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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.

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French presidential election: Macron and Le Pen projected to reach run-off

The centrist former economy minister and the far-right leader are set to contest the run-off on May 7.

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will contest the run-off of the French presidential election, according to the first official projection of the first round result.

Macron, the maverick former economy minister running under the banner of his centrist En Marche! movement, is projected to finish first with an estimated 23.7 per cent of the vote, putting him marginally ahead of Le Pen. The leader of the far-right Front National is estimated to have won 21.7 per cent, with the scandal-hit Republican Francois Fillon and leftwing Jean-Luc Melenchon tied for third on an estimated 19.5 per cent each. Benoit Hamon, of the governing socialist party, is set to finish a distant fourth on just 6.2 per cent. Pollsters Ifop project a turnout of around 81 per cent, slightly up on 2012.

Macron and Le Pen will now likely advance to the run-off on May 7. Recent polling has consistently indicated that Macron, who at 39 would be the youngest candidate ever to win the French presidency, would likely beat Le Pen with around 60 per cent of the vote to her 40. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement he told AFP that his En Marche! were "turning a page in French political history", and went on to say his candidacy has fundamentally realigned French politics. "To all those who have accompanied me since April 2016, in founding and bringing En Marche! to life, I would like to say this," he told supporters. "In the space of a year, we have changed the face of French political life."

Le Pen similarly hailed a "historic" result. In a speech peppered with anti-establishment rhetoric, she said: "The first step that should lead the French people to the l’Elysée has been taken. This is a historic result.

"It is also an act of French pride, the act of a people lifting their heads. It will have escaped no one that the system tried by every means possible to stifle the great political debate that must now take place. The French people now have a very simple choice: either we continue on the path to complete deregulation, or you choose France.

"You now have the chance to choose real change. This is what I propose: real change. It is time to liberate the French nation from arrogant elites who want to dictate how it must behave. Because yes, I am the candidate of the people."

The projected result means the run-off will be contested by two candidates outside of the France's establishment left and right parties for the first time in French political history. Should Le Pen advance to the second round as projected it will mark only the second time a candidate from her party will have reached the run-off. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, reached the second round in 2002, but was decisively beaten by Jacques Chirac after left-wingers and other mainstream voters coalesced in a so-called front républicain to defeat the far-right.

Fillon has conceded defeat and backed Macron, as have Hamon and French prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve. "We have to choose what is best for our country," Fillon said. "Abstention is not in my genes, above all when an extremist party is close to power. The Front National is well known for its violence and its intolerance, and its programme would lead our country to bankruptcy and Europe into chaos.

"Extremism can can only bring unhappiness and division to France. There is no other choice than to vote against the far right. I will vote for Emmanuel Macron. I consider it my duty to tell you this frankly. It is up to you to reflect on what is best for your country, and for your children."

Though Hamon acknowledged the favourite - a former investment banker - was no left-winger, he said: "I make a distinction between a political adversary and an enemy of the Republic."

Melenchon, however, has refused to endorse Macron, and urged voters to consult their own consciences ahead of next month's run-off.

The announcement sparked ugly scenes in Paris' Place de la Bastille, where riot police have deployed tear gas on crowds gathered to protest Le Pen's second-place finish. Reaction from the markets was decidedly warmer: the Euro hit a five-month high after the projection was announced.

Now read Pauline Bock on the candidate most likely to win, and the NS' profiles of Macron and Le Pen.


Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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