Great Read: In Russia, early African American migrants found the good life
Growing up in the Soviet Union, Emilia Tynes-Mensah did the same things other children did. She read the classics of literary master Alexander Pushkin, listened to the symphonies of Peter Tchaikovsky and heard the propaganda that life here was better than anywhere else.
But in her home, there was American jazz, Thanksgiving celebrations and stories of the struggles facing blacks in the United States. An improvised version of soul food sometimes replaced borscht.
That’s because her father, George Tynes, was an African American agronomist from Virginia who moved to Russia in the 1930s.
Tynes was among hundreds of blacks who traveled to the Soviet Union in the two decades after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Some were hard-core Communists. Others were curious adventurers.
“My father didn’t know anything about this country. He didn’t know what to expect,” said Tynes-Mensah, 73, her mind flying back through the decades as she sat in her Moscow apartment, where black-and-white photos of her parents and children shared space on an antique sideboard with color shots of her grandchildren.
“Everybody who would come to the Soviet Union from America, my father would tell them, ‘Please don’t forget to bring me some records,’ ” Tynes-Mensah said. “He loved Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson. But he also loved classical music and opera and ballet.”
Most of the African Americans who came to Russia were seeking a better life, desperate to flee the social inequality and Depression-era hardships that racked America at the time, said Allison Blakely, professor emeritus of history at Boston University who has written a book on the African American immigrants.
“They were looking for a society where they could escape color prejudice and racism,” Blakely said.
Today, fewer than 50 descendants of these African Americans are believed to still live in Russia. In all, their numbers in the former Soviet republics could be between 100 and 200, according to researchers.
They have become footnotes to African American and Russian history, said Yelena Demikovsky, a New York-based Russian film director and researcher who is making a movie, “Black Russians — The Red Experience,” about the immigrants to the Soviet Union and their descendants.
Officials actively recruited skilled foreign laborers and professionals, Blakely said. About 18,000 Americans answered the call to work in the 1930s, he said. Among them were several hundred African Americans who traveled to the Soviet Union, including dozens who lived there for “the good part of a decade,” Blakely said.
Their ranks included graduates of historically black colleges such as Tuskegee University in Alabama and Virginia’s Hampton Agricultural and Industrial School, later called the Hampton Institute. They were engineers, educators, entertainers, journalists, lawyers. The actor-activist Paul Robeson and poet Langston Hughes were among those travelers captivated by communism.
The Soviets gave the African Americans red-carpet treatment, including fat paychecks, subsidized housing and free vacations.
“My father felt the U.S.S.R. treated him better than America,” said Tynes-Mensah, a former university chemistry instructor who was born in the Russian town of Krasnodar and now lives mainly in the United States, spending summers in Russia. “He was happy here.”
A graduate of Wilberforce University in Ohio and a former college football star, Tynes could only find work washing dishes in a restaurant back in America, his daughter recalled. So he jumped at the opportunity to go to Russia, although he never joined the Communist Party, his daughter said.
Tynes was among 11 African American agricultural specialists led by Oliver Golden, an agronomist and Communist from Mississippi, who boarded the German ship Deutschland bound for the Soviet Union in 1931.
Oliver Golden’s granddaughter, Yelena Khanga, 52, a Moscow-based talk show host, recalled how American Communist leaders and black dignitaries visiting Russia would make the Golden household their first stop.
The conversation usually centered on the plight of African Americans, the poor and the working class. Khanga — a world traveler with fans from her high-profile TV job, a swank flat near Red Square and a driver — said she considered such talk “so strange.”
“I would think, ‘Why are we discussing the situation of working-class people in Chicago when we’ll never be in Chicago?’ ” she said.
The experience of African Americans who traveled to or settled in Russia was overwhelmingly positive, descendants said. In turn, they made valuable contributions to Soviet society, said Blakely, the professor. Agricultural specialists helped devise different uses for materials, such as rope made from hemp. They also helped develop plant species that were cheaper to cultivate. Their contributions provided a boost to the Soviet economy.
Tynes, who was sent to various Soviet republics to teach people how to raise ducks and other waterfowl, became a nationally recognized expert on poultry. Golden helped develop a cotton industry in Uzbekistan. And the African Americans introduced Russians to blues and jazz.
“They had an impact disproportionate to their numbers because they were there precisely because the Soviet leadership was trying to use them as a symbol of what they were trying to build in terms of a truly democratic society,” Blakely said. “They were very much in the public eye.”
Within years, however, such attention was unwelcome. During the era of Josef Stalin’s purges, foreigners were viewed with suspicion and non-Soviet citizens were ordered to leave the country, said Demikovsky, the filmmaker.
Khanga said her grandfather escaped being nabbed by the secret police by a fluke. He was away from home the day they came for him. When Golden dutifully turned himself in, he was informed that the quota of arrests for his area had been fulfilled, Khanga said.
The African Americans were shunned during the Cold War, but it was because they were foreigners, not because they were black, their descendants said. But attitudes toward blacks changed in the1960s with the influx of thousands of students from Africa.
Tynes-Mensah, whose mother was Russian-Ukrainian, said she was keenly aware when she was growing up that she was different.
“I was afraid to go out in public,” said the septuagenarian, who has cafe-au-lait skin and a short Afro. “People used to stare. But it was curiosity. They were not angry or aggressive like they are now.”
Today, the acceptance of blacks in Russia is far lower compared with what the African American pioneers experienced, said Tynes-Mensah, who runs a nonprofit called Metis that offers support to mixed-race children, the majority of whose fathers came to Russia from Africa.
“Afro-Russians want to feel Russian, but the society doesn’t want to recognize them as Russian,” she said. “Sometimes [people] will say, ‘Go back to Africa.’ ”
Khanga, a vivacious and charismatic woman who was raised on the gospel songs of Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin, said any obstacles she faced growing up in Russia during the Cold War years were because of her American heritage, not her race.
“I feel comfortable as a black person in Russia,” said Khanga, who is married to a white Russian and has a 12-year-old daughter.
Still, in the 1990s she felt compelled to find her roots. She traveled to Africa and the United States, connected with relatives in New York and Mississippi and wrote a book detailing her family’s story.
“When I’m in America, I feel that I’m African American because I love going to black churches, I love soul food, I love black music, I love lots of things that unite people of color,” Khanga said. “But when I’m in Russia, I feel Russian.”
This report was funded by a grant from the International Center for Journalists.
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