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Black American Experience from the Perspective of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc

The material shared in this online exhibit was purchased as part of a successful proposal to add new titles and fill in lacunae in the University of Toronto Libraries’ holdings documenting Black peoples’ engagement with the Soviet Union and behind the Iron Curtain. 

When the Soviet Union was formed in 1922, the new state became a highly attractive destination for many Black people for the next two to three decades. They were drawn to the Communist revolution and to an ideology that promoted racial equality, world peace, anticolonialism, and the economic advancement of the working class. Communism seemed to offer an ideal society to those who suffered under colonial rule in Africa, or racism and economic depression in the United States. Some traveled from Africa, the West Indies, and North America to study freely in Soviet educational institutions. Black writers, artists, and performers visited to express themselves freely, without racial discrimination, and to experiment with Marxist ideas. Still others immigrated to the Soviet Union to work in trades and industry. Some of these individuals stayed for several years while others never returned to their home countries.  

Several activists and intellectuals who visited or lived in the Soviet Union published first-hand accounts of their experiences and travels. Others wrote about the Russian Revolution and its significance for the Black proletariat; Afro-Asian solidarities (and the de-centering of Soviet Russia within global Marxism); the impact of the Cold War on African independence movements; and the conceptualization of race (as distinct from national identity) in the Soviet Union.  

Working with specialized vendors and antiquarian book dealers, the library purchased several dozen volumes as part of this project. The publications include translations of Black-authored works with visually engaging covers and captivating graphic design. Many of the texts depict western society as morally corrupt in its treatment of minorities. For example, James Baldwin’s works were easily available in Russian translation because they propounded a vision of the West as a place of racial and economic injustice that was in line with Soviet thinking. 

The material opens up several avenues of research across discplines: linguistic analysis of word choice in translations; the literary reception of translated works and their impact on poets in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia; comparative historical study of race relations in North America and the Soviet Union; and the interpretation of cover art and illustrations. 

The exhibition was first organized as a physical display of books in the Petro Jacyk Central and East European Resource Centre with the research assistance and text captions by Allison Graham, Graduate Student Library Assistant (Winter-Spring 2023). The online version, with supplementary captions and textual descriptions, was designed by Ioana Zamfir, Graduate Student Library Assistant.

Black America in the Soviet Era