Robert Robinson: An African-American's 44 Years In The Soviet Union

Some years ago, I read Black On Red: My 44 Years Inside The Soviet Union, a book by Robert Robinson, An African-American who lived in Detroit during the Depression. I had to read it again, for it is about as gripping an autobiography as one can find. During 44 years in Soviet society, Robert Robinson found that the deepest discrimination was against blacks and orientals. In his book he notes that in the USA people may or may not condone institutional and racial discrimination but they do recognize that it exists. In the USSR, officially and socially, such discrimination did not occur. But it ran deep.
Hired in 1927 as a floor sweeper by Ford Motor Company, he became a toolmaker there. In April 1930, through Amtorg, a Soviet trade agency based in New York, a Russian delegation toured the plant. A Russian asked if he would like to work in the Soviet Union. At Ford he earned $140 a month--good wages--but was offered $250 a month, free living quarters, maid service, 30 days vacation a year and a car. All of this for a one year contract. At 23 and recently from Cuba, where he grew up, he was ready for some adventure. Like most things Soviet, the promises were eventually to mark a tragic life, his.

So in 1930 Robinson went, and thereon hangs his tale. He describes various discrimination against blacks while the Soviet government painted itself as an ethnically tolerant utopia.

Robert Robinson was a highly talented, even gifted toolmaker and mechanical engineer. (He graduated from The Moscow Evening Institute of Mechanical Engineering. Despite its clumsy name, its training was excellent.) He received numerous Soviet medals, citations, and awards. As one instance of his ability, managers didn't think he could quickly design, develop, and fabricate 13 indicators used for checking precision gauges, but he did in three and one half months. This increased production seventy-two fold. All the time, a jealous colleague was undermining his efforts by stealing pieces or sabotaging machines.

Despite his education, training, and ability, he was repeatedly passed over. Through the years he witnessed many less able men move up the ladder to become plant director or branch manager, but he did not get a promotion or pay raise.

During the 1930s Moscow purges, he never undressed until 4 AM, nervously awaiting a Secret Police knock at his door. Next day, he and others would silently take note of fellow employees who did not show up for work. He was aware of the foreigners who disappeared from the First State Ball Bearing Factory. When he started there, he found 362 foreigners. By 1939 only he and a Hungarian were left. Because he was a foreigner, friends begged him not to visit them.

Informers lurked everywhere. If a Russian was asked to spy on neighbors he dared not refuse else he became a suspect. Informants watched a neighbor's comings and goings from his apartment, as well as who visited him, or what he bought at the store.

Late one night in 1943, Robinson did hear a knock on his door. He thought his time had finally come, his hand shaking as he opened it. Two agents were startled to see his face, then mumbled "Excuse us. There was some mistake."

As I read the book, I could only feel immense sadness for this man, who lost the best years of his life in a dull, dreary, police state. He learned to control his feelings, to confide in nobody. Many times he would be sounded out--perhaps innocently--over his views on this or that, and always he responded with neutrality or political correctness. He could not afford to trust anybody. That was how he survived finally to leave the Workers' Paradise.

Born in Jamaica about 1907, he became acclimated to bitter Moscow winters. He was there when Hitler's wermacht and luftwaffe invaded Russia, the German army 44 miles from Moscow. The Russian government recruited every able-bodied man to age 60. In 1941 he was called for his draft physical, but was not inducted because of a bad left eye. Under fierce aerial bombardment, the streets of Moscow were barricaded against the coming onslaught as he and others were told that the factory would be moved to Kuybyshev. On the train, he beheld thousands upon thousands of people fleeing Moscow--men, women, and children, young and old--shivering while trudging icy roads carrying suitcases tied with cord. In Kuybyshev whole families shared horse stalls, with over 70 people using one toilet and one wash basin.

During the war with Germany, black bread was rationed at 600 grams (21.1 oz) a day. A sack of potatoes cost 900 rubles ($180). Robert Robinson made 1100 rubles month. He ate 7 or 8 cabbage leaves soaked in lukewarm water. Others at the factory became so weak that they could not control their bladders and urinated in their pants. Some died, collapsing on the floor in front of their machines. Every passing moment the men thought of food, its smell, its taste. After months of hunger, he began losing all energy, felt listless, and went to a doctor. As he took his shirt off, she went behind a screen and cried. He at first thought she was shocked to see his skin color, but she wept because his arms were toothpicks, his stomach stretched tight against corrugated ribs. He had not looked in a mirror for months. She told him he was at death's doorway. She invited him to her house to dine each Sunday with her, her husband, and daughter.

He never joined the communist party because of his religious faith. He could not accept atheist doctrine. He saw through a racist, repressive system, and was watchful that he not suggest even a nuance of deviant political behavior. He was made to act in a Mosfilm propaganda movie, Deep Are The Roots, then considered a classic in Russia, about racism in the United States. When asked as an "expert," Robinson told the director that the movie was over-the-top, extremely overdone, but the director had his own career at stake and probably could not listen.

During 44 years in Soviet society, Robert Robinson found that the deepest discrimination was against blacks and orientals. In his book he notes that in the USA people may or may not condone institutional and racial discrimination but they do recognize that it exists. In the USSR, officially and socially, such discrimination did not occur. To admit the contrary would have been to violate the Soviet agenda of equality and brotherly love. He states that he "could never get used to Russian racism. They prided themselves on freedom from prejudice, so racism was especially virulent."

During the 1930s he met and chatted on a park bench with black American poet Langston Hughes. He met and spent evenings with the hugely talented and internationally famous American Paul Robeson (athlete, actor, orator, concert singer, lawyer, social activist), and his wife Eslanda each time they visited Moscow. He asked Robeson as a fellow black man to intervene for him so he could escape Russia. Robeson avoided him on the issue. Eventually Robert Robinson learned from Eslanda that Paul did not want to do it because that would sour his relationship with the Soviet leadership.

After many years of trying, and through the extended efforts of Ugandan ambassadors Mathias Lubega, and Michael Ondoga, Robert Robinson was granted a visa for a vacation in Uganda. He was careful. He bought an Aeroflot round trip ticket although he never wanted to return. To reduce suspicion he took just a few rubles, packed few clothes.

From the airport gate to the aircraft he took a bus. Then it happened. In freezing cold, a coatless woman ran after the bus shouting his name. He dared not turn around. But the bus stopped and the driver called back for him. He got off. She told him he could not go because he had no vaccination papers. This was false; he had shown them and had been vaccinated. He trembled, wept inwardly, was totally devastated, but he repeated the process, the doctor this time simply signing the form without using a needle. Again he waited months and finally got approval.

The day came, and he climbed on the bus, praying silently as it neared the airplane. He boarded and feared that somebody would again call his name before the plane began taxiing. Or the pilot would be ordered to turn the aircraft around. It did not happen. He landed in Uganda. We are left to imagine the feelings that must have overwhelmed him as he stepped off, out of a police state and into the warm African sun.

This was 1974 and he found himself at the hotel feted as personal guest of Idi Amin, Ugandan President For Life. When Robinson visited Amin the President offered him Ugandan citizenship, but Robinson declined, fearing that it would bring violent wrath of the KGB down on him in this relatively unprotected country. For several years he taught at Uganda Technical College outside Kampala. In Uganda he met Zylpha Mapp, an African-American lecturer at the Teacher College. They married in 1976. Tensions and suppression grew in Uganda as Idi Amin became mentally unstable. Through the unrelenting efforts of an African-American US Information Service Officer, William B. Davis, in 1980 he and Zylpha were able to fly to the United States, where he was declared a legal U.S. resident, as he had to forfeit his U.S. citizenship many years before. On December 6, 1986, they became U.S. citizens. living in Washington, DC. He died in 1994 of cancer. Zylpha Mapp-Robinson died in 2001, age 87. (She was born August 25, 1914.)

Even in the United States he could not rid himself of a life lived in fear, caution, and suspicion. Robinson hoped that his book would reveal the USSR for the oppressive society it was. "Even now," he said, "I have to be careful because so many people do not understand the Russian psychology, that once you have offended the Russians, you are never forgiven. Never forgiven."

He did not intend that statement to detract from the countless ordinary Russians who befriended and helped him. He understood them as victims of the same system. He had fond memories of people such as the lady doctor who invited him to her house to dine during the Great Patriotic War against Germany.

He was aware of the immense suffering of his Russian friends. He tells the story of a lovely sixteen year old girl on her way to school. She was stopped by an aide of Lavrentiy Beria, head of MVD, Soviet Secret Police. The aide wanted her to climb in his car, but she refused. At the end of the school day, she looked out the window. The aide was still there. She knew she couldn't call her parents, else they would be visited and probably sent to a labor camp. She had no choice. For two years she was raped by Beria, her parents in despair and anguish. After Beria tired of her, he forced the family to give up their belongings and move to Lithuania.

If you want to know about the Stalinist purges, and about the horrible sacrifices Russians made during WWII, read this book. Robinson was there. Spending most of his life in the Soviet Union, he suffered, struggled, silently wept, but endured. He lived through it all, an eye witness to history from the purges to Hitler's invasion to Sputnik and the Cold War. You can find Black On Red: My 44 Years In The Soviet Union here.

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