Comparing Contexts and Priorities: Transnational Exchanges and International Solidarity

Attendees at a meeting held at a Moscow tire factory in 1970 denouncing racism and supporting American Communist Angela Davis
Attendees at a meeting held at a Moscow tire factory in 1970 denouncing racism and supporting American Communist Angela Davis raise a sign reading “Free Angela Davis!”

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The absence of a developed discourse on race in Russia is often linked to the belief that race as a category did not have a chance to develop there because it was superseded by other terms and concepts. For example, during the late imperial period, the so-called “Yellow Question” was articulated in Russia mostly through the language of nationality and ethnicity. However, to avoid analyzing race in Russia altogether – despite the limited explicit usage of racial and racialized terminology– means ignoring a more complex reality. 

By asking how and when race and racialization emerged in Russia, we can dissect contexts in which race and racial language have been mobilized – sometimes only implicitly, but sometimes very directly. Transnational exchanges constituted a field where race and racialization were spotlighted in an unusually prominent way. 

Allison Blakely reminds us in his article from 1993 that US history significantly shaped Russian reformist thought. For example, Frédéric-César de La Harpe, a Swiss political leader and scholar who taught and advised Alexander I, warned the Russian tsar in 1801 against implementing reforms to the Russian civil code similar to the Black Codes of the American South (Blakely 1993, 459). 

In the late eighteenth century, many onlookers in the Russian Empire spoke of Indigenous peoples in America as the “true Americans” (in comparison with the colonists) and called for the abolishment of slavery in the United States. As Blakely points out, debates on racial oppression in the United States often operated as a useful code that helped intellectuals evade censorship when discussing oppression within Russia. Discussions of race elsewhere enabled Russian society to reflect on itself. 

In his Cold War-era article from 1962, Richard F. Rosser explores a different form of transnational exchange, documenting the Soviet Union’s vocal condemnation of racism from the podium of the United Nations. In Rosser’s view, racial discrimination was “probably the most emotional, the most ill-defined, and the least openly acknowledged issue dividing the West and the underdeveloped countries in the U.N.” (Rosser 1962, 25). The USSR’s role at this international forum was bolstered by a fully developed theory of racial discrimination that could be mobilized globally. 

Soviet theorists linked race to global systems of colonialism and imperialism that benefited the “West.” This approach helped to affirm the solidarity of the Soviets with oppressed people around the world; it also offered a language for describing oppression. Certainly, such discursive products were not always successful, but they made important ideological points. For example, at the UN General Assembly in 1948, Soviet delegates suggested adding a statement to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide linking Nazism to other imperialist ideologies that propagated racial superiority and national hatred (Rosser 1962, 31).  

David Morison’s article from 1963 focuses on the role of African Studies in the USSR. Central to the development of Soviet African Studies was the evaluation of African socialism and African nationalism. Here, Soviet Africanists critiqued race together with nationalism. For instance, Ivan Potekhin, the first Director of the African Institute (housed within the Soviet Academy of Sciences), believed that pan-Africanism could provoke the rise of extreme nationalism, which might be used “to set the black and white races in opposition” (Morison 1963, 313). Significantly, the perception of Black and White races was non-singular and resembled the Soviet conception of ethnicity, with its multitude of national categories. Potekhin also criticized the Négritude movement and its theories because they appeared to be racially exclusive. Nationalism and the polarization of races were viewed as impediments to socialist solidarity.  

Such positions made it clear that the Soviets did not truly utilize a unified conception of race. If in the United States race obfuscated the nuances of ethnicity in order to compress many disparate groups into a smaller set of categories, then in the Soviet Union, the concept of race retained its orientation towards plurality, similar to nationality and ethnicity.   

The article by Katerina Clark from 2016 looks at transnational exchanges within the field of literature. Clark analyzes Richard Wright’s novels, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) and Native Son (1940), which appeared in Russian translation only a year after their initial publication as well as Boris Pilniak’s O.K: An American Novel, which was very quickly translated into English (1933).

In her examination of these texts, Clark reminds us that the Comintern, while preoccupied with the state of African Americans, primarily framed its interests in terms of class: the struggle of African Americans for equal rights was seen as a struggle not against white supremacy but against colonial oppression. As a result, the everyday racism that Black workers encountered among their white working-class counterparts was bracketed off, and African Americans were portrayed as a colonially oppressed people, subsumed under the umbrella category of “the East.” 

“The East” included other colonized peoples as well, especially those of the Indian subcontinent in their struggle against British imperial rule.  The expansive category of “the East” (and “Eastern” peoples) was central to Soviet representations of colonial oppression.

This set of articles allows us to see that transnational exchanges are beneficial for critiquing society but also fraught with misunderstandings. These misunderstandings point to the collision of idealized class solidarities and actual racial fissures. But they also highlight the fact that race is always an element in context-specific webs of significance.