In the first decades of the twentieth century, American citizens went from euphoria to sadness. The Great Depression of 1929 led to the dismantling of the economy and pushed hundreds of people into unemployment. The American way of life, blown to the four corners of the planet as an earthly paradise, became an uncontrolled nightmare, especially for the poorest sections of the population.
Fearing the worsening of the crisis and seeing no signs of improvement in the short term, many people migrated to other countries looking for more decent living conditions. This was the case of the African American Robert Robinson, who suffered not only from the effects of economic collapse but also from the horrors of racism that insisted on scourging a part of the citizens.
On the other side of the world, seven years before the American crash, a countries confederation was founded under the aegis of communism. In mid-December 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was made official, which brought together interests from different countries aiming at a common goal: to strengthen communism in eastern Europe and in parts of Central and Northern Asia.
The formation of the Soviet bloc had profound consequences, visible to the present days, and facilitated negotiations with foreign powers. Among the agreements signed, it ensured the importation of qualified workers to supply the shortage of professionals in certain functions in the incipient communist industries. There was a great demand for manpower since the Soviets wanted to transform the predominantly rural socialist confederation into an industrialized superpower.
At the height of the Great Depression, the Soviets took advantage of the disintegration of American factories and entered into agreements with capitalist entrepreneurs, including Henry Ford. In the negotiations, it was decided that the Ford Motor Company would build a factory in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod and provide all necessary assistance for consolidating the company.
In addition to that, the Soviets were allowed to regularly visit the facilities of the American headquarters (The Ford River Rouge) to study assembly line production techniques and to invite workers interested in spending a season working in the socialist state. Once the agreement was ratified, the factory construction began immediately.
In 1930, a Soviet delegation arrived in the United States and the commissioners spent a few days at The Ford River Rouge headquarters. From this moment on, Robinson’s life would change: resting at home, he received a phone call: the communists invited him to work in USSR.
The offer was tempting, especially in the context of racism, the economic crisis, and the imminent threat of unemployment. The job offer included double the salary that Henry Ford was paying for his work, 30 days of paid vacation, car, housing, free access to and from the communist bloc and some other perks. His role was to be a mechanical engineer, his original graduation at the Stalingrad Tractor Factory – current Volgograd, located 969 km south of Moscow. Robinson did not hesitate, accepted the invitation and left for the other side of the continent.
Born in Jamaica in 1906, Robinson migrated to Cuba in the company of his mother – a Dominican doctor. On the Caribbean island, he had the opportunity to study and graduated as a mechanical engineer. From there, they moved to Dearborn, Michigan (USA), where Robinson got US citizenship and a job at the Ford Motor Company. Being the only black employee in a factory with 700 workers, discrimination was part of everyday life.
Ever since he arrived in the United States, Robinson noticed the treatment that black people received and felt the effects of racism on his own skin. The Ku Klux Klan was very active, terrorizing black people from the north to the south of the country, and racist nationalism was the dogma practiced by white people – whether or not they belonged to the supremacist organization.
With constant killings and explicit prejudice sponsored by the state, Robinson, at 23, feared being the next to suffer lynching, something that had happened to people close to him.
When the soviets made the proposal, he only knew Russia from the travelers’ reports and newspapers circulating in Detroit at the time. He had little information about the Bolshevik Revolution that established communism in the country, but he decided that he would accept the invitation to escape discrimination and save a little money to offer a better life to his mother, who, despite being a doctor, could not find a job. Thus, he joined the entourage of 370 Americans who settled in the USSR and went to work at the Stalingrad Tractor Factory.
Welcomed with enthusiasm by the hosts in the late 1930s, the Americans were housed in new apartments, received supplies regularly, had their own restaurant, medical center, jazz dancing afternoons and even the English newspaper Spark of the Industry. It was a different treatment from the one offered to nationals themselves, who did not enjoy the same privileges. But racism chased Robinson like a shadow and episodes of discrimination, starting from American workers, began to pop up regularly.
One afternoon, while finishing lunch in the cafeteria, he started a discussion with two officers who ridiculed him and called him “filthy black”. The chatter became a beating; the Soviet colleagues separated the fight, but the repercussion of the case ended up going beyond the limits of the factory and reported in the press.
The other workers strongly supported Robinson, including demanding the deportation of the two racist workers, who were judged and expelled by the firm’s board.
Welcome to the Soviet, comrade Robert
The Stalinist machine decided to use the incident for advertising purposes. The case became an example publicized by the Soviets of American racism and US-sponsored violence against black citizens.
Reluctantly, Robinson became a well-known celebrity by the press and the aggression was so publicized that it inhibited his return to the United States. In his autobiography Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union (Acropolis Books, 436 pages), he wrote about the episode: “In the eyes of the Russians, I became a true hero, the personification of good that triumphs over evil. I was bombarded with letters of support and sympathy sent from different regions of the USSR”.
But it did not stop there. Robinson’s name was frequent in workers’ conversations, guest of honor at several public events, and his fame as a proletarian hero spread all over the places. In 1934, he was promoted to another post, also on a compulsory basis: unanimously, he was elected as a representative of the Moscow Soviet, one of the regime’s most important workers’ councils.
Regarding the election, he later declared: “I was stunned and frantically thinking: What did they do to me? What did I get involved in? I am an American citizen, I am not a politician, I am not a communist, I do not approve either the communist party or the Soviet system. I am not an atheist, nor even an agnostic, I believe in God, I pray to Him and I am faithful only to Him”.
Robinson’s election to the Soviet sparked the anger of US officials in Moscow. Accused of being a communist by his countrymen, he was pressured to return immediately to the United States. He even tried to return to the country, but his reputation as a “communist agitator” undermined any possibility of return and he was forced to remain in the Soviet Union, where he received Russian citizenship.
Here is a parenthesis: the United States had the largest communist party in the world outside the USSR. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in fact, was known as “red” due to the statist policies he envisaged. But then World War II came, and ideologies took over political guidelines. So, with the “witch hunt”, being a communist was a dangerous charge. Closed parenthesis, let’s continue with the text.
Communism advertising boy, Robinson gave lectures, classes at universities, acted in two movies and gave autographs on the streets of Moscow. But not everything was made of happiness, especially in that acute period of Stalinism. When Sergei Mironovich Kirov, Stalin’s likely successor, was executed by rivals, the preference for American workers ended and the lives of foreigners drastically deteriorated.
In addition, the Stalinist Great Purge, between 1936 and 1938, caused many of Robinson’s acquaintances to disappear. Fearing again for his life, he decided to return to the United States but was prevented by the communists. The fame, although involuntary, took a high price from “comrade yankee”.
The letters he sent to his mother were opened, read and often censored. He had no contact with family members, only workers from the factories he worked in and some neighbors. Annually, Robinson submitted to the Soviet authorities an application for a visa to leave the bloc, but the request was repeatedly denied. Only in 1973, when he obtained clemency from some African ambassadors, he was allowed to visit Uganda.
At 67 years old, he packed his bags and left immediately. In Uganda, he requested refuge and was promptly attended to by dictator Idi Amin. The autocrat dealt directly with Robinson, offered positions at the University, Ugandan citizenship, housing and several other perks. The engineer kindly declined the offer and expressed his desire to restore his American citizenship.
Despite the expressed desire to return to his native country, he stayed in Uganda for a few years where he married an African-American teacher. It was only in 1986 that he managed to revalidate his citizenship and obtain authorization to enter the United States. When he landed, however, he discovered his mother had already passed away years before he was present at the funeral. It was one of the greatest sorrows of his life, he would report later.
During the 44 years he spent in the Soviet Union, Robinson survived Stalinism, the Nazi invasion and experienced the first decades of the Cold War. He was not a communist, but he contributed greatly to the modernization of the Soviet bloc. He left the United States because of racism and seeking better living conditions. However, although he was safe from the Ku Klux Klan, he was forced to serve as an AD boy for the Communist Party in order to survive Stalinism.
Hated by communists and despised by capitalists, he spent his last years ostracized, suffocated by oblivion, until he died in 1994 in a small hospital in Washington, DC, at 88 years old.