*This post is part of our new blog series on Black Europe. This series, edited by Kira Thurman and Anne-Marie Angelo, explores what it means to bring the category of Black Europe to the foreground of scholarship on Europe and the Black Atlantic.
In 1932, African American poet Langston Hughes crossed the Soviet border as part of a group of Black actors invited to the Soviet Union to make an antiracist propaganda film. In his memoir, Hughes described this crossing in almost biblical terms: “In Helsinki, we stayed overnight and the next day we took a train headed for the land . . . where race prejudice was reported taboo, the land of the Soviets. . . . When the train stopped [at the border] for passports to be checked, a few of the young black men and women left the train to touch their hands to Soviet soil, lift the new earth in their palms and kiss it.” That Black visitors to the Soviet Union during the two decades before World War II encountered a society they saw as largely free of racism seems to be borne out by multiple contemporaneous accounts and later memoir literature.
To be sure, the Soviet Union attracted a small but influential cadre of Black leftist radicals whose favorable impressions of the land of socialism were hardly surprising. But other, less ideologically doctrinaire visitors also appreciated colorblind internationalism at work. W.E.B Du Bois, for example, returned from his 1926 tour of the USSR captivated by the human warmth and racial equality he claimed to observe there. “If what I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my ears is Bolshevism, then I am a Bolshevik,” he quipped. Others followed, including the great actor and singer Paul Robeson, who formed a lifelong attachment to the Soviet Union and its people, an attachment that did not waiver even after Stalin’s crimes against his own people (some of the victims were Robeson’s close friends) came to light. Robeson’s commitment to the Soviet Union reflected a deep-seated conviction that in the momentous struggle for racial equality the downtrodden and people of color had no better friend than the Soviet Union: “…The Soviet Union’s very existence, its example before the world of abolishing all discrimination based on color or nationality, its fight in every arena of world conflict for genuine democracy and for peace, this has given us Negroes the chance of achieving our complete liberation within our own time, within this generation.”
As recently demonstrated by Meredith Roman and other scholars, Soviet anti-racism campaigns were essential to the regime’s conceptualization of its own political and moral identity. It is hard to think of any other issue where the Soviet Union’s moral superiority over its Western opponents was as incontrovertible as when it came to contrasting their respective histories of engagement with Africans and their descendants. At the height of decolonization and against the background of the growing Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the Soviets showcased decades worth of antiracist campaigns and support for liberation causes to claim their spot “on the right side of history,” at least on this one issue.
But how does this proud history of anti-racism square with the racism that manifests itself today in the post-Soviet period? Was there a “clean break” with the ideals and norms of a preceding historical era? Did the official Soviet propaganda represent a self-contained, compartmentalized discourse that ultimately failed to sway or even influence the opinions of the proverbial “man on the street”? If so, how can one then explain those numerous accounts by Black travelers in the prewar Soviet Union, which converged on the experience of spending time in a place where, usually for the first time in their life, they felt unambiguously free of racial stigma?
These questions can hardly be adequately addressed in such a short post. But recent research points to a number of factors to consider when assessing the evolution of Soviet attitudes towards racial difference, particularly in relationship to changing Soviet identity. The so-called affirmative action empire of the 1920s and early 1930s did not weather well in the Stalinist conservative revolution. By the 1940s and 50s, the Soviet Union of the Communist International (Comintern), a country that preached and occasionally practiced the principles of internationalist solidarity, had given way to a more traditional nation-state dominated by the ethnic Russian majority. Of course, the Kremlin never renounced its proletarian internationalism or anti-racism, but in the aftermath of the Great Terror and especially in the course of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45, the Soviet regime abandoned many of its early commitments. Whether by providing behind-the-scenes support to Italian fascists during Mussolini’s war against Ethiopia in 1935-36 or by entering into a pact with the Nazis in 1939, the Soviets began to place their national interests above those of the world’s downtrodden. The Soviets disbanded the Comintern in 1943 and during WWII Stalin tapped into Russian nationalism as a straightforward way of rallying the nation around the flag.
The rise of Russian nationalism dovetailed with a retreat from the early internationalist values. One expression of the growing suspicion of the world outside the Soviet borders was found in the decimation of area studies, including the study of Africa, as some of the early enthusiasts of African studies in the Soviet Union were swept up in the purges. On the eve of African independence and at the time of the expanding movement for equal rights in the United States, the Soviet Union sorely lacked the expertise on Africa. Beyond the customary antiracist slogans, the country’s general population remained largely ignorant of the history and nuance of race relations in the West. While Soviet writers and propagandists sought to expose the depravity of Western racism, Soviet scholarship on Africa remained parochial and burdened by ideological interpretive models (e.g., Stalin’s insistence on the necessity of proletarian revolutions in the colonies) that reflected the prevailing party line in Moscow but hardly mirrored local African conditions. Importantly, Soviet Africanists rarely set foot in Africa and tended to lump together all race-related issues, including those pertaining to North America, under the generic rubrics of Negro, Asian, and even Eastern “questions.”
We should be careful, however, not to succumb to the tendency commonly displayed by the Western media and political analysts during the Cold War to discard all Soviet claims of anti-racism as propaganda or to cast Soviet society as fundamentally racist, the regime’s internationalist rhetoric and the pronouncements of the “friendship of the peoples” notwithstanding. The many discontents of Soviet anti-racism reflected the complexity of Soviet engagements with the Third World during the Cold War. As demonstrated by the ambivalence and occasional hostility with which Soviet commentators responded to such iconic Civil Rights figures as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., the Soviets often found themselves ideologically constrained when dealing with non-Marxist movements for racial emancipation in the West. They struggled to reconcile, for example, Marxist-Leninist internationalism with Black radicalism. During the Cold War years, an American Black radical who also happened to be a Marxist-Leninist (someone like Angela Davis) was a relative rarity. A disillusionment with Moscow’s ability to connect to the experiences and needs of the non-white populations is palpable in the memoir of George Padmore, tellingly titled Pan-Africanism or Communism? After a long and illustrious career in the international communist movement, Padmore ended up choosing the former.
As the Soviet Union learned the hard way, simplistic Marxist-Leninist prescriptions rarely worked when addressing the question of race in the United States and across the Third World. The Soviets, it seems, had difficulty connecting to the postcolonial sensibilities of their third world friends and intended beneficiaries. They routinely underestimated and underappreciated the centrality of race in postcolonial discourses, including the very liberation discourse that they claimed to articulate and champion. The presence of third-world people, especially thousands of African students, in the midst of Soviet society, and the idiosyncratic and often unpredictable foreign policy moves by Moscow’s supposed allies and sympathizers in the Third World (not to mention their opponents) defied the Soviet Union’s expectations of forging a “natural” internationalist alliance with non-white populations oppressed and underprivileged by Moscow’s Cold War Western rivals. It is partly in relation to some of these frustrations that one can better understand the intensity of the xenophobic and racist backlash that swept across the former Soviet spaces in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.