Black In The Ussr
issue 211 - September 1990
Racism is on the rise in the former Eastern bloc.
Tajudeen Abdul Raheem looks at the forces driving it
- and at the implications for Third World people.
An African psychology student recently conducted an experiment. He donned a pair of Levis, cowboy boots and hat and hit the streets of Moscow. People came up to him and asked him questions. to which he replied in an American accent. This met with a warm, interested response. He was quizzed about Michael Jackson. Lionel Ritchie and other Black American stars. No-one called the student abisyan (monkey) - the name he was used to on buses and trains, in taxis and bars.
As a Black American he was seen first as a superpower citizen, a master of consumerism and creator of popcorn. Big Mac and blue jeans. Cold War propaganda in which the US was the principal enemy, had encouraged awe and an envious interest in Americans in general. Colour of skin was clearly secondary.
Had he been Latin American he might have been seen primarily as a revolutionary veteran. As an Arab he might have been seen as a source of hard currency. As an Asian he might have been seen as a Soviet from the far east of the Union. But as an African studying in the Soviet Union, his experience was of naked racism. Why?
A quick look at the history of Soviet-African relations provides some of the answers. A Soviet journalist called B Asoyan recently tackled the issue in Komsomol Pravda, the youth edition of the Soviet daily. His article bears the ambiguous title: 'About the Black Colour - a colour you can never miss'.
It tells us that the first time most Soviet people came into contact with Black people was the 1957 Festival of Youth to which newly independent Ghana sent representatives.
By the mid-1960s many more African countries had 'son independence and could send athletes to the Soviet International Sports Festival held in the Ukraine. This created uproar among the local population. who had picked up the image - left over from slavery times in the US - of Black men as insatiable sexual athletes. The US slavers had responded to this myth by hanging hundreds of Black men. The authorities in 1960s USSR responded by decreeing that Black visitors should not go out after 8pm - for their own safety.
Like the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe had virtually no contact with Africa until the 1950s and 1960s, when the communist-bloc countries supported Third World liberation movements against colonial domination. During the Cold War, Western colonial powers saw' all Third World liberation movements as communist inspired. The communist bloc, for its part, saw an opportunity to spread its ideology. The prevailing idea that 'my enemy's enemy' is my' friend' benefited the Third World - initially at any rate.
But in the long term it promoted the image of Third World people as helpless. in need of salvation from the marauding power of Western capitalist nations. They could only' be saved through Soviet-style top-down socialism. It was case of 'copy' us or copy' them'.
In fact, the images of Africa that were fed to Soviet and Eastern European people were not essentially different from those fed to Western citizens. Westerners justified their exploitation of Africa and Africans by seeing it as the white man's burden' to 'liberate' these people from their African way's. The Eastern bloc, though not exploiting Africans directly, also sought to convince their own working classes that it was their international duty to 'liberate' these people from the Western capitalist oppressors.
Pro-Soviet trade unionists, students and other Third World people were brought to the communist countries for training in the universities and technical schools as evidence of this 'internationalism'. It gave rise to a popular feeling amongst Eastern Europeans that their problems of inadequate resources and technology were due to their internationalist obligations.
It is not therefore surprising that in the present era of perestroika and glasnost foreigners - and especially Third World people - became the first target of nationalist, isolationist East Europeans. Since the advent of glasnost a can of worms of racism has burst shamelessly across Eastern Europe.
So far attention has been focussed on Pamyat (Heritage) and other neo-fascist groups in the Soviet Union and their activities against the Jews. But every anti-Jewish organisation is also anti-Black - whether it be the National Front in France and Britain or the Nazis in Germans'.
The problem is not just extremist groups of racists. A disturbing coalition in Eastern Europe between right-wing forces and peresotroika enthusiasts is emerging that is detrimental to the wishes of Black and Third World people.
One force stresses a return to some glorious past before 'socialism' and the other is based upon the dawn of a new era in a 'common European home' (Gorbachev's own words). Although they start off from different ideological positions they will both have the effect of reviving European chauvinism, isolationism and xenophobia.
Discrimination against Africans and other Third World people in Eastern Europe is nothing new. But the existence of official communist ideology and its adherence to internationalism did help to check people's prejudices. With the pro-democracy' rejection of the past, however, has come a rejection of internationalism and of support for Third World liberation movements.
Many people now see previous solidarity with the Third World as a stumbling block on their way to being European. Being properly European means being unsympathetic towards other people. The motto used to be 'We can't be racists because we are socialists'. Now it seems to be 'We used to be communists nosy we are just Europeans'. In their quest to return to Europe there is the danger that they' will throw' away' all values of universalism and internationalism, promoting national chauvinism instead.
No event demonstrates this attitude better than the demand by' the miners of the Ukraine during their highly' publicized strike last year that all aid to the Third World be stopped.
The bottom line is that Africans are viewed as 'people we do things for - and now that we want to do things for ourselves, sorry comrades, you'll just have to go elsewhere.'
And they do. There were 22,000 Africans studying in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe up to 1988. At the beginning of this year there were only 7.200. The main reason for this has been the rise in racist and fascist groups in the East. Students now try to go to India or Cuba instead.
Eastern Europeans are going elsewhere too. Another worrying trend in African-European relations is the opening up of the East to South Africa. It seems that they are judging the degree of their democracy by their ability to condone undemocratic repressive and inhuman regimes. Thus Pik Botha, South Africa's foreign minister, was one of the first visitors to post-revolutionary Czechoslovakia and Hungary. There are even reports of Hungarians emigrating to South Africa. There are glimmers of hope on this horizon.
The closed nature of society has been a source of many' of the problems in Eastern Europe. Now' that it is more open people can express themselves. This may take the form of racist expression - but by the same token it will make it possible to campaign against racism, which has never been properly addressed as an issue. In this area, anyway, lessons are being drawn from the West. The Immigrants Political Forum, a race-relations campaign group that has become increasingly active in East Germany, has its origins in West Berlin.
The opening up of Cold War frontiers also removes some of the causes of resentment against foreigners living in the Soviet Union. Foreign students often enjoyed privileges their Soviet counterparts could not. For example, foreigners were allowed to travel abroad twice a year. This meant they could go to the West during vacations, earn some money, buy Western consumer items, take them back and sell them to their less fortunate Soviet fellow students.
It is hard to tell what will happen. But the greater pluralism which is currently throwing up so many bad things, could throw up some good ones too. Soviet people may now, for example, have the opportunity to meet Black people who are not students - perhaps entrepreneurs or people who have come to settle.
One thing is clear, though. Throughout Eastern Europe the State, which up to now has been the only' protector against racism, is in disarray'. Anything can - and does - happen. Which means the Blacks and non-racists of Eastern Europe are going to have to organize themselves - and fast.
Tajudeen Abdul Raheem works with the Africa Research and Information Bureau in London.
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