Following George Floyd’s death, anti-racism protests have spread throughout the world, which, once again, serves as a reminder that even in the United States – the bastion of Western Democracy- achieving racial tolerance remains a decades-old challenge. Russia is taking advantage of this circumstance and so did its predecessor, the Soviet Union.
Racism - a horror of capitalism
The Soviet propaganda machine was very fond of blowing up stories of racial injustice. The subjugation of black people was a frequently discussed topic in the USSR and Soviet caricatures depicted vicious capitalists oppressing minorities. At the same time, there was a broad consensus that behind the iron curtain there reigned an international harmony. No racism, no xenophobia, no ethnophobia. Everyone marched toward communism - the dream of progressive humanity.
At first glance, racism and xenophobia were not easily noticeable in Soviet society. Other themes dominated the agenda of the times. Tackling racism was a significant part of the ideology, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, this only concerned capitalist racism.
Soviet party officials responded to the “horrors” happening in the decadent West with true public outrage. “No to racism! Shame on you, America.” - Wielding posters of this and similar nature, workers would take to the streets protesting, often in front of the embassies of Western nations.
“Humane” and “progressive” Soviet cinema kept up with the sentiment. Films such as “Circus” and “Maksimka” aimed to juxtapose the racist West against the tolerant Soviet people.
In “Circus”, an American circus artist and her black son become victims of the capitalists. At the end of the film the mother and son move to the Soviet Union and find the happiness that hitherto eluded them. In “Maksimka” Russian sailors save a black child who’s been tortured by slave owners. The sailors are kind and gentle people who befriend the child, affectionately called Maksimka. Long story short, the child gets lucky.
As for the attitude toward blacks in the Soviet Union, it is impossible to ascertain. There are, in fact, no surviving reports on racial incidents, most likely for the simple reason that black people living in the Soviet Union were few and far between and the locals approached these “exotic” guests with genuine curiosity.
We do know of at least one black local in Tbilisi. His name was Bashir Shamba. At first, he worked as a firefighter before becoming a guard in Mushtaidi Park.
However, the passers-by greeting Bashir Shamba with genuine smiles still does not reveal much about soviet tolerance.
In actuality, the Soviet Union perpetrated numerous ethnic cleansings. State Security worked diligently on planting ethnic tolerance on a superficial level. Before mass deportations, however, the government would start “preparing” citizens by spreading rumors about the ethnic group in question. The group would be painted as destructive and as an enemy of the people. Shortly after, the brainwashed citizens would change their minds about their colleagues, neighbors, and friends and meet the repressions against them with relative ease.
The empire of evil made time for repressions even during the Second World War. In 1944, Beria wrote to Stalin: “In order to comply with the resolution of the State Defense Committee, from February-March 1944, 602,193 people were deported from the North Caucasus to the Soviet Socialist Republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Among them 496,460 Ingush, 68,327 Karachay, 37,406 Balkars. "
Curiously, 714 of those carrying out the deportations were awarded military orders for “the exemplary performance of special tasks.”
In the end, all the propagandizing and ignoring of the ethnic issues would have their consequences. During “Perestroika,” a number of ethnic and national conflicts broke out simultaneously in different parts of the USSR. Soviet peoples were done “faking” friendships. Ultimately, the Soviet chiefs’ and party leaders’ efforts led to bloodsheds in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Karabakh, Transnistria, and many different regions. The development and progress in these regions are still shrouded in uncertainty.