African American in the ‘raceless’ Soviet Union

History Ph.D. candidate Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon’s work looks at how the African American experience in the Soviet Union shaped Black identity and how the presence of people of color shaped Soviet understandings of race.

Person in glasses miles at the camera with green trees behind
History Ph.D. candidate Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon’s work looks at how the African American experience in the Soviet Union shaped Black identity. (Image: Courtesy of Laurence Kesterson)

History Ph.D. candidate Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon’s interest in all things Russian started with a childhood illness. It forced her to stay home from fifth grade for a few weeks at her family’s farm in the rural southwest Texas community of Dayton, population about 7,000. “To pass time I watched this eight-hour miniseries on the History Channel called ‘Russia, Land of the Czars’ and it blew my mind,” she says. “In sixth grade I was the only student in my little middle school to do a book report on someone who wasn’t American: I did mine on Joseph Stalin.” And so, a Russian historian was born. Her current research in the School of Arts & Sciences revolves around how the African American experience in the Soviet Union shaped Black identity and how the presence of people of color shaped ideas and understandings of race, ethnicity, and nationality policy in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet space. 

Penn Today talked with St. Julian-Varnon to find out more about her research, how these seemingly disparate notions of race in Russia and the United States are connected, and a few surprising discoveries.

What does your research involve?

I am looking at how race functions and how people understand race in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. My project looks at how Soviet residents understood Black visitors and what they understood about race. The Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc were officially ‘raceless’ places; they didn’t recognize race, and you couldn’t identify as a race. How does race function in a place that says race is not a category?

How did you become interested in this course of study?

Ever since my sixth-grade report on Stalin, Russia has been a part of my life, but I never studied it until I started my undergrad at Swarthmore. My first history course in college was called ‘Angels of Death: Russia under Lenin and Stalin,’ and I fell in love with everything Russian and Soviet Union. I did my master’s at Harvard in Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian Studies. In the summer of 2013, I went to Ukraine to do archival research, and that is where it hit me. I was the only Black person most people there had ever seen before. When I was there, I met an Afro-Ukrainian woman. We didn’t know each other, but one day we just saw each other in the street, stopped, and hugged each other. And she was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ and I asked the same of her and she told me she was Ukrainian. That’s where the kernel of my research idea came from. I wanted to know whether there were other people like me who came to the Soviet Union. I wanted to explore these stories that very few people know about the diaspora in Eastern Europe. 

Much of my earlier work has looked at the African American experience. A paper I just finished for Dr. Daniel Richter for a first-year seminar looked at how African American visitors to Soviet Central Asia in the 1930s racialized Uzbeks as Black people, and they developed these ideas of racial solidarity with them. What I’m really interested in now is to understand how Soviet people and Eastern Europeans understood Blackness and race. So, I’m kind of flipping it over. 

To the casual observer it might seem like race relations in the U.S., Russia, and Ukraine would have very little overlap. What are the links you’ve found? 

There are a lot of interesting connections between Russia, America, and race, even going back to the imperial period in Russian history where Russians were paying attention to slavery in the United States. You also had people who were descendants of slaves in the U.S. who went to live in pre-revolutionary Russia. During the Soviet period is when you start seeing African American artists like Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson go to the Soviet Union, but the Soviets themselves in the early 1930s were recruiting American workers, and they recruited African American agricultural and industrial specialists to help them build the Soviet project. 

There was heavy Soviet interest in American race relations, particularly for Lenin and Trotsky in the ‘20s; they were looking at Jim Crow America, and they were producing propaganda showing how racist the United States was. There was a lot of interest in African Americans as an oppressed people but also as oppressed workers. 

Here’s one interesting connection from the 1930s. An African American woman’s son had disappeared, and then she received a letter from him saying he was in Moscow and she should join him because there were so many jobs. She picked up, left New York, and moved to Moscow. In 1936, a famous Stalinist film came out called ‘Tsirk,’ or ‘Circus,’ and the plot involves an American actress who runs to the Soviet Union and she’s hiding some terrible secret. She has an evil German manager who is always threatening to reveal her secret and eventually he does, and that secret is that she had a Black son. But the baby is embraced by all the Soviet community in the film, showing how welcoming they are to all people. That little baby actor is an Afro-Russian, and his grandmother was the woman who took the boat from New York to Moscow to find work. The baby’s name is James Lloydovich Patterson. He’s still alive and is a famous Afro-Russian poet and actor. His father stayed in the Soviet Union and was a radio presenter during the war and was killed when the Germans bombed the building he was working in. It’s so interesting to me that all this comes from these two people during the Jim Crow era who thought, ‘America's not great. What could Russia offer us? It couldn’t be any worse.’

In the Cold War and into the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Soviets were trying to influence newly independent African states, and they were using what was happening in the United States and the treatment of African Americans to say, ‘Do you really want align with the United States considering how they treat people who look just like you?’ 

In 2016, we had Russia using different race issues in the United States to make these fake Facebook accounts and take out big ads. What Russia is doing now is not new in terms of inflaming racial issues and bringing those to the forefront. Even in the 1960s, the United States knew that race relations were a security problem because it could be exploited.

Why is it important to study how African Americans experienced the Soviet Union?

American race relations tend to define how race is understood around the world. When people like me go to Eastern Europe and we run into a skinhead or are told not to go out at night for our safety, people there will say, ‘Oh, that’s just xenophobia, it’s not because you’re Black.’ Or they’ll say, ‘We can’t be racist; we didn’t have slavery.’ I want to understand how Russia and Ukraine went from being a beacon for African Americans and Africans in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s to a place where if you have dark skin you can’t go out at night.

I want to show that race functions on different levels. A long-term goal of mine is to be able to be an expert witness in asylum cases for like Afro-Russians and Ukrainians who are seeking asylum. It’s happened before that they can’t get asylum because people think there’s no race problem in Russia. 

What is the most surprising thing you’ve come upon during your years of research into this topic? 

The most famous American visitors to the Soviet Union were Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. But there was a group of Black agricultural specialists recruited from Tuskegee Institute and they went to Soviet Uzbekistan. One of them was Joseph Roane who was from a small town in Virginia called Kremlin, if you can believe it, and he helped Uzbeks improve cotton production. He and his wife had a baby there and named him Yosif Stalin Roane, and they eventually moved back to the U.S.

Those are the things that stand out to me, and those are the voices I want to show: voices of regular people who just took a chance.

What is the most important thing for people to understand about this topic and your research?

To paraphrase a Stephen King quote, ‘Go then. There are other worlds than these.’ That’s what draws me to the Soviet Union, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. There were so many terrible things that happened in the Soviet Union then, but there were these little pockets of time where people were thinking about remaking the world. I find it fascinating that that’s something these African American travelers got to do there: to help remake the world.