By Maxim Matusevich (Seton Hall University, U.S.A.)

The encounter between Africans and people of African ancestry and Russia was reflective of the ambivalence with which Russians viewed their place in the Eurocentric world during the Age of Imperialism. Their own identity as a European nation has been often the subject of heated internal debates and a wide-spread suspicion on the part of other Europeans. Imperial Russia did not take part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and never established colonies in Africa. The last European nation to emancipate its own serfs Russia had a small but vocal educated class, or intelligentsia, whose prominent representatives routinely condemned the depravity of American slavery. In the eyes of many black observers, Russia’s absence from the histories of slave trade and European colonialism in Africa contributed to its image as a relatively tolerant society, less affected by the curse of European and North American racism. After 1917, the new Communist rulers of Soviet Russia continued to advocate racial tolerance and acceptance as essential elements of their Marxist ideology. For the Soviets, any expression of racism undermined their own multiethnic project and as such was antithetical to the country’s new identity and interests. With the rise of the Cold War, the rhetoric of antiracism and anticolonialism came to color much of the Soviet Union’s interaction with its ideological opponents in the West. But with the Soviet economy and society entering a protracted period of stagnation and eventual decline, the colorblind ideals articulated by Soviet propaganda were increasingly devoid of genuine meaning and often at odds with the sentiments of the “Soviet street.” The disintegration of the Soviet Union was accompanied by increased ethnic tensions and the rise of ethnic nationalisms in the country that had been built on the principles of ethnic coexistence. Africans and African Russians residing in late Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia had to bear the brunt of Russian chauvinism, much of it born out of the society-wide disillusionment with Soviet ideals and values.

For many Russians, their connection to Africa is embodied in the genealogy of the country’s greatest poet and the national cultural icon – Alexander Pushkin (1799-1937). Pushkin’s great-grandfather Abram Hannibal arrived in Russia as a little African slave boy, purchased at an Ottoman slave market by an emissary of the emperor Peter the Great. Hannibal’s origins remain murky but most historians agree that he was most likely born somewhere in Abyssinia, modern-day Ethiopia. Adopted by the tsar, who also served as his godfather, Hannibal entered Russian nobility and made an illustrious career in the Russian military, distinguishing himself as a talented engineer and reaching the rank of general-major. Pushkin himself did not shy away from his African ancestry and proudly acknowledged it in verse and prose, celebrating the life of his famous progenitor in an unfinished biography Arap Petra Velikogo (The Negro of Peter the Great).

That a person of African descent could be embraced by Russians as the most important cultural symbol underscores how differently they viewed race from the majority of other 19th century Europeans. While few black people ever visited Imperial Russia, those who did reported encountering generally benign attitudes, in stark contrast to the racism prevalent elsewhere in Europe and North America. One such traveler, an African-American woman Nancy Prince, spent more than a decade at the Russian imperial court in St. Petersburg during the early decades of the 1800s. Her memoir contains a perceptive analysis of the early 19th century Russian society, which she deemed welcoming to blacks. Black American tragedian Ira Aldridge found fame on the Russian stage. A close friend of the great Ukrainian bard Taras Schevchenko, Aldridge toured Russia extensively and attained a cult-like status with the theater goers in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and in the provinces. His popularity with the Russian public had little to do with his race and a lot with his acting talents. Yet inadvertently, to Russia’s educated class Aldrige also represented a group of people benighted by American slavery. Translated into Russian, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin became an instant bestseller; and such prominent social critics as Vissarion Belinsky and Nicholas Chernyshevsky drew parallels between America’s “peculiar institution” and the institution of serfdom in Russia. Belinsky, in his famous Letter to Gogol (1847) spoke of Russian serfs as “our white Negroes,” and Chernyshevsky sent free copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the subscribers of his journal The Contemporary. An iconoclastic dissident intellectual Alexander Herzen, writing from his exile in Britain, contemptibly compared Russia’s slave holding class with the American planters. It is worth noting that the two institutions of slavery, Russian and American, were abolished at about the same time – 1861 and 1863 respectively. Not surprisingly, a trickle of African-American adventurers, performers, musicians, and entrepreneurs began to reach Russia towards the end of the 19th century. They were searching for new opportunities in the country that seemingly harbored and practiced less racial prejudice towards black people than other “white” nations.

With the enormous Eurasian landmass open to its imperialist expansion Russia took no part in the European Scramble for Africa during the last two decades of the 19th century. While not immune to the standard Victorian images of Africa that depicted the continent and its people as savage and in need of civilization, Russians felt no obvious need to civilize Africans. Towards the end of the 19th century the country experienced a period of close and intensely emotional contacts with Christian Ethiopia, an independent African nation that many Russians considered fraternal on account of its Orthodox faith. Russian military advisors, medics, and volunteers were reportedly in the ranks of the Ethiopian army of Menelik II which inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Italian colonial army at Adwa in 1896. Subsequently, Russians founded a hospital in Addis Ababa that for decades to come would become a fixture of Ethiopian capital.

Russia’s connection to Africa again became the focus of public discourse a few years later when, on the eve of World War I, reports surfaced in the Russian press of a strange “African colony” in the Caucuses. An ethnographic expedition to the Abkhasian coast of the Black Sea had come across several villages whose residents had black skin and distinctly African features. These “Black Sea Negroes,” as they were sometimes referred to in the press, appeared to have descended from a group of Ottoman slaves who had settled the area back in the 16th-17th centuries. Their numbers were small but their very presence on the territory of Russian Empire connected it to the general history of global exchanges.

In the aftermath of the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917, the new Bolshevik regime sought to forge a new Soviet identity, rooted in the ideology of Marxism-Leninism. Since class distinctions were the only meaningful differences between humans recognized by the Communists, the new Soviet rulers decried racism as a harmful vestige of capitalism – the system they had set out to destroy. From that point on until the very end of the Soviet Union the Soviets, at least in their official pronouncements, would continue to make use of the rhetoric of antiracism and anticolonialism. Needless to say, for African-Americans living under the Jim Crow laws and the fear of arbitrary lynchings as well as for the African subjects of European colonial administrations the Soviet Union represented a refreshing alternative to the routine of racial humiliation and colonial domination. As a result, during the first two decades of the Soviet Union’s existence, it received plenty of positive publicity in the black press, especially in the United States. Dozens (and probably hundreds) of black “pilgrims,” most of the African-American and Afro-Caribbean, trekked to the “Red Mecca.” Few of them were committed communists, but most shared expectations of a qualitatively new society – free of racism and its attendant oppression. Among those enchanted with the promise of the Soviet Union were some of the most prominent African-American intellectuals and cultural figures of the day. Poets Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, the famous actor Paul Robeson, and the great Pan-Africanist W.E.B. Du Bois – all traveled to the USSR and even resided there for extended periods of time. “I stand in astonishment and wonder at the revelation of Russia that has come to me… if what I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my ears in Russia is Bolshevism, I am a Bolshevik,” wrote Du Bois following his 1926 trip to the USSR. Besides these celebrities there were numerous lesser known individuals who came to the Soviet Union in pursuit of their colorblind dream but also in search of employment opportunities and the opportunities to contribute to the new socialist experiment in Russia. In 1932, for example, a group of agricultural engineers, most of them the graduates of the historically black Tuskegee University and Hampton Institute, arrived in Soviet Central Asia to help it develop new cotton production techniques. Oliver Golden, the leader of the group, and George Tynes, one of the experts, would permanently settle in the USSR, and in doing so lay the foundations for a small but culturally and politically significant black diaspora in the Soviet Union. Oliver Golden’s Soviet-born daughter Lily Golden would become a prominent Soviet intellectual and a fixture in Moscow cultural elite circles. Lily Golden’s daughter Yelena Khanga (Oliver Golden’s granddaughter) would rise to fame as a popular journalist and TV celebrity in post-Soviet Russia.

The romance between black radicals and Soviet Russia began to wither away towards the end of the 1930s as the Soviet Union proceeded to assert itself more as a nation-state than a revolutionary force in world affairs. In 1933, it established diplomatic relations with the United States and subsequently toned down its antiracist propaganda. The Soviets lost some of their earlier clout among black sympathizers when it came to the surface that they had been secretly supplying Italian troops during their 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. And then came the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 – the “great betrayal” in the words of a famous editorial in the African-American periodical The Crisis. Considering the well-publicized racial policies of the Third Reich the rapprochement with the Nazis undermined the Soviets’ antiracist credentials. There is also some evidence, reported by such black residents in the Soviet Union at the time as journalist Homer Smith and mechanical engineer Robert Robinson, that the consolidation of Stalin’s dictatorship and the atmosphere of paranoia and fear that surrounded the bloody Soviet purges of the late-1930s affected some of the early black enthusiasts of the Soviet Union. Jomo Kenyatta, the future founder of independent Kenya, left the country disillusioned after a brief stint at Moscow’s Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV). George Padmore, a prominent Caribbean communist, broke with the Soviets over what he saw as their heavy-handed approach to the issue of race. Padmore would eventually trade his communist convictions for pan-Africanist beliefs. At least one African-American communist perished in the cauldron of Stalin’s Great Terror. Only recently Russian archives revealed the sad fate of Lovett Fort-Whiteman, a black Chicagoan, who died in a remote GULAG camp in the late 1930s. By the beginning of World War II only few of the original black pilgrims to the Soviet Union remained in the country.

In the aftermath of the Second World War much of the former colonial world, including Africa, gained independence from the former colonial masters. The process of decolonization coincided with the rise of the Cold War – the historical circumstance that left an indelible mark on the relations betweens the Soviet Union and the newly independent nations of Africa. The Soviets cultivated friendships with the young African states, seeking to present the Soviet development model as a viable alternative to Western capitalism. They also extended material and political support and military training to several liberation movements, especially in Southern Africa. Gradually Africa moved from the periphery of Soviet foreign policy concerns to the center stage of cold war politics. In the course of cold war decades the Soviets involved themselves in the Congo crisis of the early 1960s, in the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970, in the Angolan Civil War, in the Ethiopian-Somali war of the late 1970s, and in a number of other African conflicts. In Africa, the USSR sought closer relations with the regimes sympathetic to Marxism – such as Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah, Guinea under Sekou Toure, Ethiopia under Mengistu Haile Miriam, Angola, Mozambique, and others. However, increasingly its approach to African combined ideology and pragmatism. For example, during the Nigerian civil war, the Soviets opted to support the pro-Western federalist camp against the secessionist Republic of Biafra. They also established close links with the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, turning a blind eye to Nasser’s merciless persecution of Egyptian communists.

In response to demands of the increasingly global foreign policy but also as a reflection of a greater openness after the death of Stalin the USSR began to pay more attention to the academic study of Africa and its people. In 1959, a special institution for a comprehensive and interdisciplinary research on Africa (Africa Institute) was founded in Moscow under the aegis of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Simultaneously the Soviet Union made a concerted effort to enhance its image in Africa by extending generous educational scholarships to African students. After the 1957 Youth Festival in Moscow thousands of third world students started arriving in the Soviet institutions of higher learning. Many of them would enter a new Moscow Friendship University, also known as Lumumba University, specially created to cater to the needs of third world students. The appearance of these young, exotic looking foreigners in the midst of a society, largely isolated from the rest of the world, had some unintended social and cultural consequences for the Soviet Union. The Soviet officials had clearly hoped that by bringing thousands of African students to the USSR they would score a major propaganda victory against their cold war rivals in the West and also consolidate their country’s prestige in the Third World. However, they had failed to foresee the impact of African students on the Soviet society. Instead of serving as symbolic ideological allies of the regime, once in the Soviet Union, Africans often functioned as its opponents. In 1963, for example, hundreds of African students participated in an unsanctioned demonstration in the Red Square, protesting a suspicious death of a Ghanaian student in Moscow. Africans routinely petitioned university and state authorities for better living conditions, demanding more freedom of movement and expression, and challenging the Soviets to clamp down on the instances of everyday racism. African students presented yet another headache for the regime because they often practiced lifestyles and embraced cultural aesthetics in stark contrast to official Soviet values. Funded by generous state stipends, usually speaking several languages, and having more opportunities for foreign travel than an average Soviet citizen, young Africans in the USSR became the conduits of Westernization. They introduced their Soviet friends, spouses, and fellow students to Western fashions, jazz and rock-n-roll records, and the view of the world that was often cosmopolitan and devoid of the ideological rigidity inherent in Soviet education. It is not a coincidence that African themes would come to feature prominently in some of the countercultural production in the late Soviet Union. The ideas of freedom and liberation that in the course of the decades of vociferous anticolonial and antiracist propaganda had become intrinsically linked to the idea of Africa challenged the Soviets to think critically about their own condition.

During the period of reforms, generally known as perestroika and glasnost, ushered in by the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet press commentary on Africa grew increasingly negative. Both political commentators and people in the street often attributed the economic decline of the once-powerful Soviet Union to “too much aid for Africa.” The eventual dissolution of the USSR released the pent-up forces of ethnic nationalisms, including extreme forms of Russian chauvinism. At the time black Russians and African residents in the Soviet Union found themselves targets of racial slurs and even physical attacks, an unfortunate socio-cultural phenomenon that has persisted into the post-Soviet era. In the past decade, on more than one occasion international media has been alerted to an alarming increase in the number of racially-motivated attacks in Russia. At the same time African students continue to arrive in Russia in search of affordable education and a growing number of African expatriates and Russians of African descent have achieved prominence as educators, journalists, TV personalities, musicians, and athletes. Hopefully, the country with such a unique history of friendly encounters with black people will be able to overcome the humiliating handicap of widespread racism.


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