Arts & Culture

Africans, ‘Africanness,’ and the Soviets

5 min read

Maxim Matusevich on the ‘Exotic Subversive’ at the Barker Center

It’s no secret that a century and a half after the Civil War, the United States still struggles to come to terms with the legacy of African slavery.

Much less well known in this country is the fact that the Soviet Union, the ideological rival to the United States for much of the 20th century, had its own complicated involvement with Africa, African Americans, and the idea of “Africanness.”

Maxim Matusevich, assistant professor of world history at Seton Hall University and a native of St. Petersburg, laid out an overview of the Soviet-African connection at the Barker Center on Nov. 7 in a lecture titled “An Exotic Subversive: Africa, Africans, and ‘Africanness’ in Soviet Popular Culture and Imagination.” The “peoples of the East” in general, and more specifically, Africans, played a “special role” in the formulation of an early Soviet identity, Matusevich explained.

“That identity, of course, stemmed from the Marxist-Leninist vision of the world predicated on class struggle and class solidarity. Having assumed power in 1917 and established the first socialist state in history, the Bolsheviks quickly positioned themselves as the natural allies of those oppressed by international capitalism.

“One didn’t have to be a Bolshevik,” Matusevich posited, “to recognize that across the capitalist world nonwhite people (whether in the colonies or in the diaspora) consistently represented the most exploited and the most discriminated-against segments of the population. For the Bolsheviks then to embrace the peoples of color wherever they might be was not a leap of faith but the logical extension of their most intrinsic beliefs.”

At its noblest, Matusevich said, this involvement included welcoming African-American visitors who came to the Soviet Union in the first decades after the Bolshevik Revolution. The Russians’ apparently genuine embrace of these black communists and intellectuals was considered a stinging rebuke to the racism and oppression the United States was then visiting upon its black sons and daughters.

Less laudably, the Soviets often fell into the trap of racism themselves. They failed to distinguish intelligently among all the oppressed peoples they were committed to helping achieve “liberation.” In their popular culture they indulged in cartoonish stereotyping of “wonderful, lovable Africans,” whom they tended to infantilize.

Over the trajectory of Soviet history, Russians went from broad-mindedness to xenophobia, from a desire to “take care of” Africans to suspicion of them as symbols of dissidence and even harbingers of the incipient collapse of the state. By the 1960s, Matusevich pointed out, the young Africans brought to the Soviet Union to study were proving to be agents of cultural change: They would return from their summer breaks in Western Europe with recordings of jazz and rock ’n’ roll and other expressions of decadence.

Matusevich highlighted the experience of Claude McKay, a Jamaican-born poet and novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, a communist, and one of the first of several dozen “race travelers” to the “Red Mecca” of the Soviet Union in its early days.

In a 1922 visit there on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution — what he called his “magic pilgrimage to Russia” — McKay had the opportunity to speak in the Throne Room of the Kremlin. For the first time in his 32 years, McKay found his dark skin “an asset” and felt himself welcomed as a poet.

This acceptance came not just from communists, ideologically predisposed to embrace Africans and African Americans as their brethren in “the struggle.”

“Again and again McKay presents the colorblind internationalism displayed by his Russian hosts as a national, not ideological, trait,” Matusevich said. “The Bolsheviks, he declares, ‘had nothing at all to do with it.’” Those of the former propertied classes shared the leftists’ broad-mindedness.

It is not quite clear why this should be so, Matusevich noted. But he pointed out that Russian high culture had included several individuals of African or African-American heritages who had achieved status, including most notably the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, said to have possessed “as much Negro blood as Booker T. Washington.”

At the level of pop culture — some would even call it propaganda — Matusevich cited the 1936 Soviet film “Circus,” from which he showed an excerpt. The story line involves a young circus performer disgraced in the United States because of her mixed-race child, the result of her love affair with a black man. She flees to the Soviet Union, where she finds acceptance and new love in the form of a Russian acrobat.

But her capitalist agent, who is in love with her and wants her for himself, tries to blackmail her over the child. In a climactic scene, he denounces her for her black son in front of the entire circus audience. The woman flees in fear. But the response of the audience is: She has a black child? So what? When the agent tries to seize the child, people in the audience snatch the boy away from him. As the man pursues him up into the stands, the audience pass the boy hand to hand out of reach of the villain. Their (literal) embrace of the lad is another victory for Soviet color blindness over capitalist depravity.

Matusevich is in residence this fall as a Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.