Russian war anniversary benefit at the Watergate. Sonia Trembach, singer with the Balalaika Orchestra, and conductor Paul Kovriga chatting with Paul Robeson backstage. Washington, D.C. (Credit: Gordon Parks, Office of War Information, Library of Congress).
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?