Black Privilege, or Back in the USSR

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:

Vitaly Polyakov. Russian Snow. 1967.

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.

Are you?

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.

 

15 comments

  1. In Thessaloniki, visited MoMus. George Costakis was taxi-driver for embassies, and collected many avant-garde works in USSR. Not a white billionaire.
    My wife last week sold two paintings to truck-driver that had spend every penny remaining after paying rent and food on art. Most special collections. Leaving the hype art aside, bought as ‘investment’, there is still soom room for enthousiastic collectors and artists.
    Otherwise, nice essay. Thanks.
    regards, Drager

    1. Hi, Drager – Costaki (Russian omit the “s” at the end) is a legend in Moscow… Art is made, sold, and bought by people – no argument here. But the big budgets of the art market that define who becomes famous, exhibited, promoted are today pretty much dependent on the whims of the super-rich. And – of course – people with Costakis’ insight may build collections of no-names that one day will be fetching millions, but only after the super-rich are sold the idea that it is great art.

      1. While over 50% of the budget for purchase of art is spend by 0.1% of (rich) collectors, buying art from 0.2% of artists, we are the others. Less dependent on selling art for ‘investment’. I’m lucky not to be dependent upon sales.
        Main drive is curiosity.
        all the best, stay healthy, don’t visit slaughterhouses
        Drager

  2. Happy to see you writing again! Looong awaited )
    I’m not any close to say there is no racism in Russia. Once i found a nail in the tea pack and that was just another proof anything could be found anywhere. But if we talk the US… It’s kinda hardware shop with tones of nails. If only the South Africa is the one to suffer more. Yes russians avoid close contacts migrants but don’t forget the vast majority of them live in other countries and speak other languages, they don’t bring families and don’t even plan to assimilate. Often they openly don’t like the country they earn money in (it’s not strange though as i see some Russians who got everything in this country and are pretty wealthy but use any chance to find/create any disadvantages of being Russian). But when it comes to people who assimilate, i can’t say they suffer from racism on the society level. Unlike the US for one, they go to same schools and live in the same blocks as ‘ordinary’ Russians, pass through same exams, pay credits, go to same clinics. There are plenty of materials and statistics showing it has nothing in common with the US case. I’d rather say in Russia the migrants’ communities (Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijan etc) close doors to some businesses in front of the russians. First what comes to my mind – restaurants, hotels, services of different kind. So saying (in the today’s context especially) racism is a common problem of the post Soviet countries… Even for your usual attitude (offensive as to me) towards Russia sounds a little bit притянуто за уши)) I just can’t get why (

    1. Hi,

      I’ll skip the personal jabs. The idea that one should be grateful to one’s country for everything and anything one achieves has been a favourite retort of state propaganda since I went to school. State’s favourite trick to make you feel in debt and be prepared for sacrifices. I’ll just say that maybe, unlike many, I haven’t developed the Stockholm syndrome, thank you, I pay my share of taxes, but I can be critical of the ways the state spends it.

      It would be difficult to discuss your view or counter view to what I wrote, point by point because even what you write is quite racist, in my view: “when it comes to people who assimilate, i can’t say they suffer from racism on the society level.” It means to become an equal member of the society one has to be assimilated. It means that people have to change their behaviour, adopt a culture, get re-educated and so on. If society rejects and ejects unassimilated ethnicities it is systemically racist. I also believe that under “assimilation” you mean that they need to behave as “normal Russians” and then they would be ok. Well, that’s uber-racist. But it is strange to discuss that stuff, really.

      This entry On racism in Russia can be a good start: https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A0%D0%B0%D1%81%D0%B8%D0%B7%D0%BC_%D0%B2_%D0%A0%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%81%D0%B8%D0%B8

      As for the xenophobic mindset, the best artistic representation of it is here:
      https://www.mk.ru/social/2019/02/19/ekspertiza-vnov-ne-nashla-ekstremizma-v-kartine-vasi-lozhkina-velikaya-prekrasnaya-rossiya.html

      …and I wouldn’t dismiss the case when taxi operators were changing names of Asian drivers into Russian-sounding names because they were losing money massively.

      As for my usual attitude, I am sorry you are offended. I really am, because it is not an “attitude” but knowledge and observation and I can’t do much about historical facts or current events, can I?

  3. Simply great post!
    In Bulgaria it is the same – the racism that was unleashed post-communism is horrifying. First target – the gypsies. And then, a handful of Syrian refugees made the mistake to pass through Bulgaria. But the cherry on top of the cake was when BG football fans were chanting racist slogans during a match with England in Sofia. The match had to be stopped 3 times – and in the end the English beat the Bulgarians 6-0! I painted my feelings of shame and hopeless rage that day.

    1. Thank you! Racism is a common porblem for all post soviet countries… You won’t believe it, but a friend of mine put this post on his facebook and I was branded a racist by Russian emigres to the States…

  4. So good to get the other side of the perspective Kirill. Not just from an artistic POV but also from a reality POV. You sum it up in your first PS re newspaper sheets. I know that I will try to stick with exported newspaper if it comes to that. The finest is the paper used from Le Monde International (cigarette paper thin!) in case anyone needs a few tips.
    However the most poignant point Kirill makes, folks, its that about there being Black (African-Americans and others from other parts of the world) mega rich who can sustain Black artists –as well as others. Blacks however, shouldn’t be the only motor for non-white artists. People of ALL colours should buy artists from ALL backgrounds and ethnic groups. The real question for all the readers (and you) is will the rich stil buy art in the years to come? Yes, it is a real concern for us artists.
    Another good post. Thank you

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