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The Enduring Russian Propaganda Interests in Targeting African-Americans

In the spring of 2010, I taught a college course on the watershed moments in the American struggle for racial equality, from Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that enshrined segregation, to the election of the nation’s first black President, a hundred and twelve years later. Called African American History from Plessy to Obama, it was similar to a number of courses taught on campuses across the country that had spun off from the historic 2008 election. The one distinction lay in the fact that I was not teaching it in the United States; I offered it to students at Moscow State University, as part of a Fulbright fellowship in Russia.

I was immediately impressed by the students’ baseline knowledge of black history. They knew about the brutally repressive aftermath of Reconstruction; they were conversant in the social and economic forces that inspired the Great Migration; and they could speak to the history of black exclusion from labor unions in the first half of the twentieth century. One student noted that Russia abolished serfdom in 1861, the same year that the war which ended slavery in the United States began. They were easily more knowledgeable on these matters than were most white students and many black students I had encountered at American colleges. Their erudition was not entirely surprising, however. It was a testament to a typically neglected aspect of the long, complicated history between the United States and Russia: the latter’s enduring interest in matters relating to African-Americans.

During the Cold War, Soviet school curricula highlighted the exploitation of black people as a prime example of both American hypocrisy and of the rapacious nature of the capitalist system. During the Great Depression, African-Americans were invited to live and work in the Soviet Union, as a means of escaping the privations of Jim Crow. A few hundred accepted the offer, and some of their descendants still live in Russia. Yelena Khanga, a black Russian television personality and a granddaughter of one of the black “sojourners,” an agronomist from Mississippi named Oliver Golden, noted in a memoir that the Soviets, while legitimately interested in the knowledge of these African-Americans (they were skilled workers and professionals), were not unaware of the value of appearing to upstage the United States on matters of race. In 1932, the Soviets invited a group of black American artists, including the poet Langston Hughes, to Russia to make a (never-completed) film about American racism called “Black and White.” Communist publications in the United States hired black writers and advocated for racial equality. Many, if not most, of the black civil-rights leadership of that era had at least glancing contact with the Communist Party of the United States. In the Soviet Union, the relationship was, however, as vexed as any other between an exploited community and the state. In 1937, when Lovett Fort-Whiteman, one of the first black recruits to the American Communist Party, ran afoul of the party bureaucracy in the U.S.S.R, where he had been living, he was arrested and was eventually sent to the gulag, where, two years later, he died from malnutrition. The novelist Richard Wright, who was closely aligned with the American Communist Party early in his career, rejected it bitterly during the Second World War, convinced that it was merely using black people to its own ends. Yet so intertwined were Communist and Soviet interests in matters of racial discrimination in the United States that the subject has spawned an entire subfield of African-American and Cold War history. ...

Read entire article at The New Yorker