Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise

Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise

Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise

Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise

Synopsis

One of the most compelling, yet little known stories of race relations in the twentieth century is the account of blacks who chose to leave the United States to be involved in the Soviet Experiment in the 1920s and 1930s. Frustrated by the limitations imposed by racism in their home country, African Americans were lured by the promise of opportunity abroad. A number of them settled there, raised families, and became integrated into society. The Soviet economy likewise reaped enormous benefits from the talent and expertise that these individuals brought, and the all around success story became a platform for political leaders to boast their party goals of creating a society where all members were equal.
In Blacks, Reds, and Russians, Joy Gleason Carew offers insight into the political strategies that often underlie relationships between different peoples and countries. She draws on the autobiographies of key sojourners, including Harry Haywood and Robert Robinson, in addition to the writings of Claude McKay, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes. Interviews with the descendents of figures such as Paul Robeson and Oliver Golden offer rare personal insights into the story of a group of emigrants who, confronted by the daunting challenges of making a life for themselves in a racist United States, found unprecedented opportunities in communist Russia.

Excerpt

As I have gone about the research for this book, I have been struck by the close parallels of my and my relatives’ experiences in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s with the experiences of the early black sojourners, who went in the 1920s and 1930s. Although I crossed paths with only a few of their descendants or those who knew them, I later found that I had spent time in many of the same places and experienced some of the same reactions. These experiences were sometimes perplexing, sometimes frustrating, but were more often an intriguing surprise. Yet, when I returned to the country, now known as Russia, twenty-five years later, I found myself wrestling with two impulses. I was excited at the prospect of returning to familiar regions and seeing new ones. At the same time, I felt some trepidation about what I had read about the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its command economy. It worried me to see an increasing number of stories about social and economic strife, not to speak of the rise in xenophobia and racism. Would the new market-driven Russia be as hospitable? I could not help but think about Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and the Grand Inquisitor, who kept asking whether human beings could handle the pressures and responsibilities of free will: “You made man decide about good and evil for himself, with no guidance than Your example. But did it not occur to you that man would disregard Your example, even question it[,] … when he was subjected to so fearful a burden as freedom of choice?”

During the 2004 trip, I crossed the wide expanse of European Russia from Moscow to the Urals by train and spent time in Perm, one of the formerly closed cities. Few realize that these cities were closed not only to foreigners but also to people within the Soviet Union, as they were strategic sites for the Soviet military. This unusual entrée allowed me to sample the effects of the now-decentralized post-Soviet Russia through the present-day life of provincial people. In former times, these cities would have been on the periphery of social change, and contact with the West would have been narrowly filtered through . . .

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