An African-American Worker in Stalin's Soviet Union: Race and the Soviet Experiment in International Perspective

Article excerpt

ROBERT NATHANIEL ROBINSON was a twenty-three-year-old toolmaker in Detroit when he decided, like many thousands of Americans and Europeans in the early 1930s, to take a job in the booming industries of the Soviet Union. A Jamaican-born immigrant, Robinson was a reserved and unassuming man with little interest in politics. Yet within a short time after his arrival in Russia, he achieved unintended fame, becoming one of the best-known Americans residing in Russia, a cause celebre for the Soviets and an object of both condemnation and admiration in the United States. For the Soviet regime he became a symbol of racial oppression under capitalism and of communism's promise of racial equality. For some black Americans, Robinson's experiences were proof that the Soviet Union was living up to its progressive ideals, at least as a haven free of racial prejudice. For many white Americans, Robinson represented one of their greatest fears: Communist exploitation of racial grievances to produce mass discontent among American blacks.

At the end of the 1920s, the Soviet Union embarked on a propaganda offensive to convince the world of the superiority of the Communist system. Stalin's regime launched a campaign to attract visitors, who were given access to select showcases of socialist achievement and pampered with banquets, receptions, and publicity. (2) At the same time, the adoption of a program of rapid industrialization required importing large amounts of foreign machinery and technical expertise. Thousands of engineers and skilled workers from Europe and America went to the Soviet Union to help build the new industrial enterprises and to train a new generation of Soviet technicians. (3)

Robert Robinson was caught up in these related currents. He was a skilled worker hired by the Soviet government for economic reasons, but he also became a showpiece in the Soviet campaign to bolster its legitimacy, both internationally and domestically. Robinson was working for Ford Motor Company in Detroit in 1930, the only black toolmaker out of 700 in his department, when he was offered a job by Soviet recruiters who had come to the United States to hire technical workers for a tractor factory at Stalingrad. He accepted the offer because of the racist hostility of his white coworkers at Ford, the prospect of a higher salary, and fear that he would be laid off at Ford as a result of the Depression. (4)

Shortly after his arrival in Stalingrad, Robinson was assaulted and beaten by two white Americans in a racially motivated attack. The Soviet press used the incident to demonstrate the depravity of "American capitalist morality" and to highlight the "solidarity of workers of all nations and races" that prevailed in the Soviet Union. Newspapers in the United States and Europe also picked up the story, giving Robinson a measure of celebrity. The Soviet trial of his attackers probably inspired a similar trial in the United States in 1931, when the American Communist Party staged a public "trial" of a Finnish Communist in Harlem for failing to treat blacks at a dance with due courtesy. (5) In late 1934 and early 1935, the spotlight again focused on Robinson, when he was elected to a high-profile post on the Moscow Soviet (City Council) and shortly thereafter received an award from the Soviet government for technical achievements. The Soviet press gave prominent attention to these events, but the attention spawned negative consequences for Robinson in the United States. The government labeled him a communist subversive; Time magazine condemned him as a dupe of the Soviets; a Minnesota Congressman introduced a bill to prevent U.S. citizens from accepting such awards from foreign governments; and the State Department began to create difficulties with his passport that forced him to renounce his U.S. citizenship. (6)

For the most part, scholars have directed their attention to the intellectuals of both races, from Langston Hughes to Lincoln Steffens, who visited the Soviet Union. …