Calvert 22 Foundation
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What the untold Soviet history of “Red Africa” reveals about the racism of modern Russia

Artists are attempting to resurrect a piece of cultural history that has been buried, but also highlight the difficulty experienced by black people in Putin’s Russia.

Modern Russia has a reputation for being racist. And for good reason. The number of racist acts committed by Russian football fans doubled last season, according to researchers from the Moscow-based Sova Centre and the Uefa-affiliated Fare Network.

There is global concern that the country, which is hosting the 2018 World Cup, will be a dangerous destination for non-white fans and players. Vladimir Putin has promised domestic and foreign players and fans will feel at home at the event, but anti-discrimination activists – such as the executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe Piara Powar – have accused him of not doing enough to condemn racism in his country.

And it’s not just in sport. Black and visibly ethnic language students in the West are being warned by some universities against studying for their year abroad in Russia.  Last year, on the Day of National Unity in November, nationalists held various marches, which culminated in a demonstration of around 30,000 participants in Moscow organised by the All-Russian People's Front (ONF). In the same year, the ultra-nationalist group BORN (Military Organization of Russian Nationalists) was found to have 20,000 members, who are training in gyms and forests throughout Russia, according to Sova’s director.

Soviet poster, 1920, from the Wayland Rudd archive. Photo: Courtesy of Yevgeniy Fiks

Racist violence is prolific in Russia, where racism sometimes seems mainstream. Posters and toys depicting Barack Obama as a monkey were being sold in Russian stores last year.

Unsurprisingly, Russia has been invisible in the migration crisis; it refuses to join any scheme to help Syrian refugees and blames Western powers for the outflow of people from that part of the world. But what we hear from the country on the subject suggests it wouldn’t be the top choice of refugees anyway. In his weekly news round-up show in September last year, the Putin-appointed Russian media director Dmitry Kiselyov – who has been dubbed “Russia’s propagandist-in-chief” – said Hungary was being “blackmailed” by the EU to give up its “centuries-old culture” by taking refugees, for the sake of the “new rules of the European Union where there is no room for Christian traditions”.

Mural portraits depicting Fidel Castro, Agostinho Neto, and Leonid Brezhnev, Angola, c.1975. Photo: Copyright Jo Ractliffe

But there was once a time when Russia was ahead of the rest of the world in welcoming migrants, and its attitude towards Africans and African Americans. Overshadowed by the Western preoccupation with the Cold War in Europe, the USSR’s relationship with Africa is a forgotten piece of Soviet history.

“In the Twenties and Thirties, not only was Russia not racist in relation to black people, but it was encouraging migration,” says Mark Nash, curator of Things Fall Apart, an exhibition held by the contemporary Russian culture foundation Calvert 22 in London.

“Four or five thousand black people came in the Twenties and Thirties to the Soviet Union per year,” he adds. “A number of them stayed because they were equal citizens and they had equal rights, which they didn’t have in the States until the Sixties. The official ideology was really anti-racist.”

Soviet poster, 1932, from the Wayland Rudd archive. Photo: Courtesy of Yevgeniy Fiks

Artists from around the world are attempting to bring the untold story of countries such as Mozambique, Ghana, Ethiopia and Angola’s Communist connections to contemporary consciousness as part of Calvert 22’s “Red Africa” season. This is partially an attempt to resurrect a piece of cultural history that has been buried, but also in light of the difficulty experienced by black people in Putin’s Russia.

“The history of the relationship between the Second World – the Soviet bloc – and Third World has been forgotten or downplayed over the last 20 plus years,” says Moscow-born artist Yevgeniy Fiks, whose latest project focuses on the depiction of Africans and African Americans in Soviet propaganda.

“Unfortunately, the last two decades have seen a process of slowly undoing whatever had been achieved. It looks like a sense of solidarity among peoples is crumbling and prejudice and intolerance are creeping in [in Russia].”

Photo: Calvert 22 Foundation

The USSR’s work in Africa did not stem simply from benevolent idealism. Its internationalist endeavours were just as much about flexing geopolitical muscle as Communist ideology; the West was certainly cynical about its intentions in the developing world.

And the regime notoriously mistreated its own ethnic minorities – antisemitism was rife throughout the USSR, and many nationalities – including Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, and Chechens – were deported in the build-up to, and during, the Second World War. But its work in Africa did influence the attitude of Soviet citizens towards that part of the world, and the black migrants who settled alongside them.

“In the Soviet Union, it was viewed by the majority of Soviet people as simply doing the right thing – it was about friendship and solidarity with the oppressed, about practising internationalism,” says Fiks.

“I think this relationship is only an untold story in the West. Both in the post-Soviet space and in Africa, people still know and remember. There are many Soviet-educated intellectuals, doctors, and engineers who continue doing important work in many countries in Africa.”

Sadly for Russia’s ethnic minorities today, this forgotten part of Soviet history is unlikely to prick Putin’s conscience anytime soon.

Calvert 22 Foundation's Red Africa season is on until 3 April.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".