Servants, Aristocrats, and Volunteers:
The Black Experience in Imperial and Soviet Russia
by Reginald Smith
When people think of Black Expats, or those that achieved fame far from home, one naturally thinks of France, specifically Paris. France after all was responsible for incubating many great personalities from musicians such as Sidney Bechet and countless other jazz greats, author James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, and other great personalities. This story has been told in many books. Next one may think Britain, Republican Spain or even Germany and Italy. Russia would come in distant place, if at all.
However, though Russia was never a mecca of sorts for Black Americans and Caribbeans, it has its own great history that is rarely, if ever, told. There are few sources in English, however, one great source is an article by Allison Blakely, “The Negro in Imperial Russia: A Preliminary Sketch”, in the October 1976 edition of “The Journal of Negro History” (also a full book “Russia and the Negro: Blacks in Russian History and Thought
“). Blacks have had a recorded presence in Russia for several centuries. Given the long communication with the Russian people and the Byzantine Empire which extended into parts of Africa, perhaps this stretches even farther. Blakely classifies the Blacks in Russia into three main categories.
First, are those who are native to Russia and lived mostly in the Black Sea area near Georgia and the Caucus republics in small communities of several hundred people each. There were several theories about how they ended up there from those quoting Herodotus’s discussion of dark-skinned peoples in the Colchis to the explanation more accepted by Soviet historians: they are descendants of servants or slaves of Ottoman Turkish or Georgian rulers in the area. Regardless, they were (and maybe still are) in the area and largely intermarry, adopt Russian Orthodox Christianity, and speak local dialects.
The next two groups will be the focus of this article and are groups of servants or workers for the Russian nobility and independent adventurers, entrepreneurs, or travelers to Russia. Blacks in Russia were primarily known by the term ‘arap’ and began arriving in large numbers starting with Peter the Great who hired two Black sailors and an artist to come back to Russia with him after his sojourn in Holland. Peter the Great also hired the most famous Black in Russia, Abram Hannibal. Abram Hannibal was the father of a famous Russian general, Ivan Hannibal who also credited by some founding the city of Kherson in the Ukraine (others credit the famous Potemkin), and great grandfather of the legendary poet Alexander Pushkin. He was also influential in his own right and Peter the Great sent him to learn engineering in France and he became an army engineer upon his return to Russia. It became popular amongst the Russian nobility from the 1700s until the Russian Revolution to have Black servants. These could be hired in Europe or bought from slavery in the Ottoman Empire but it was Russian practice to emancipate them and give them freedom upon arrival in Russia. A progressive gesture, though a bit of a stark contrast to the feudal serfdom that existed in Russia until the mid 19th century.
The Russian Imperial court kept a retinue of about twenty Black servants for several centuries. This surprised an American diplomatic official who met them and discovered to his shock one of them hailed from Tennessee! The wife of one of these royal servants, Nancy Gardner Prince, was extensively covered in last year’s Back in the Day. She was in Russia to join her husband and became a favorite of the court and ran a prosperous seamstress business. One of these royal servants in the early 19th century, Nelson, had arrived with future president John Quincy Adams and had been allowed to join the Czar’s staff and recruit a Black sailor to join him.
The third class, the adventurers we can call them are amongst the most illustrious of Russia’s Black Expats. They included entrepreneurs, artists, actors, and others. One Black American, named George Thomas came to St. Petersburg in the 1890s as a valet and started his own business accumulating a small fortune by running several amusement ventures culminating at the eve of World War I with a large entertainment complex in Moscow that included hotels and restaurants. Another Black with commercial interests in Russia was Richard T. Greener who was the US Commercial Agent in Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East from 1898-1905. A graduate of Harvard, he keenly saw the great economic opportunity in Siberia from the Trans-Siberian railroad and its untapped mineral potential and unsuccessfully tried to set up a US consul there. Since he also spoke French, which the Russian nobility used to communicate, he was more readily able to move in high circles. He also corresponded with Booker T. Washington and wrote a scathing condemnation of anti-Semitic pogroms occurring at the time.
In arts and entertainment, the famous Black American 19th century Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge also spent some time touring in Russia, sometimes being the first to perform Shakespeare’s plays to Russian audiences and receiving an honorary membership in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. Jimmy Winkfield, who had won a Kentucky Derby in the US, moved to Russia in 1904 as a rider for the Russian nobility and amassed a small fortune as well. His life is chronicled in the recent biography “Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield” by Edward Hotaling. Finally, an East African from modern day Tanzania, Salim bin Abakari, wrote of his travels in Russia in a Swahili chronicle as he toured the country with his German employer.
The prosperity and esteem that some araps held in Imperial Russia ended with the Russian Revolution. Both George Thomas and Jimmy Winkfield had to flee the violence and persecution of the Bolshevik Revolution and lost their fortunes. Winkfield reportedly had to abandon $50,000 cash (about $700k in current dollars!) and 4,000 shares of Russian railroad stock! However, the coming of Communism did not end the history of Black Expats in Russia but began a new chapter.
In her book, “Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise“, Joy Gleason Carew describes the experiences of Blacks in the Soviet Union in post-Revolution Russia. Some were those who were openly communist or had sympathies and came out of curiosity or invitation. These include persons such as W.E.B DuBois (later in his life) and actor Paul Robeson. However, many came not out of any interest in socialism but as technical specialists or diplomats. Lenin and later Stalin, who initially had wanted to purge all ‘bourgeoisie specialists’ aka technicians, realized he would need such men to develop Russia. Russia actually recruited many technicians, Black and White, from the US in the depths of the Depression, sometimes with the acquiescence or support of Western companies. Two tales, give a good example. Robert Robinson was a tool and die machinist at Ford and was recruited by Russians to train factory workers in Russia for almost double pay. He served in a variety of manufacturing training roles but eventually began to sour on Russia and fear for his own safety in the chaos of World War II and losing many friends to Stalin’s brutal and paranoid purges. There were many others such as Homer Smith, a postal systems specialist who worked in the Moscow Post Office and Bernard Powers, a Howard graduated civil engineer who worked in agriculture in Uzbekistan in Soviet Asia. The famous scientist at the Tuskegee Institute, George Washington Carver was also solicited for advice and assistance on getting skilled Blacks to go to Russia or provide technical advice.
The veneer of egalitarian paradise soon wore thin through Stalin’s purges, racism behind the official Soviet Propaganda, and the dreary life of Communism. Several articles for Ebony such as by Homer Smith, “Russia is not the Promised Land” (March, 1958) and “How Negroes Live in Russia” by William B. Davis (January, 1960) describe this. Davis described several expats, most of whom had moved to Russia in the 1930s such as George Tynes, considered a leading duck and fish expert in the Soviet Union at the time. Having left during the height of the Depression in Jim Crow, he felt many were poorly informed by propaganda and overly pessimistic about progress in American race relations and some had not even heard of Martin Luther King! While noting they had as much freedom as any other Russian, personal freedom was drastically limited in Russia in general. Davis’s article is available free by searching in Google Books and is recommended to all.
In Russia, like elsewhere there is a large and varied history of Black presence and accomplishment. From Imperial times to Communism and likely the present (not covered here) there have always been those who left for abroad and made a permanent mark on history.