leaders had specific aims in Africa. As with black America, they hoped to train revolutionaries and to exploit African nationalist feelings in order to encourage anticolonialism and to weaken the capitalist powers. But Soviet policy toward Africa changed dramatically during the 1930s, when the Soviet Union chose to ally with Great Britain and France against the growing power of Nazi Germany. This required the Soviets to moderate their anticolonialist stance. In an act that deeply disappointed many blacks, the Soviet Union sold fuel to fascist Italy despite Italy's invasion of Ethiopia. Moreover the Soviets were secretly discussing with Nazi Germany a partitioning of Africa into colonial-style "spheres of influence," in which Germany would control Central Africa, Italy the north and northeast, and the Soviet Union the eastern coast.

During the 1940s the Soviet Union was engaged in World War II and the mass repression of dissenters within its borders. It was not until the 1950s that the Soviet government once again turned its attention to Africa. Nation-building was now in full swing, and new African countries were emerging from colonial rule every year. The Soviet Union eagerly provided technical, economic, and military assistance to these new states in order to secure them as allies.

In 1960 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and his advisers strongly believed that the new states of Africa, many of them headed by strong, socialist-oriented leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Sékou Touré in Guinea, and Modibo Keita in Mali, would bypass capitalism and develop a specifically African version of socialism (see African socialism). Moreover, the Soviets were hoping that not only these three countries, but many more would become strong Soviet allies. From the perspective of many African nations, however, the USSR was just another northern industrial power seeking to dominate and exploit them.

By the end of the 1960s, after the break with Guinea and the collapse of Nkrumah's and Keita's regimes, the USSR had tempered its aspirations in Africa to the provision of limited technical and military advice to many of its governments and the training in the Soviet Union of civil servants and administrators. The Patrice Lumumba University, founded in Moscow in 1961, offered a four-year program with courses in a wide range of topics, and tuition, housing, medical care and travel were free. This and similar programs became extremely popular, and by 1966 there were approximately 4,000 African students in the Soviet Union.

Given the larger number of black students than in the 1920s and 1930s, racial incidents surfaced more frequently. Of particular importance was the demonstration held by 500 African students in Red Square in the winter of 1963 to protest the death of a Ghanaian student. Soviet authorities claimed that he had been drinking and had frozen to death. The students argued that he had been murdered by Russians because of his plans to marry a Russian woman.

Some African students felt they were being manipulated by the Soviets for propaganda purposes. As Everest Mulekezi, a Ugandan who came to Moscow University in the late 1950s, described, at one gathering of Ugandans: "In our name a stranger called for a vote on a resolution demanding immediate independence for Uganda ... Before we could open our mouths, a roar of approval went up. Cameras snapped as the Russian actors gathered around to congratulate us on our 'action.' Tape recordings were made for broadcasts to be beamed back home. Suddenly it was over, and we Ugandans were left dumbfounded and angry."

In the early 1970s, as the USSR focused on improving relations with the United States, Soviet involvement in Africa became a lower priority. Beginning in 1975, however, the USSR began its most intense period ever of involvement in Africa, intervening militarily in Angola and in the Horn of Africa. The Soviets were able to accomplish this partly due to the unwillingness of the United States to involve itself in foreign conflicts following the defeat in Vietnam.

In 1974 Portugal decided to grant independence to Angola, and a bloody civil war broke out among the three principal factions of the Angolan independence movement. By the time Angola became independent in November 1975, the Soviet-backed MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) was strong enough to form a government. In response, South Africa and the United States began to ship arms to MPLA's opponents, especially to Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) movement. The USSR now began massive shipments of arms and of Cuban military personnel to the Angolan government. This support from both superpowers fueled a conflict that would devastate Angola for years to come.

Until 1974 Ethiopia had been aligned militarily and economically with the West. The Soviets had supported Ethiopia's long-time enemy Somalia, which had embraced socialism with the 1969 arrival in power of General Siad Barre, who had been trained in the Soviet army. During the early 1970s the USSR built Somalia's army into one of the strongest in the region. However, by 1974 Siad Barre was moving openly toward alignment with the Arab world, specifically the anti-Soviet regime of Saudi Arabia.

In the same year, the regime of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia was overthrown by a Marxist-oriented military council. Over the next few years, the USSR provided large-scale military assistance to Ethiopia, enabling it to win against Somalia in the Ogadēn War in 1978. Ethiopia, the largest country in the Horn of Africa, became a Soviet bridgehead in the key strategic region of the Red Sea, a major triumph of Soviet foreign policy.

With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the escalation of Soviet-American rivalry in Central America during the 1980s, Soviet attentions again turned away from Africa. The arrival of Gorbachev in 1985 caused a gradual withdrawal of the USSR from involvement in the Third World, as relations with the West improved and Soviet policymakers focused attention on internal economic and social problems.


Since the publication of Allison Blakely's comprehensive book Russia and the Negro in 1986, few scholarly accounts have been issued on the contemporary experiences of blacks in Russia or Central Asia. Since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, however, journalists and human rights activists have observed a sharpening of ethnic and racial strife throughout the region. With the collapse of communism as a unifying ideology, a variety of ethnic and nationalist movements have gained momentum. Moreover, the former Soviet republics have faced continuing economic hardships. Such developments have incited deep-seated racial prejudices and hostilities. Indeed, the majority of nationalist agendas offer a stark contrast to the racial idealism that the Soviet government espoused for so many decades.
User avatar
Soviet cogitations: 2870
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 16 Nov 2005, 17:55
Party Bureaucrat
Post 14 May 2006, 18:14
Well, while Soviet opinion of recent African history was propagandized and characterized by racial idealism, at least the USSR paid attention to Africa's development from colonialism, and there were some positive changes. Who knows how long it will take for most of Africa to catch up with the rest of the world now.

"History is a set of lies agreed upon."
--Napoleon Bonaparte
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