The temptation of a simple story

In light of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, Africans again grapple with the histories of Soviet—and then Russian—connections.

The mosaic in the Africa Institute in Moscow © Hilary Lynd.

African memories of the Soviet Union are ambivalent. For the last century, Africans have grappled with two seemingly irreconcilable impressions. In one view, the Soviet Union rejected the racist and imperialist ways of the West, lending its strength to struggles for national and racial liberation. According to a different perspective, the Soviet Union was just another arrogant white power and Russians were no less likely to treat Black Africans with paternalism, prejudice, or violence than Americans or Western Europeans. Irreconcilable though they may be, neither impression is incorrect.

The most common strategy to solve this puzzle has been to separate a colorblind Soviet state from a racist Slavic public. In an article in Slavic Review, Thom Loyd and I recently proposed a different way of understanding histories of color in the Soviet Union. State policies and popular understandings shaped each other, and both shifted again and again throughout the Soviet Union’s existence. A closer look at the many institutions of Soviet officialdom shows that, whatever the formal primacy of class, color mattered. How? The answer changed over time, as Black people went from junior comrades in struggle to objects of contempt.

When it came to the racialization of dark-skinned people as Black, the Soviet Union was neither identical to the West nor isolated from it. Soviet ideas about Blackness drew on an unstable array of internal and external sources. Soviet interlocutors with the Black diaspora learned from their great power peers and from multiple generations of Black radicals who entered their orbit. Marxist-Leninist thought injected a dose of class analysis into Soviet thinking about race, though far less consistently and coherently than often assumed. Ideas about Blackness drew on the Soviet Union’s practices for managing its own remarkable heterogeneity, especially in Central Asia. Soviet nationalities policy provided foundational assumptions about how groups should be defined and where they fit on developmental timelines.

Soviet thinkers and policymakers particularly struggled to come to terms with the diaspora. On one hand, social scientists could come up with no satisfactorily Marxist explanation for shared identity among Africans and their descendants in the Atlantic World. On the other, the Soviets consistently homogenized Black people and took for granted racial solidarity across the diaspora. Caught between assuming and denying the potency of racial identity, Soviet thinking vacillated throughout the 20th century.

We think of Soviet engagement with the African diaspora in terms of three main eras: First, the revolutionary period of the 1920s and 1930s. In this era, the Moscow-based Communist International (Comintern) focused on Black America, with Africa very much an afterthought. The Comintern took its cues from contemporary pan-Africanists in assuming that Black Americans would act as a vanguard leading their supposedly less advanced African brothers towards revolution.

When Black radicals visited the Soviet Union, they and their hosts shared an impulse to make Blackness legible by finding Soviet analogues. Black Americans, such as the poet Langston Hughes, came to Central Asia looking for honorary Blacks to identify with. For Hughes, Soviet Turkmenistan was a “colored land moving into orbits hitherto reserved for whites.”

Soviet officials constantly worried about color consciousness as a counter-revolutionary force among Black people. Amongst themselves, however, it seemed perfectly natural to associate Blackness with the categories Eastern, Native, oppressed, backward, colonized. Unlike white comrades, Black members of the US Communist Party, such as Harry Haywood, could attend the Communist University of the Toilers of the East along with classmates from China, Chechnya, and Kenya.

The second era was the decolonization period of the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. Echoing shifts in pan-African organizing, the Soviet Union began to treat anticolonial struggles on the African continent as the most important front in the battle against racism and imperialism. While the Soviet press continued to condemn US racism, Soviet connections with Black Americans dwindled by the 1960s in comparison with the enormous expansion of ties with postcolonial African countries. In this era, Africa was the focus, and development was the goal.

With the participation of both foreigners and locals, Soviet leaders learned to present Soviet Central Asia as a model for postcolonial development. For example, future poet laureate of South Africa Keorapetse Kgositsile experienced Uzbekistan as a portal into a post-apartheid future:

Tashkent, Samarkand, Soviet Asia
Monument of the Past
And beacon of tomorrow.

In the official Soviet imagination, Central Asians replaced Black Americans as revolutionary tutors for their honorary African brothers.

Thousands of African students came to universities and institutes across the Soviet Union beginning in the late 1950s. We pay attention to how they engaged the authorities and each other in defining the boundaries of Blackness in Soviet spaces. Who counted as Black and who counted as African? What solidarities could be trusted? Incidents of anti-Black violence, and protests that followed, sharpened the urgency of these questions.

Soviet institutions often made two contradictory assumptions about what Africanness meant: Africans should be particularly inclined towards revolution because they were particularly oppressed; African students—particularly men, who vastly outnumbered women—were inclined to disorder and khuliganstvo, hooliganism. Both assumptions contributed to paternalist habits, as Soviet authorities imagined themselves schooling the revolutionary passions and disciplining the excesses of African pupils.

The third era was the period of disillusion from the mid-1960s–1990s. In this era, the projects of socialism and postcolonial development decayed alongside one another. Soviet ideas about groups drifted towards fixed essences and static hierarchies. Faced with the disappointments of postcolonial Africa, it became standard for Soviet observers to blame Africanness or Blackness as the root of dysfunction.

Through the late socialist period, and even more so in the late 1980s, the analogy linking Africa and Central Asia turned sour. As Slavs identified more consistently as white, they grouped together Africans and Central Asians as chernyi (black), civilizationally distinct and inferior. For both Africans and Central Asians, the turbulent reform years of glasnost and perestroika brought a terrible uptick in prejudice and street violence.

As the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, popular and official ideas about Blackness tilted towards undifferentiated contempt. It did not matter much anymore how the diaspora was related to the continent if the default assumption was that all Black people were lazy, dim-witted, and prone to violence.

Analogy took a surprising new direction. An editorial in Pravda from October 1991 asked, “Is it not ourselves we see in the African mirror?” Attempting to make sense of the wreckage of post-Soviet Russia, Russians sometimes likened their new surroundings to what many of them had assumed Africa to be: impoverished, dysfunctional, and generally wretched.

Contested histories recur in the public consciousness, as the shifting circumstances of the present add new pressures to remember in a particular way. In light of Putin’s war in Ukraine, Africans are once again grappling with the histories of Soviet—and then Russian—connections to the continent. This contemporary debate restates an old and familiar disagreement.

As one narrative would have it, Russia has been a consistent friend to Africa, a staunch champion of alternatives to the Western-dominated international order. Of course, the Russian government has worked to develop and disseminate this narrative, for example, by sending Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on recent visits to several African countries. But African supporters of this view can be found in many places, from Guinea-Bissau to Cameroon to South Africa. Not all of them are old enough to have spent time in the Soviet Union. A collective memory of solidarity is available to young people, too.

In a different interpretation, Russia is just another external power participating in the latest iteration of a scramble for Africa. Rather than seeking friendship, the Russian government is desperate to gain access to resources and to win diplomatic support in a hostile international environment. Many Africans fear traveling to Russia, knowing its reputation as one of the most virulently anti-Black societies on earth. Solidarity rhetoric, in this view, offers cynical cover for an ongoing failure to treat Africans (and their governments) with the necessary respect.

It may be tempting to settle on a simple story. But the history of Blackness and Africanness in the Soviet Union is decidedly mixed.

Further Reading