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"Race Travelers" and Black America's Romance with Soviet Russia

Maxim Matusevich explains how early Soviet Russia was perceived by the black community in the United States as a "red Mecca" of equality, not because of the ideology of the Soviet state, but rather due to the image of a "multi-ethnic Soviet Union marching towards a communist paradise."

Date & Time

Thursday
May. 29, 2008
3:30pm – 5:30pm ET

Overview

Contemporary Russia may be troubled by ethnic violence toward non-Russians, but in the 1920-30s, Soviet Russia was perceived by the black community in the United States as a "red Mecca" of equality, said Maxim Matusevich, assistant professor of world history, Seton Hall University; Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University; and former Title VIII-supported short-term scholar, Kennan Institute at a 29 May 2008 lecture.

Matusevich explained that black radicals in the United States during that era were not fascinated by the ideology of the Soviet state. Rather, they felt that because of race, their opportunities in the United States were limited, and the image of a "multi-ethnic Soviet Union marching towards a communist paradise" was an attractive one. The first prominent "race traveler" to visit the Soviet Union, Claude McKay, arrived in 1922 and was received by Soviet leaders in the Kremlin. In short order, Matusevich said, this young man from Harlem was welcomed as a symbol and achieved celebrity status. McKay later wrote that he was "able to cast aside color consciousness" for the first time and feel himself to be a "poet, rather than a black poet."

More black Americans, including Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson, later traveled to and lived in the Soviet Union, where they were given the opportunity to travel, work, and study. Hughes wrote that he "found dignity denied in his native land," and Robeson wrote at length about his positive experiences as well. According to Matusevich, early black travelers experienced social openness among the revolutionary Soviets that extended toward romantic relationships: "What the British and Americans condemned, the Soviets encouraged." At that time, American travelers to the Soviet Union went through the American Legation in Riga, where black travelers met with open hostility from white consular officers based on racial prejudice and suspicions that blacks traveling to the Soviet Union were communist agitators. Black travelers also experienced a loss of social and economic status upon returning to the United States, especially during the Great Depression.

During the 1930s Black America's romance with the Soviet Union began to cool. In the United States, the New Deal was beginning to improve the economic environment. At the same time, Matusevich explained, the Soviet Union ceased being a revolutionary state, and became a nation state. In 1935 the Soviets supplied Italy as it invaded Ethiopia. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany further dismayed blacks who well understood Nazi racism. Soviet ideas for establishing a black republic within the United States similar to its own ethnic republics seemed little different than Jim Crow laws. Finally, noted Matusevich, according to memoirs from the time, Soviet purges began to scare many of the black travelers.

Following World War II, the Soviets began recruiting Africans, providing them with educational scholarships to study in the Soviet Union. The relationship with African Americans lost the intensity of the earlier pre-war years. According to Matusevich, the Soviets developed a patronizing view of all blacks as "wards of the state." And some Russians began to feel resentment towards blacks, feeling that they owed Russians a debt for investments placed in them. Even some representatives of the liberal intelligentsia harbored negative feelings towards blacks, feeling that they were creatures of the Soviet regime and untrustworthy. In general, post-war Russian society became more xenophobic toward all minorities, Matusevich added.

The civil rights movement in the United States presented a further conundrum for the Soviets. They paid lip service towards the ideals of equality, Matusevich said, but much about the movement was antithetical to Soviet leaders, such as the leadership of the religious Rev. Martin Luther King and the excesses of the counter culture of the day. Matusevich contended that the Soviets also were wary of African liberation theories because they were subversive against the status quo, and by then the Soviet system was a status quo power.

Despite the cooled romance, Matusevich said, a residual warmness toward Russia exists in the American black community.

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Speaker

Maxim Matusevich

Assistant Professor of World History, Seton Hall University; Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University
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Hosted By

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 understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange.  Read more

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