Anti-racism in Early Soviet Visual Culture

This post is part of our online forum, “Black October,” on the Russian Revolution and the African Diaspora

Jamaican writer and poet Claude McKay. From the book Back to Montparnasse by Sisley Huddleston, published 1931 (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Soviet Russia was once the global harbinger of anti-racism, championing the rights of African Americans at a time when institutionalized racism still dominated in the United States. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, communist Russia took a principled stance against racism and imperialism, shoring up its self-representation as a more enlightened and moral society than the capitalist West. Despite the presence of over a hundred official ethnic minorities within the newly formed Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), this anti-racism was most strongly expressed in the relation to African Americans—a racial minority group that would seem far removed from the everyday concerns of Russians living in a new revolutionary state. Yet America loomed large in the Soviet imagination as its modern and industrializing twin and rival. The USSR lagged behind America economically, but tried to position itself as far more advanced in terms of racial enlightenment. Support for African Americans in the USA paradoxically became a touchstone of Soviet self-definition.

Soviet Russia attempted to produce a visual environment of anti-racism through images of African Americans in paintings, photographs, films, posters, advertisements and illustrations, from the moment of the Russian Revolution in 1917 through the 1960s. There is no doubt that the Soviets could more easily take the moral high ground in relation to a racial group not within its own borders, or that their anti-racism was often self-serving. However, instead of following the standard skepticism toward Soviet anti-racism—a skepticism that has been bolstered by the rise of racism in Russia in the later- and post-Soviet years—what if we were to take seriously the simple fact that anti-racism as a theory and an official policy emerged in communist Russia at least forty years before such policies, or even sentiments, became standard in other countries? This alone suggests the potential significance of the Russian Revolution for the Black diaspora. We can question the sincerity of this Soviet policy, but the anti-racist visual culture produced in the years following the Russian Revolution offers a unique and potentially instructive prehistory for understanding race and representation within current debates about white allyship.

The best-known aesthetic project of Soviet anti-racism is the feature-length fiction film Black and White (Chernye i belye), about the radicalization of black workers in the American south, planned by the film studio Mezhrabpomfil’m in 1932. A group of twenty-two African Americans were invited to visit Moscow to participate in the film’s production, including Langston Hughes, who was meant to serve as script consultant. Though the film was never made, as a social and literary event the project remains one of the most closely studied episodes in the history of the relations between black and red.1 A related Soviet film project of a similar title was actually produced, but has not been studied at all: the short animated sound film Blek end uait (black and white), directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano and released by the same studio, Mezhrabpomfil’m, in November 1932.2 Based on a 1925 poem of the same name by Vladimir Mayakovsky, the “poet of the Revolution,” about his encounter with colonial racism in Cuba, the animated film tells the story of an Afro-Cuban man named Willie who shines the shoes of the white bosses and ultimately confronts them with questions about racism. Although the animated film was made without the collaboration of African Americans like Hughes, its focus on Willie’s coming-to-consciousness about communism as the answer to racism makes a space—modest, but pronounced—for the black revolutionary agency promised by its aborted big brother, Black and White.

Ivan Ivanov-Vano, dir., Blek end uait, 1932. Still showing Mr. Bragg and Willie.

Both films are lost to us in different ways: for the live action feature Black and White, only the script remains; for the animated short Blek end uait, no script, and only the final six and a half minutes of the original twenty minutes of running time, have been preserved in the State Film Archive (Gosfil’mofond). Yet in this final section the short film crescendos to Willie’s coming-to-consciousness, as it combines a dramatic musical score (it was only the second animated sound film in the USSR) with searing images of racist violence. It shifts the action from Cuba to the USA (which was not a setting in Mayakovsky’s poem) and integrates an avant-garde-influenced visual aesthetic with images derived from the many newspaper illustrations, cartoons, and posters of American racism that appeared in Soviet Russia at this time.

In the final sequence, Willie confronts the colonial white overseer with the American name “Mr. Bragg” with a Marxist question about the alienation of Black labor taken directly from Mayakovsky’s poem: “I beg your pardon, Mister Bragg!/Why should sugar,/white-white,/be made/by a black Negro?/And if you/love/coffee with sugar,/then please/make the sugar/yourself.” In both the poem and the film, Willie’s moment of speaking revolt is short-lived. Mr. Bragg punches Willie, who falls to the ground. In the poem, there are only 6 lines from the punch until the climactic, manifesto-like closing lines: “How could he know/that such a question/must be addressed/to the Comintern/to Moscow?”

The film Blek end uait, however, takes a visual and musical detour into specifically American imagery of black men lynched, imprisoned, and executed in the electric chair on its way to these closing lines about the Communist International (or Comintern) as a source of salvation. We see Mr. Bragg drive off along a highway, with the shot zooming in on a blackface doll hanging from its neck in the rear window, reminding us that Mr. Bragg comes from the land of lynch justice. As if instigated by the appearance of this material reminder of US racism, the palm trees along the highway transform into electrical poles with lynching victims hanging from them, stretching endlessly into the distance. The shot then cuts to a still of Willie’s face, seemingly observing this horror, and then further images of black convicts marching in a chain gang, chained in prison cells, and, finally, being placed in electric chairs and the switch being thrown by a large white hand.

Ivan Ivanov-Vano, dir., Blek end uait, 1932. Still showing black-face doll hanging from the rear window of Mr. Bragg’s car.

The appearance of this repellant, hyperbolic violenceabsent from the source poemstemmed from the Soviet obsession at this moment with US racism as the ultimate instructive case: Willie could not come to come to full consciousness as a black revolutionary subject without a detour through the United States. Lynching and the electric chair were exclusively American, and images of them appeared frequently in the Soviet press. The electric chair dominated most press accounts and images of the infamous Scottsboro verdicts—stemming from the trials of nine black teenage boys falsely accused of raping two white women in the American South in 1931. A histrionic cartoon from the days leading up to the boys’ first execution date in July 1931 (the executions were never carried out) shows a caricatured fat capitalist in a top hat about to throw the switch with his hand outside the Scottsboro prison house. The long arm of the Comintern reaches down from the proletarian sky and quite literally stops his hand in mid-motion.

The Comintern campaign to save the “Scottsboro Boys” undoubtedly had a paternalistic rhetoric: the boys could only be saved through the exemplary anti-racism of the Comintern, just as Negroes more generally should look to the Comintern for their emancipation, rather than to their own local forms of resistance. Mayakovsky’s closing lines also render the black subject helpless: “How could he know?” The film Blek and uait, however, through its very aesthetic form, confronts precisely that paternalistic model of the ever-passive black subject awaiting enlightenment from the Comintern. Its “emotional” rendering, to borrow director Ivanov-Vano’s own description, has the effect of de-sensationalizing the press images and making them available for an empathetic, rather than immediately political, response. Most importantly, this response is modeled for us by Willie himself—by, in other words, the black subject who must, in the end, be the author of any emancipatory narrative. The film delivers this modeling through its insertion of close-up images of Willie’s face into the final “American” sequence, with dissolves of Willie’s face onto the white hand on the switch of the electric chair, and finally, onto the image of Lenin’s mausoleum in front of the Kremlin wall. In this sequence of dissolves, followed by Communist slogans and images of billowing, presumably red flags held aloft by black hands, we are asked to see him come to consciousness about the larger structural problems of racism and the promise of black collectivity, rather than simply subordinating himself to the external will of the Comintern.

In the end, the terms are undeniably still those of white filmmakers, working within Comintern ideas about race: the black character of Willie is still being spoken for. Had Mezhrabpomfil’m made the aborted live-action film Black and White, with Langston Hughes consulting on the script and twenty-one African American actors, the result might have offered a possibility for black subjects to speak for themselves for a Soviet audience. Yet the attempt of Blek end uait to portray the voice and agency of the oppressed offers a compelling if modest example of the anti-racism of Soviet visual culture.

Soviet images of anti-racism can be faulted for lapses in judgment and understanding familiar from other models of well-intentioned white imagery of blacks, such as the fetishizing of black pain or a reliance on white savior narratives—or, in the Soviet case, an almost exclusive focus on black masculinity, because of the Marxist focus on labor and militancy (the Soviets promoted the emancipation of women, but paid little heed to the particular circumstances of black women). Yet Soviet anti-racism differs from better-known European and American models in important ways. Russians did not have a developed tradition of white superiority, because they had no history of African slavery (they had their own peasant serfs), and because of their racial heterogeneity—what Kate Baldwin has called their “illegitimate whiteness.”3 The vast Russian empire before the Revolution of 1917 stretched south to Persia and Afghanistan and east to the Pacific, encompassing multiple nationalities and ethnicities. Claude McKay, the Jamaican-born poet of the Harlem Renaissance, speculated that the lack of overt racism he encountered in Russia in the early revolutionary years may have stemmed from the fact that Russians had never properly seen themselves as white in the same way as the West European nations:

Russia, in broad terms, is a country where all the races of Europe and of Asia
meet and mix. … And so, to the Russian, I was merely another type, but stranger,
with which they were not yet familiar. They were curious with me, all and sundry,
young and old, in a friendly, refreshing manner. Their curiosity had none of the
intolerable impertinence and often downright affront that any very dark colored
man, be he Negro, Indian or Arab, would experience in Germany and England.4

In McKay’s perception, the Russian relation to blackness is one that comes into being in the moment of visual encounter, rather than being already scripted. This different Russian relation to blackness opens the possibility that early Soviet anti-racism may indeed offer a different historical precedent for contemporary attempts at white allyship.

  1.  Of the recent scholarship, see for example Steven S. Lee, The Ethnic Avant-garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); Joy Gleason Carew, Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2008).
  2.  For a more detailed account of this film, from which the present blog post is drawn, see Christina Kiaer, “A Comintern Aesthetics of Anti-racism in the Animated Short Film Blek end uait,” in Comintern Aesthetics, eds. Amelia Glaser and Steven S. Lee (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, forthcoming).
  3.  Kate A. Baldwin, Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters between Black and Red, 1922-1963, New Americanists (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002): 83. On the history of blacks in Russia, see Allison Blakely, Russia and the Negro: Blacks in Russian History and Thought (Washington, 1986).
  4.  Claude McKay, “Soviet Russia and the Negro,” Crisis (December 1923): 61–65.
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Christina Kiaer

Christina Kiaer is an Associate Professor of Art History at Northwestern University. She teaches twentieth-century art, specializing in Russian and Soviet art, the politics of realism and the avant-garde, and feminist theory and art. Her book, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (MIT Press, 2005) was awarded an Honorable Mention by the Wayne S. Vucinich Prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies.

Comments on “Anti-racism in Early Soviet Visual Culture

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    Fascinating! Thank you

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