I was born in the Soviet Union and raised among white people with a single black guy named Arkady in our school whom we tremendously envied because he had a diamond earring, an authentic pair of American jeans and three T-Shirts with foreign words printed on them. All the girls wanted to date him, and cops were afraid to trigger a diplomatic scandal if they touched him even though they knew he had a Soviet passport. His father was a Congolese student who had left him and his Russian mother back in the USSR after graduation from a Moscow uni. When Arkady turned 18, he went to visit his father in Africa but couldn’t stay there for long because of racism. Kids were throwing stones at him in the streets – for them, he was white.
If you wanted to know what Black Privilege felt like, you had to come to the Soviet Union. There, men of colour were almost equal to white “builders of communism”. I said almost because they were a bit more equal than the rest of us.
Do you remember what Whataboutism stands for? It used to be the main retort of the Soviet propaganda to any accusations of human rights violation – “What about lynching blacks?” Back then, it was essential to show to the world that blacks were treated differently in the just socialist society. Well, that wasn’t that hard to do, given that there were very few black people in Russia at the time.
In fact, there were so few of them around that most of us learned how black people looked like from propaganda posters. They featured black Africans or Afro-Americans, either fighting against oppression or suffering from injustice. Seeing how bad they were treated in their home countries made us feel much better about our own. We also were happy for Arkady to be in the USSR and not in dreadful America. Some of the posters were quite good and can be easily recycled today. We’ll get to the irony of it in a moment.
You couldn’t see black people in other art formats. In films or theatre, they were played by black-faced Russians, French comedies were Tide-white at the time, and I could find precious few paintings with black people in them, most of which were not interesting except this one:
There was a simple reason why painters avoided non-white people. They couldn’t properly do their faces because they didn’t have access to black models.
The poster below has nothing to do with the Pride theme. It says “We will not allow [imperialists] to sow discord among nations”. You can see how the artist struggled with non-Caucasian faces.
You can also notice that the men of colour stand behind the white guy that plays the role of an anti-racist knight in shining armour. The Soviets professed equality but still viewed other races as “younger brothers” in need of protection and guidance.
With the onset of capitalism, all this has changed, and the change was so fast, one can only wonder if xenophobia was ingrained in the Russian national character at some deep, primaeval level and was only waiting to resurface in all its ugly glory.
Millions of migrants from ex-USSR Central Asian republics flooded Russia becoming Russia’s idiosyncratic blacks, doing cheap jobs and having fewer rights than a properly registered pet.
These migrants are feared and disliked by the majority of white Russians, though many might say they harbour no hatred towards Asians in general. Yet, if you live near a construction site where hundreds of migrants work and live, you take care of not getting out alone after dark. You may sympathise with migrants’ plight, but safety comes first.
This American photo from the 1960s shows the exact position of Russia in the 2020s.
You see, the irony I was talking about is that Soviet posters made in Russia in the 1960s can be easily used by protesters in today’s America, while the racist ideology from the States of the 1960s has found its perfect place in today’s Russia. How’s that for cultural exchange?
It was very different thirty or forty years ago. Soviet artists loved travelling to Central Asia to paint people of colour working in the cotton fields or relaxing in the shade of a tree in their ornate costumes – enjoying socialist labour and its fruits. It was, in a way, a society of simple pleasures.
When everyone is equally poor, has two pair of shoes, a single suit, lives in a tiny apartment and is given a roll of toilet paper a month, equality is a means of survival, a necessity.
Socialist equality also means that there are no art collectors, no art market, and the only client is the state. Artists don’t generally like it, because it kills the freedom of expression. This is true. But it still provides a stable income, security, and even a bit of celebrity status. Of course, as soon as capitalism is in, you get it all. You get wealthy collectors, critics who explain art to the collectors, art dealers who bankroll the critics to direct collectors to the art that the dealers represent, and at the end of the food chain, celebrity artists who are only happy to make art that sells. And the Met Gala, of course, don’t forget the Met Gala and champagne.
So, I am not surprised that not a single contemporary artist of note in Russia is interested in exploring the rise of Russian nationalism or Asian migrant suffering. When art critics write, “This artist explores/exposes the truth/pain/controversy of the human condition” they mean those humans who have money to buy works of art, and F the rest.
I will not be surprised if the same is true of artists elsewhere. Of course, there’s a lot of virtue signalling flying around, like Larry Gagosian’s joining #BlackOutTuesday. Come on, it can’t, and it doesn’t change anything. The Western art market is about white billionaire collectors. A functioning market is required for any industry to develop. Until this market is saturated by black billionaire art collectors the only kind of black art that would be promoted would be the kind that Larry’s white collectors might like, so ultimately it would be black art made for white tastes. Of course, tax-funded museums and galleries can play a role, but they don’t really have funds to change the game.
I can’t blame artists who are unwilling to sacrifice commercial success and reject glamour to focus on addressing today’s painful and controversial issues. First, everyone has a right to do business in any legal way they fancy, and second, a commercially successful artist may be too sated to have the required creative focus. Because this focus is not about posting a black square on their social pages. It is about reaching a level of understanding deeper than just stating the obvious in the tonality and style of a propaganda poster.
Perhaps, what is happening now in the US will provide the required motivation to do something meaningfully different, even if it goes contrary to the market logic. But I am not optimistic about it.
PS Some people may think that the dismantling of capitalism may help to solve inequality problems. Yes, it may. But be prepared to learn how to use newspapers for toilet paper and spend hours queueing for basic foodstuffs.
PPS There’s a great Russian film about the plight of a migrant woman – I haven’t seen it, but I know it was shortlisted for the Oscars in 2019.