The great African American escape to Soviet Russia

While the Soviet Union under Stalin did plenty of internal ethnic cleansing, it also attempted to present a carefully curated vision of equality to the West, in contrast to America. It was a land where anyone could live their dream. The notion of equality and relative freedom appealed to Black Americans living under Jim Crow, which restricted where they could live, learn, and work, who they could marry, and how far they could advance their own lives.

Amidst its many failures, the USSR offered a cathartic experience for descendants of American slavery. It was an alternate reality, where racism –and gender discrimination– were strictly not tolerated, even punishable by state law. Case in point: when Henry Ford sold his model-T assembly line to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, among the thousands of American factory workers that immigrated to the Soviet Union was Robert Robinson, a skilful engineer, and the only person of colour of the Ford recruits. When he was violently beaten by two White American co-workers shortly after his arrival, the Soviet press championed Robinson's case as an example of American racism and his attackers were promptly kicked out of the country.

With his strange and new-found fame, Robinson tentatively stayed on in Russia, but lived carefully under Stalin's paranoid regime. Meanwhile, during the Great Purge of the 1930s, the vast majority of Ford's American workers ended up as political prisoners in the Gulag where they were worked to death.

Black American émigrés found success in technology and science and the arts, particularly the film industry. Read how the Soviet Union welcomed Black Americans at Messy Nessy Chic.