Workers from all countries and oppressed colonies raise the banner of Lenin!”; “All hail the world October revolution!” extol the slogans. But what makes these 1930s Soviet propaganda posters different is the inclusion of African people, marching arm-in-arm with other races towards a Marxist utopia. At the time, few Russians would have seen a black person in the flesh, including the artists who created these images.
The posters are included in the new exhibition Things Fall Apart, at Calvert 22 in London. It examines the connections between Africans and the Soviet Union, and it’s a fascinating, almost forgotten history. Africans and African-Americans did indeed come to the Soviet Union, even in the 1930s, says Russian-born, New York-resident artist Yevgeniy Fiks. Having scoured the mass of Soviet propaganda images, Fiks has brought together about 200 images to create the Wayland Rudd Archive. It is named after an African-American actor who, frustrated by the racism of the US entertainment industry, emigrated to Moscow in 1932. He lived and worked there until his death 20 years later. Had he seen this year’s all-white Oscar nominations, Rudd might have felt he made the right move.
“African-American intellectuals were seduced by Soviet ideology,” says Fiks. “Their experience on the ground, how life was structured in the US, proved this ideology right.” Black people were still disempowered, exploited and discriminated against in the US. As the posters suggested, those who came to Moscow really were treated as equals, says Fiks. A few dozen chose to stay.