The black Russians and Stalin’s Promised Land

Previously unpublished, October 1 1990
Written in October 1990

Oliver Golden grew up like any other young black man in Mississippi at the end of the 19th century, dirt poor and eyes-down humble. His parents had been born in slavery. When he was a child, he went to the black school and the black church; when he grew up he worked in the cotton fields; when he was old enough, he ran away to New York.

It was in New York eventually that he met Bertha. She was strong and confident and rich and rebellious and she was also white. In their separate lives, each had been merely ordinary, but when they fell for each other – and their friends and family all agree that they really did love each other – they became a pair of freaks, outcasts from their time. He was not welcome on the Upper West Side; she was not wanted in Harlem. When they walked out together, they drew stares or sometimes abuse. They could not live together nor work together; no doctor would treat them; no hotel would serve them. Their families implored them to forget each other. It was an impossible romance.

But to Oliver Golden, struggling to hold his head high in America in the 1920s, the solution was obvious: he and Bertha would take refuge in the Soviet Union, where all people were equal, where racism and poverty had been banished to the dust heap of history, where free men and women were already building the new Promised Land.

It was a notion with a magnetism which, in retrospect, is hard to understand. Yet, just as the openness of the Gorbachev era has finally demolished the Soviet Union’s claim to be the home of revolutionary freedom, so too it has revealed the power which that claim once exerted – not so much over the Russians and other nationalities who found themselves embroiled in revolution by geographical accident, as over the Americans and Europeans who looked to the Soviet Union and who made a deliberate choice to travel across the world in their thousands to take part in ‘the great experiment’.

Oliver Golden, for example, was so enthusiastic about his plan that he went back to the south and invited other black families to join him in his pilgrimage to freedom, and in October 1931, when he and Bertha finally set sail out of the shadow of the Statue of Liberty on their way to Leningrad, ten other black men, four black women and several children joined them in their exodus.

This group was, in turn, only one fragment in a human avalanche of prophets, dreamers, workers, wanderers and other refugees from capitalism which descended on the Soviet Union during its early decades, each of them ready to sacrifice security, comfort and, in some cases, considerable wealth in order to build the new society. Most of them disappeared.

Many were destroyed by Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s, swallowed up by xenophobia, sent away to be shot in the night or abandoned in some camp beyond screaming distance of civilisation. Others survived, but only by destroying themselves morally, pretending that all was well, failing to protest when their friends were removed, occasionally even conspiring in their removal.

Travelling between the Soviet Union and the United States, digging out the lost details of these stories, I found that this was a most striking feature: that while the Promised Land was in reality a place of terror and hardship, the combination of fear and blind faith was so strong that its apostles fervently – and apparently sincerely – denied the evidence of their own experience.

In Moscow, I met a sculptor, an intensely energetic man with a face like a hawk, always prowling round the room gesticulating, who has tried to capture this paradox in a rugged clay figure of a prisoner in a labour camp, head shaved and bowed, standing barefoot in the mud in his tattered uniform, wreathed in barbed wire – the ultimate victim of Stalinism – and yet this figure clutches to his chest, as if it were his only source of hope and salvation, a thick book with one word stamped on it: ‘Stalin’.

The sculptor’s own family suffered this paradox in an extraordinary form. His mother, Nina, and his aunt, Sophie, were both American. In the early 1930s, these two sisters lived together in New York City, both caught up in radical politics, campaigning against monopoly capitalism at home and against fascism in Europe. In 1932, Nina travelled to the Soviet Union, where she fell in love with a Russian Jew, married him and gave birth to the sculptor. Sophie, meanwhile, stayed in New York and joined the Communist Party of the USA. In 1937, as the purges struck the foreign community in the Soviet Union, Nina and her husband were arrested and thrown into labour camps. The husband died there, but Nina survived 18 years behind the wire and was finally released in the Kruschev era, physically alive but beaten, broken and ruined inside.

During her years in the camp, she had lost all contact with her sister, Sophie, and when she eventually obtained a visa and travelled to New York she was horrified to discover that her sister was still a member of the Communist Party, still promoting the ideology which had tormented her and vainly boasting that she had suffered for her beliefs by spending several months in US jails during the McCarthy years. According to the sculptor, his mother was so terrified to find herself talking to a loyal party member that she did not dare to complain, even to her own sister, about what had happened to her and she returned to the Soviet Union to die quietly alone, leaving Sophie to celebrate the revolution in Manhattan.

The surviving Westerners in Moscow all remember similar tragedies. Like Rose Cohen, ‘the flower of the British Communist Party’, who lived in Moscow with her Russian husband, David Petrovsky, and her young son, Alyosha. An English woman who worked alongside her on Moscow News remembers the day in 1934 when they heard the news of the murder of Stalin’s opponent, Sergei Kirov, signalling the beginning of the first great purge.

“Poor Rose went absolutely pale and said ‘This is the end’ and I just said ‘Go on with you, it’ll be all right’. But she knew there would be a clean-up. They pinched her husband first. She wasn’t arrested at that time but after a while they got round to her and she was taken away one day. Nobody knew what had happened to her. We kept trying to get news from whatever contacts we had and finally we got the answer and we learned that she had been shot. Alyosha was left with no parents. He was only seven. Poor Rose adored that boy. He meant everything to her.”

The same elderly English lady was sharing a flat with a group of Americans in 1937, when the secret police arrived: “I remember I was in the bath tub. I heard the knock on the door and I heard them walking about. They arrested Morris Stolar. He was from Chicago and he was the administrator at Moscow News. We never saw him again. Why? There was no why. Things like that just happened. Just having dealings with foreigners was enough to get you arrested. Every time there was a knock on the door, your heart was in your throat.”

Yet, years later, when Stalin, the author of this terror, died, this English woman was devastated. “I wept like everyone else. It was a herd instinct. I remember I felt like everybody else that we were lost. How were we going to survive without him? We had been told for so long that he was a god, that he was the father of the country. He was such a powerful figure with this cult that was built around him, everybody felt that the world was coming to an end.”

From the group of bright-eyed enthusiasts who set sail with Oliver and Bertha Golden in 1931, only one man has survived to recall their encounter with the reality of the revolution, Joe Roane, who grew up in the segregated south where he was treated as black though most of his relatives were American Indian and Irish. Roane stayed in the Soviet Union for only six years and now, aged 85, lives in a brick-built bungalow in the corn fields of eastern Virginia where he was born. His story appears at first to be simple: he says he experienced neither surprise nor disappointment when he arrived in Russia on the grounds that he had no expectations and, more than that, no political views at all.

“I had no interest in politics, didn’t even know what socialism was – still don’t to tell you the truth. I’d heard of Stalin all right. They used to call him ‘the bear’. I was just going to see ‘the bear’, that’s all. Russia didn’t really come across my mind. Socialism didn’t come across my mind.”

Roane insists, in particular, that he saw no signs of terror and certainly never felt threatened himself and yet, as he talks, the story becomes a little more complicated. Along with the rest of the group, Roane settled in the central Asian republic of Uzbechistan, chosen by Golden because its inhabitants were dark-skinned and because it offered agricultural work to the black Americans, who had all worked on farms and, in some cases, studied agricultural science.

While he was there, Roane gave an interview to an American journalist, in which his indifference to politics was nowhere to be seen. “We have no planless hit-or-miss system here such as capitalist agriculture has,” he boasted to the journalist. “Our mechanisation increases year to year thanks to the growing power of Soviet industry.”

He admits it sounds as if he was spouting propaganda. He admits, too, that he named his son, who was born there, Joseph Stalin Roane, but insists that the name was chosen by Soviet officials who never consulted him about it. Yet, when he now recalls the purges and the forced collectivisation of the peasants on whose land he worked, he still shows no hint of disloyalty to the system.

“They didn’t force anybody to work. No, sir. Those who were killed and purged were those who got caught sabotaging. That’s all. They didn’t need no trial or nothing. They knew who they were and they took ’em right away, put him in prison or shot ’em. If someone didn’t want the system to work, they took him away. The way I look at it, if they hadn’t done that they would never have survived.”

Did he ever personally see anyone being accused of sabotage? “No, sir.” So, how could he know that these people weren’t innocent? He gave an example, which, he stressed, was purely hypothetical of a combine driver who might say his machine had broken down. “And you might go and repair it and it takes you maybe a couple of days. Then right away the next day, he says it’s broken again. So you mend it again. Then he says it’s broken again. So you mend it again. And it’s broken again. They don’t have to ask who broke it. They know who broke it and they got a case against him. He doesn’t want the system to work. So they take him away.”

But was this a real case? “No, sir”. So, how could he know that such a man was guilty of sabotage and not simply of driving a badly-made machine? “I saw it myself,” he said. So this was a real case after all? “I saw it myself,” he repeated and told a slightly different story. “I worked with American machinery, combines and things. I had worked with it in the States. So they gave it to me to mend. And I did it. “

Since this was, after all, a true story, could he say what happened to this driver? “I don’t know. He got punished somehow, sent him to Siberia for the rest of his life. I don’t know what happened to him down there – something to punish him.”

But what exactly had Joe Roanne said about this driver at the time? “I said nothing. I wasn’t the one to find out. It wasn’t me. They had to find that out. It was my duty to keep the machines in operation. Now, I knew what was happening, but the policeman, he knew, too. I don’t know how. You didn’t have to tell them too much because they expected stuff to be sabotaged. But it wasn’t me that told them. No, sir.” Had he really not said a thing? “No, sir.” And he would go no further.

Perhaps it was not Joe Roane who accused this nameless combine driver of sabotage. The thought of it – of anyone escaping racism in America to become an Uncle Tom in the Soviet Union – was too damning for him to contemplate. He preferred to insist that there had never been any problem, never been any terror and never any need for moral compromise. “I didn’t think about it,” he said. “I never got scared.” He had come home to Virginia, he said, simply because his mother was ill and he had just never got round to going back to the Soviet Union.

Oliver Golden never made it home. He died in Uzbechistan in 1940. He and Bertha settled in a village near Tashkent, living first in a tent and then in a small house, whose site, on the 50th anniversary of his death, has become an object of official veneration. Golden worked at a plant-breeding station with Joe Roane, developing a strain of cotton which would grow fast enough to flourish in the short Uzbechistan summer. After his death, Bertha stayed on, teaching English in the university, finally dying in 1986.

Their daughter, Lily, who now lives in Moscow, believes her father never lost his faith in the Promised Land. He was treated as an equal with no hint of racism and, for his work, he was rewarded with a house, free schooling, free health care, free education. Bertha, too, according to Lily, never regretted abandoning her comfort and her inheritance in New York and, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, she gave her last $6,000 savings to the government to pay for a tank to defend her family’s freedom. “My father and people like him truly believed in the Soviet Union, as a utopia. My generation respected their parents and their dream, but we did not really believe in it. And the third generation – our children – they know they don’t want it.”

Lily’s daughter, Helena, the granddaughter of Oliver and Bertha, has just gone to live in the United States, searching not so much for her roots as for a new Promised Land.