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Africa, Africans, and Africanness in Soviet Popular Culture and Imagination

Maxim Matusevich

The suggested title for this conference paper reflects my research interest of long-standing in the historical continuity of African presence in Russian/Soviet culture and politics. In the last two years I have edited an interdisciplinary volume Africa in Russia, Russia in Africa: Three Centuries of Encounter (forthcoming from Africa World Press in 2005). One of my next projects in progress is an edited collection of interdisciplinary articles on the representations of the Third World in Soviet popular culture.

Africa presented the Soviet citizen with a set of cultural and moral dilemmas whereas the official/formal attitude to the continent and its people both informed and frustrated common sentiments regarding Africa and Africanness. Marxist-Leninist internationalism dictated that colonial and postcolonial Africa be treated with a pronounced degree of sympathy. The plight of colonial peoples resonated with the ideals articulated by Soviet establishment and served a powerful rhetorical weapon in the Soviet propagandist arsenal. Western racism offered the Soviets (who were not burdened with colonial past in Africa) an important opportunity to even further differentiate themselves from their ideological opponents. For example, in a cult 1936 Soviet movie Circus a black American child and his white mother find life free of racism and persecution in the USSR. The most famous scene of the film shows the toddler being tenderly passed around the circus audience by compassionate and conspicuously anti-racist Soviet spectators, while his mother’s enraged American manager is futilely trying to win them over. To no avail - the audience ridicules the bourgeois bigot and adopts the child. The message of the film had a clear ideological ring to it, as did its famous theme song: “I don’t know another country where a person can breathe so freely.”

Yet the reality of common Soviet perceptions and stereotypes of Africa and Blackness was not as rosy. The Soviet Union had inherited the legacy of 19th century racism. The Soviets’ infatuation with Africa and the struggles of its people incorporated a high degree of paternalism. The internationalist rhetoric of Soviet officialdom often contrasted with the “situation on the ground.” For common Soviet people Africa continued to be an unknown quantity – strange, remote, and exotic. To add to the confusion, African students and members of African community in large Soviet cities would come to carry an aura of privileged foreignness, which both attracted and irritated the average Soviet eking out his/her meager existence amidst the mundane. We find the traces of this ambivalence in much of Soviet cultural production dealing with Africa as well as in the experiences of the members of African diaspora in the USSR. By analyzing literary, cinematic, and everyday representations of Africanness in the Soviet Union this paper will attempt to situate the idea of Africa within Soviet popular culture and thus - within the consciousness of a regular Soviet citizen.

Workshop questions

Workshop # 1: Representing Black European history
Workshop # 2: Empirical research: subjects and objects

  1. To what extent have specific European experiences conditioned diverse conceptualizations and representations of Africa across Europe?

  2. How can we assess the attitudes to and perceptions of Africa in such European locations, which have no immediate historical connection to the European scramble for Africa and Atlantic slave trade?

  3. Historically Russian imperialist expansion proceeded eastwards. Russian Empire didn’t participate in the late-19th century European partition of Africa. Furthermore, Russians never became part of the Atlantic system of exchange and its most notorious component – the slave trade. Does this absence of the history of exploitation and violence between Africans and Russia provide for a “special historical relationship” devoid of the usual baggage of suppression and domination?

  4. How do we explore a popular attitude to the “unknown,” when it’s informed not only by cultural stereotypes and historical precedent but also by an ideology?

  5. African Diaspora in the Soviet Union – the “special case.” Contrary to Western Europe, African migrants/pilgrims in the USSR routinely assumed privileged social and material status. Explore this phenomenon and examine its impact on the perceptions of Africa and Africans in the Soviet Union.

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