Robert Robinson’s memoir, Black on Red, My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union, is a rich, underutilized source for a great many aspects of life in the Soviet Union. Robinson was a Jamaican-American toolmaker working at the Ford factory in Detroit who came to the Soviet Union in the 20’s to teach and assist Soviet Industry. The quickly changing political landscape of the 1930’s trapped him in the USSR, where he became a Soviet citizen, elected representative of the Moscow Soviet, and a well-respected teacher and engineer for the Lenin State Ball-Bearing Plant No.1 for over 30 years. As an African-American living in the Soviet Union, Robinson’s memoirs give a very interesting account of the experience of interracial relationships in the Soviet Union, both from his own experiences and that of other African-Americans living in the Soviet Union with whom he was acquainted. Robinson identifies similar patterns of interaction within these interracial marriages and relationships that are characterized by an innate Russian hostility towards black foreigners exhibited both by families and the Soviet State (despite its laws).
To characterize these events, it is important to describe Robinson himself. During his time in the Soviet Union, Robinson never married or had a significant relationship of any kind, at least by his own admission. Robinson attributes this his attempts, as a Christian, to “live by the Biblical rule against having pre-marital relations”, and that “in any case”, attempts to form deep, lasting relationships with Russian women would have been “doomed”.1 Fear of entrapment and surveillance marked much of Robinson’s emotional life, to the point where he had suppressed most of his emotions, that he “denied the normal human need for warmth and affection” for the fear of becoming “trapped” in the Soviet Union with a family, and in attempting to leave, “abandon them to an uncertain fate.”2 For Robinson, life in the Soviet Union was a “constant spiritual war”.3
In spite of Robinson’s suspicions and strict self-control, he still recounts several women who “broke through his barriers” and describes the experiences of other African-Americans in the USSR. By Robinson’s account, Russians were racist in a different way than Americans, despite the legally equal status of different races within the Soviet Union. This racial prejudice was often expressed in pressure and hostility directed towards Robinson and his female friends, sometimes overtly in their presence, and sometimes on the women alone. On multiple occasions, female friends of Robinson would call him and abruptly state to him that they could no longer see him. In one example, a Nyura, a daughter of a high level official Robinson befriended while consulting on a film in Odessa, had been corresponding with Robinson. In initial letters she had been interested in meeting him again, for him to meet her daughter, and that she had been telling her family about him. Soon after these friendly letters, Robinson received a letter from her describing that “after carefully thinking over our distinct positions”, Nyura had concluded that “there is absolutely no possibility of my ever becoming your life companion. Therefore, that being so, there is no use to keep up a senseless correspondence.”4 Robinson, in interpreting her words, knew “these were not her true feelings… the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) had gotten to her. Her first letter had not been checked by the censors, but the second one had…. People of her family background did not associate with foreigners.”5 Robinson describes two similar situations with women named Lena and Dalia. Dalia, whom he met in 1947, asked for his phone number. They went out to the opera and then a play the week after, and she asked Robinson to call her at a specific time, whereupon she announced “I want to ask you to please never call me again because we cannot meet anymore”.6 Robinson ran into Dalia again in 1969 and visited with her, and when asked about the 1947 phone call, replied she was forced to do so.7 Lena, a woman Robinson met on a trolley, was enthralled by Robinson (although he was not as enthusiastic about her). After several meetings and dates, Lena was not only questioned at her job about her visits to Robinson, but ultimately exiled from Moscow for three years for “developing a relationship of which the state disapproved.”8
In Robinson’s memoirs are accounts of both successful and unsuccessful interracial marriages in the Soviet Union. The most successful (or uneventful) of these accounts is that of Robert Ross, who came to the Soviet Union from Montana to aid in the organization of its postal system. Ross married a woman who turned out to be an MVD agent, and he only learned this after seven years into the marriage itself.9 Ross however, successfully divorced and remarried, becoming a propagandist and lecturer who gained enough status to purchase and drive a car in the USSR. Ross died of terminal cancer in 1967, and even then his wife of 26 years did not attend the funeral, and had been trying to have him transferred to a hospital so she did not have to care for him. As Robinson puts it, Ross “let himself be used to the fullest.. By his Russian wife of twenty-six years and his Russian friends… When they were done with him, they threw him away like a piece of garbage”10 Other marriages, like that of a mulatto daughter of a pair of American specialists from Tashkent, Linda, was marked by hostility from the husband to be’s family. His family “told him that they would beat him if he tried to bring her to the apartment, and if he stooped so low as to marry her, he would be disowned.”11
In Robinson’s accounts, we can identify two sources of resistance towards interracial marriages in the Soviet Union. The first is the family, ostensibly influenced by Russian cultural attitudes towards African-Americans and a deep-seated sense of Russian superiority. As Robinson notes, even children of mixed-race marriages, native Russian speakers, were rejected by the State and had great difficulty all their lives due to this deep-seated strand of Russian racism. The second was the Soviet State, which, in its normal surveillance of the civilian population, singled out Africans and African-Americans living in the country as particular focuses of continuous surveillance. The State enforced its own doctrine of discouraging Soviet citizens from associating with foreigners, and the women curious and interested in associating with other ethnicities were, at least in Robinson’s accounts, placed in a unique crossfire between two significant Russian institutions, the family and the Soviet State.
- Robinson p. 341
- Ibid. p. 403
- Ibid. p. 405
- Ibid. p. 248
- Ibid. p. 338
- Ibid. p. 336
- Ibid. p. 305
- Ibid. p. 308
Robinson, Robert, with Jonathan Slevin. Black on Red: My Forty-Four Years inside the Soviet Union . Washington, D.C., 1988.