A Black worker in Soviet Union

While much of the world faced depression, in the early 1930s the Soviet Union was booming. Stalin’s industrialisation programme was under way and to facilitate this, skilled foreign workers were brought into the country.  Among them was Robert Robinson (1907–1994) , a Jamaican-born Ford employee from Detroit. His experiences are detailed by Barbara Keys in “An African-American Worker in Stalin’s Soviet Union” (The Historian, vol71, no 1, Wiley-Blackwell).For some black Americans such as Robinson, the USSR was a land of promise. Whereas at home blacks suffered institutional racism, in the Soviet Union racial discrimination was discouraged by the authorities. Although there were racists in the USSR, a recent historian writes that state anti-racist rhetoric “did in fact, penetrate the fabric of Soviet society”. Where racism did occur, it was frequently instigated by the foreign workers, as was the case with an assault on Robinson.

Robert Robinson at work

His arrival at the Stalingrad tractor factory in July 1930 met with hostility from the hundreds of other American workers there, none of whom were black. One employee complained: “There is a colored fellow in our crowd who just came in. Whoever had a nerve to hire him and send him here had very little brains for you can imagine what a life he will live over here being the only one.” Sure enough, on 24th July, Robinson was set upon by two white attackers who both punched him.

In the Soviet Union the attack became a cause célèbre, highlightning the difference between what was perceived as the “racist pathologies of the United States” and the “brotherly” relations that apparently existed in the USSR. The Soviet press covered the story extensively. Trud bewailed a “barbarous anti-Proleterian act” and declared “the USSR is the fatherland of black, yellow and white races.” In the subsequent trial the assailants both received jail sentences. Although these were commuted, one attacker was banished from the “workers paradise” (the USSR) for ten years.

American and Canadian workers arrived in Soviet Union

Race was powerful propaganda weapon for the Soviet Union to use against the United States, where it sparked fears of a red-black alliance. It is certainly true that many black Americans admired the equality preached by the USSR but in fact relatively few became committed communists. The communist cause was probably not helped by the Soviet Union’s unpopular proposal for a “Negro Soviet Republic” in the American South but it was also hampered by the lack of sympathy for the ideology among black Americans. What they hoped for was equal rights, not Marxist revolution.

The meeting at the Soviet factory, photo by Margaret Bourke-White, the first American photographer in USSR

Robert Robinson was a case in point. Despite having no obvious communist leanings, he became a celebrity in the Soviet Union thanks to the assault on him. He was elected to the Moscow Soviet and won a government award for technical achievement. Such accolades did him more harm than good. he became deeply unpopular with elements of the American press and was viewed with suspicion by the US authorities.

The boy at work

In the end he was forced to renounce his US citizenship and compelled to stay in the Soviet Union far longer than he had intended, only being able to return home, via Uganda, in 1973.  Robert Robinson wrote a memoire book “Black On Red: My 44 Years Inside The Soviet Union”, where you can read his story and experiences of living in Soviet Union and his return to USA.