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Why We Should Stop Portraying African Americans as Victims in the Soviet Propaganda Game

Emily Couch

BY EMILY COUCH

In recent years, the rather clumsy term “whataboutism” has made a comeback in international political rhetoric. With U.S. political and moral authority in decline, the country’s disapproval of human rights violations in other states is regularly met with retorts about the violations happening in its own backyard. Whataboutism, however, has a long history that traces back to the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union traded barbs regarding the other’s crimes. The essence of this dynamic is neatly encapsulated in this oft-repeated imagined dialogue: “‘You imprison those who speak out against your regime,’ says the American. ‘And you lynch Negroes,’ retorts the Soviet.” 

The way in which the USSR instrumentalized its rival’s oppression of African Americans is well known, and gained particular salience when an analysis by USA Today revealed that more than half of the Facebook ads bought by Russian groups during the 2016 election aimed to sow racial discord. While the Cold War precedents of this campaign are no doubt significant, what is problematic is the way in which it brushes aside the agency of African Americans.

“Agency” is a contested concept, but essentially it originates in philosophy and can be understood, very broadly, as conscious choices dictating human action. Debate over the definition centers on the extent to which social norms and structures constrain or shape these choices. Even a cursory internet search on the topic of African Americans and the Soviet Union indicates a troubling tendency to ignore the former’s actions and perspectives in Cold War ideological narratives. Let’s look at some examples.

Concerning Russia’s involvement in America’s race wars, Julia Ioffe writes in Atlantic magazine: “The Soviets also exploited the oppression of Southern blacks for their own economic benefit.” On the same topic, one CSIS report states: “Russian propaganda on social media ... emphasizes a shared sense of grievance among the group, while simultaneously working to erode the group’s attachment to a shared national identity.” In a particularly vitriolic dissection of the singer’s life, Ronald Radosh writes in The American Interest:  “The tragedy of Paul Robeson’s life is that he did submit to that discipline. He unswervingly put his faith in Joseph Stalin and the Soviet experiment.”  

Each of these articles makes valid and important points, but the quotations are emblematic of the general tendency to posit African Americans as passive victims—or, in Radosh’s case, naive dupes—exploited by the Soviet Union. None pays much attention to how African Americans might themselves have exploited the resources offered by the Soviet Union, or how the USSR might in some cases have presented a genuinely attractive alternative to the deep, institutionalized racism of the United States. A particularly poignant illustration of this can be found in Langston Hughes’s A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia(1934): “In the Soviet Union, dark men are also mayors of cities,” he writes of Bukhara. “I thought about Mississippi where more than half of the population is Negro, but one never hears of a Negro mayor or of any coloured person in the government.”

African Americans were undeniably aware of how the U.S. and Soviet governments sought to use them in their ideology wars, and the dark realities of both sides. In her essay “Notes on Russia” (1976), the feminist and queer activist Audre Lorde writes: “I recognize some of the contradictions and problems that they [the Soviet Union] have. I am deeply suspicious of the double messages that kept coming, and the fact that when they are finished with you ... they drop you and you can fall very far.” At the height of the Cold War, the State Department launched the “jazz ambassador program, which sent the country’s best African American musicians throughout the world to win undecided countries over to the U.S. cause. Dizzy Gillespie was well aware of the irony of promoting a country that oppressed blacks: “I know what they’ve done to us and I’m not going to make any excuses.”

In his memoir Black on Red (1988), Robert Robinson offers a clear account of an African American opting to use the Soviet system to his advantage while being clear-eyed about its abuses. “I got moral satisfaction that through their system I accomplished something,” he wrote, while also acknowledging that “the Soviets tried to use me for their propaganda. They tried to get me to denounce capitalism on radio broadcasts to the West, but I refused.” These examples show that black people were well aware that neither side offered a utopia but that they were willing to use the relative receptiveness of the USSR to advance their work and viewpoints in a way not permitted by official U.S. diplomacy.  

This more nuanced picture is more likely to be found in academia than in journalism. Research by scholars such as UC Berkeley’s Steven Lee, Stanford’s  Vaughn Rasberry, and Louisville’s Joyce Gleason Carew demonstrate how African American experiences in, and writings on, the Soviet Union complicate dominant U.S. Cold War discourses generated by an overwhelmingly white establishment. What is crucial is that these narratives enter the mainstream. In an era when talk of a “new Cold War” and “great power competition” dominates the headlines and D.C. policy discussions, it is more important than ever to understand that the assumptions underlying these discourses stem from a worldview that overlooks the way in which the U.S. liberal capitalist order excluded black citizens. A greater appreciation of black agency would not only enhance our historical understanding of U.S-Soviet relations but also facilitate a more reflective contemporary foreign policy.

About the Author

Emily Couch

Emily Couch

Staff Intern, Kennan Institute
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American expertise and knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, and the region. Through its residential fellowship programs, public lectures, workshops, and publications, the Institute strives to attract, publicize, and integrate new research into the policy community.  Read more