U of L professor chronicles experiences of African Americans who immigrated to Russia
2/8/2009 Louisville Courier-Journal
Post-Soviet Russia today is often thought of as a corrupt oligarchy that dominates neighboring republics through economic and military means.
But in the early 20th century, some considered Russia an egalitarian paradise, its Bolshevik Revolution a beacon of hope for the world's downtrodden -- including some African-Americans.
Hundreds of black professionals frustrated by racism in the United States -- farmers, engineers, teachers, artists and intellectuals -- rushed to this new land of socialist opportunity between the 1920s and 1940s, seeking the respect and freedom denied them in the land of their birth.
They're the subject of "Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise" (Rutgers University Press, 2008), a new book by Joy Carew, an associate professor of pan-African studies at the University of Louisville.
Carew, a teacher of the Russian language who has led several tours to the country, said that Vladimir Lenin, the victorious revolutionary intent on transforming the society after centuries of Czarist rule, was suspicious of old-guard bourgeois specialists and sought help elsewhere.
"The model under Lenin of the Soviet experiment was very hopeful," Carew said in an interview. "People wanted to believe they were participating in constructing something new, and (had) no reason to believe this wasn't the case."
American blacks with technical and professional skills -- and sympathies for the Soviet experiment -- were actively recruited to emigrate, Carew said.
And as she notes in her book: "The black specialists could serve as bridges between the country's non-Russian people of color and the plans of a modernizing Soviet state. Ultimately, the majority of the black sojourners of the 1920s and 1930s returned to the United States shortly after their study or contract periods. ‚Ä¶ But a smaller group decided to remain, as the prospects of life under the Soviet experiment seemed far brighter than the certainty of returning to the Great Depression and a life under the crippling 'Jim Crow' in the United States."
Some well-known black leaders were involved, including scientist George Washington Carver, who helped organize an early team of agricultural experts; writer Langston Hughes, who traveled extensively in the country by train and wrote lengthy reports on life there; W.E.B. DuBois, America's leading black intellectual at the time; and Paul Robeson, the world-renowned actor, concert performer and political activist.
But as the Soviet Union and the United States became geopolitical adversaries in the 1950s, any such association with a communist government or political party invited career-ending public ostracism, if not imprisonment for treason.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed many blacks to testify, including the defiant Robeson, whose passport was revoked.
And although DuBois is known for his groundbreaking study, "The Souls of Black Folk," he's also often criticized for sugarcoating the Soviet despotism that presaged the bloody reign of Joseph Stalin.
"When you get to the 1950s, they believed that under Nikita Khrushchev there was an opportunity to return to that earlier society, that egalitarian time that appreciated the talents of everyone," Carew said.
"There was a kind of pragmatism; you had the Stalinist years, but at the same time you had no perfect models out there. Certainly with Jim Crow and lynching going in America and the colonial behavior of the European nations, you had no saints out there. Soviet support of the anti-colonial movement, that was a big part of it. This made the alliance with the Soviets more important."
Many African-American professionals of the era settled permanently in Russia, marrying Russian citizens, raising families and assimilating into Russian society.
"Blacks, Reds, and Russians" is grounded in primary source material and interviews with descendants, but tells this compelling race-relations saga as well from Carew's first-hand experience.
She began studying Russian language and culture while attending The Putney School in southern Vermont in 1960, received her bachelor's and master's degrees in the language from Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and first visited the Soviet Union as a college student in 1967.
In 1979, she returned with her husband, Jan Carew, the noted author and leading Caribbean intellectual who in the 1950s had studied in Czechoslovakia. He was invited to Russia by the Soviet Writers' Union and his first novel, "Black Midas," was translated into Russian.
Her parents, Maurice and Eliza Gleason, had visited Russia in 1957 and had left a detailed log of stories.
She wrote, "A special feature was that their group would be among the first to visit the Soviet Union in the Nikita Khrushchev era. My father knew Paul Robeson through the fraternity they shared and was well aware of his struggles with the U.S. government over his support of the Soviet Union. He was curious to test Robeson's contention that Soviet relations with blacks were quite different from those between whites and blacks in the United States."
She recounted the later growth of expatriate disappointment with special treatment while average Russian citizens suffered, the constant surveillance by secret police, and suspicions during the Cold War that they were American spies.
But she called hate crimes based on race that occurred in Russia an anomaly caused by the collapse of the Soviet system, and called her personal journey a fascinating adventure.
"I took Russian in school because I wanted to be different," she said. "Then I heard the stories my parents told.
"Taking something on a whim -- that's led to my life's path. It's been an elaborate series of experiences that I've never regretted."