Black in the USSR: 3 Generations of a Russian Family

In 1932, the poet Langston Hughes spent Christmas in the “dusty, coloured, cotton-growing South” of Uzbekistan, then one of the Soviet Union’s Asian republics. Hugheshad been in Moscow, working on a film critical of American race relations, but the project was abandoned, in part because the Soviets were then seeking official diplomatic recognition and improved economic ties with the United States. After an exhausting 2,000-mile journey on frozen, ramshackle Russian trains, he arrived on Christmas Eve in Yangiyul, near Tashkent, “in the middle of a mudcake oasis frosted with snow,” and visited “a neat, white painted cottage,” where “it was jolly and warm.”

His hosts were Oliver Golden, a black Mississippian, and Bertha Bialek, the white New York-born daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants, who had prepared a traditional American meal capped off with pumpkin pie to celebrate the season—washed down, of course, with copious amounts of local cognac and vodka. Most of his fellow guests were black men and women. As he looked out his window on Christmas morning, Hughes saw some tall, brown-skinned Uzbeks on horseback, padding across the snowy fields, and was reminded of images he had seen in Sunday school when he was a boy in Kansas: “In their robes, these Uzbeks looked just like Bible characters, and I imagined in their stable a manger and a child.”

Oliver Golden was the driving force behind the presence of a group of black scientists in Tashkent to assist in the cultivation of cotton, which had prompted Hughes’ visit. Born in Yazoo County in the Mississippi Delta in 1887, Golden was the son of former slaves who had prospered during Reconstruction. By the time he reached his 20s, however, his family home had been burned down twice as part of the broad, violent and successful campaign to restore white supremacy. He was drawn to the Soviet experiment in the 1920s and 1930s by its promises of racial equality, much as his grandfather had been inspired by the promise of Reconstruction.

Golden, after all, was a World War I veteran who had studied agronomy with George Washington Carver at Tuskegee. He had been radicalized by his experience of virulent racism while serving in the U.S. Army in France, ostensibly in a war to save democracy. Back home, he could not vote in Alabama or his native Mississippi, and he could aspire no higher than work as a chef on a railroad dining car in the relative promised land of Chicago, where he had moved by 1917. Golden worked in the Chicago labor movement in the early 1920s and joined the Communist Party around 1925. Golden later remarked, “I would have done anything to get off those dining cars.”

Along with his wife, Jane, and several other black Americans intrigued by the Soviet promise of equality, Golden arrived in Moscow in 1925 to study at the University for Oriental Workers, known by its Russian acronym, KUTV. Golden was amazed to experience first-class citizenship for the first time in his life. “Russia is the only country in the world today,” he wrote, “that gives equal chances to black and white alike.”

Golden’s first trip to the Soviet Union confirmed his belief that communism could overcome the class and racial barriers that had limited his ambitions in America. But it was also a time of heartbreak and tragedy. His wife, Jane, fell ill and died. While the entire KUTV campus rallied to provide support, Golden fell into a deep depression. He was nursed back to health by a Soviet Asian woman from Siberia named Anya, with whom he fell in love, and who gave birth to his son, Ollava, shortly before Golden returned to the United States in 1927.

Back in the U.S., Golden threw himself into work for the American Communist Party, opened a cooperatively run restaurant on the Soviet model, and, as family lore had it, met his second wife, Bertha Bialek, after both had been arrested at a political demonstration. Although her family disapproved of the interracial relationship, the couple married and began working on Golden’s plan to send African-American scientists to Uzbekistan’s Cotton Belt.

He chose that region because he wanted black Americans to play a central role in the economic and political development of Soviet “national minorities,” like the Uzbeks, who had historically faced discrimination because of their skin color. In 1930 he persuaded his former mentor at Tuskegee, George Washington Carver, to recommend a team of skilled African-American agronomists trained in the production of cotton to travel to the USSR. The following year, Golden and 14 experts from Hampton Institute, as well as Wilberforce and Howard universities, some accompanied by spouses, arrived in Yangiyul, two hours south of Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.

The scientists largely succeeded in their three-year goal of developing a new hybrid cotton that could withstand the blistering heat of an Uzbek summer. But for Golden and his wife, the development of a hybrid Soviet society blending Uzbeks, African Americans and white Europeans was even more exciting. So when the scientists’ contract ended in 1934 and most of their group returned to America, Golden and Bialek remained behind, believing that, as an interracial couple whose first child, Lily, had just been born, they would have far greater freedom in the USSR than in the USA.

The Goldens became Soviet citizens. Golden found work as a scientific researcher at Tashkent’s Irrigation Institute and was elected to local political office, opportunities he would have been denied in the U.S. He was very active in Soviet efforts to promote the cause of the Scottsboro Boys, nine Alabama teenagers falsely accused and convicted of raping two white women.

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