eastern europe: the black man`s safe haven?



eastern europe: the black man`s safe haven?
FEBRUARY 14 - 20, 2013 THE VOICE 29
A fascinating upcoming documentary examines
how the former Soviet Union provided refuge to
black Americans in the 1920s and ‘30s
OU only have to
think back to last
furore to conjure
up the opinion
that racism is rife in Eastern
In fact, former footballer Sol
Campbell was so outraged that
Euro 2012 was to be hosted in
Poland and Ukraine – countries
where black players had previously been taunted with monkey noises – that he warned
black British football fans not to
attend the tournament, insisting
“you could end up coming back
in a coffin”.
Stories of this nature have
done little to paint Eastern
Europe as a region where foreigners are embraced with
open arms. And yet, in the early
20th Century, the former Soviet
Union provided a safe haven for
many black Americans who
migrated there to escape
racism and segregation in their
Black Russians – The Red
Experience seeks to examine
this little-known chapter of history. While it is well-documented
that famous black Americans
like singer Paul Robeson and
poet Langston Hughes were
drawn to Russia during their
careers, this insightful documentary in the making from
Russian-born, New York-based
filmmaker Yelena Demikovsky
and will explore the lives and
experiences of ordinary black
Americans who went to the
Soviet Union during the Stalinist
era, in search of a better life.
Demikovsky explains what
inspired her to tell this tale.
“I grew up in the former
Soviet Union and some of my
favourite films I remember from
my childhood were Circus,
Fifteen Year Old Captain and
Tom Sawyer,” she explains.
“These were Soviet films
made in the 1930s and 40s and
they featured black actors.
“By 1998, I was living in the
USA and I came across a book
called Russia and the Negro by
Allison Blakely, a black
American academic. The book
fascinated me. In it, there was a
chapter about the black
Americans who had gone to the
NATIONALISM: Racism is sadly growing amongst some Russians today
WELCOMED: Singer Paul Robeson championed the cultural and political revolutions of the Soviet Union
Soviet Union during the Stalinist
era. It was a story very few people knew anything about outside academic circles and I
wanted to know more.”
She continues: “I began to
look for more and more about
these black Americans who had
left the USA with its Jim Crow
segregation laws, seeking a
new life in Stalin’s Soviet Union.
I wanted to know what dreams
had driven them and whether
they had fulfilled them. After all,
history tells us that Stalin’s
USSR was no dreamland, but
maybe it was for black
Indeed, it was. Following the
Second World War, the Soviet
Union, under the control of
Joseph Stalin, sought to
become one of the world’s
leading economies. As such,
they recruited thousands of
Americans – black and white –
to help them build their nation.
And with racism rife in the US at
the time, many black Americans
felt they had nothing to lose by
heading to Europe.
“When black Americans went
to the Soviet Union, they were
so welcomed that they could
not believe it,” Demikovsky
explains. “They were getting
jobs right away and could share
the knowledge they brought
with them. They were getting
paid well – much better than
any Russian – and given places
to live and build their families.
“Before that, there were no
black people in the Soviet
Union, so when they arrived,
they looked different; exotic for
the Russians. Russian women
were attracted to the black men
and some black Americans
married Russian women and
lived lives they’d never imagined they would live.”
in Moscow now, are reasonably
well-off and are also well-known
in Russia. Those families don’t
experience much racism, but
they are aware of it. For example, Wayland Rudd Jr., a singer
and well-known personality in
Russia, was beaten up by skinheads a few years ago. They
claim it doesn’t happen that
often now, but he still makes
sure his 16-year-old son always
calls him and reports where and
how he is.
Also at the helm of this project is US director and producer
Sam Pollard, who came on
board as one of the documentary’s producers.
The award-winning director,
who has worked extensively
with Spike Lee on films including Mo’ Better Blues and Jungle
Russians – The Red Experience
as an “eye opener”.
“This is a film that I think will
be a window into a little known
chapter in world history, when a
group of African-Americans
journeyed to the Soviet Union in
the 1920s and the ‘30s looking
for an ideal life,” Pollard says.
“It’s a story that will truly be an
eye opener to those of us in the
United States who know so little
about anything outside our sheltered cocoon of a life. This is a
vitally important slice of history.”
Aiming to complete the project
later this year, Demikovsky reveals
her hopes for the documentary.
“A high priority for us is to offer
it to the BBC or one of the other
major broadcasters in the UK so
British audiences can see it.
Much of the material in the film is
of archival importance and
young people should know and
be taught about these stories.
“Although there is a kind of
academic feel to this documen-
One black American who
responded to the dream of living a life free of segregation
was Oliver Golden. The grandfather of Yelena Khanga, who is
a well known black TV personality in Russia today Golden - an
agriculture specialist - was married to a white woman, but in
America, the couple were not
permitted to show up together
in public. In the Soviet Union,
however, the couple found freedom.
“In the USA, Oliver Golden
and his wife could not take a
bus together or go to the theatre
together. And there it was, the
dream – the Soviet Union; a
new country, built by the workers and farmers. It promised
you a new life, it told you that
everybody was equal, and that
oppressed peoples were welcomed.
“The posters at the time
showed blacks and whites holding hands together and breaking chains of capitalism. Oliver
responded to that dream.”
Does Demikovsky think audiences will be shocked to learn
that Russia was once an apparently accepting nation; given
the reputation the region now
has for being intolerant of black
“I think this will be a big shock
– and a timely one – for most
audiences in Britain and the
USA. They will be amazed
learning how some black people once found refuge in the
Soviet Union, especially as we
are all so well aware of the
growing racism in the former
Soviet Union countries today.
“Audiences will also be surprised to learn that three or four
families, descendants of these
1920s immigrants, who still live
FOLLOWING A DREAM: Wayland Rudd Sr (left) moved from the US to
Russia in the early 1900s and his son Wayland Jr (right) still resides in
Russia today
FAMOUS: Yelena Khanga is a well-known Russian TV personality
STORYTELLERS: Director Yelena Demikovsky and producer Sam Pollard
are bringing the documentary to life
tary, it’s also a real human interest story that I hope will reach
out to a much wider audience.
This is about people holding
fast to their dreams and doing
everything they can to live them.
That's something we can all
relate to.”
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