From a small, busy, square in Irkutsk – sandwiched by a dull modern shopping centre – soars an eye-catching, if rather intimidating, mural. Covering the entire side of a four story building, this bold red and white artwork was completed in 1967 to mark the 50th Anniversary of the October Revolution. For me, the most striking element was not the size or the powerful engraved lyrics of the ‘Internationale’, but rather the faces. Gazing out into the bright Communist future are figures representing five different races, most notably East Asian, Arab, and African.
Since the genesis of my interest in all things (Post)Soviet, I have found myself drawn time and time again to the representation of people of colour in the art of the USSR.
In 2017, I visited the Tate Modern’s exhibition ‘Red Star Over Russia’, and saw something I had never seen before in a London museum: People – specifically women – of colour represented with dignity in art. Of course, there are a plethora of talented PoC artists in the British capital, but these artists are woefully under represented on the mainstream museum scene. I adore the National Gallery, the Tate, the Royal Academy of Art, et. al., but I had resigned myself to only seeing people of colour in these spaces as ‘appendages’ or ‘exotic additions’ to portraits of White Europeans. Close your eyes and you can probably imagine the kind of images I’m talking about: A black boy in fanciful livery serving a white master, an Arab woman in a harem sensuously rendered by a white artist, caricatures of East Asian people adorning the chinoiserie of wealthy white owners. Exoticism, Orientalism, and Outright Racism were what I had come to expect – if, indeed, people of colour were ever featured at all.
What made ‘Red Star Over Russia’ so unexpectedly moving for me was seeing people of colour represented not as exotic appendages but rather as dignified actors in their own right. While not in the Tate exhibition, the following image gives an idea of the kind of representation present. In this stamp commemorating 50 years of International Women’s Day, we see an Arab, Indian, Black, Chinese, and White woman joining hands under the banner of peace. I have never seen a Western image from 1960 with this kind of unapologetic representation. To those who have always seen people who ‘look like them’ in the media, in the arts, in literature – it may be hard to understand why I found this so moving. It’s just propaganda, you might say, everything about it is fake. To that I say: When you have been largely starved of seeing anything approximating non-Orientalising representations of East Asians in art, anything that breaks that mould is like a breath of fresh air.
Let’s Start With The Basics
Most Soviet Art is propaganda – and most propaganda tells beautiful lies. The Soviet Union was far from a multiracial utopia. There is a wealth of literature on the contradictions of the korenizatsiya policy in which Soviet authorities at once strengthened (and often created) national identities and persecuted them if they became too strong. This article by Eric D. Weitz details how much of the worst repressions of the period were based on national/ethnic grounds. However, the official line was ‘The Friendship of Peoples’, both on a domestic and international level. Rousing propaganda songs such as ‘Moscow, Peking’ and ‘To Indian Friends’ embody this bold State-sponsored internationalism. Within the USSR, As RFE/RL journalist Brian Whitmore writes, authorities promoted ‘an enthusiastic — if painstakingly controlled — mixing of its many nationalities into a race-neutral “New Soviet Man” ‘. A significant motivation for this was, of course, competition with the capitalist United States. According to the Soviet authorities, if America was riddled with racism and exploitation then the USSR was a shining beacon of equality. This article in The Guardian by Steven Rose explains how Soviet propaganda highlighted the oppression of African Americans in attempt to lure them to Communism with the promise of liberation.
Simply because positive racial representation in Soviet Art was motivated by propagandistic and anti-American aims, however, does not mean that it should be dismissed. Consider this poster (right). In an era in which many American public spaces remained segregated, and African Americans were regarded as second-class citizens, the image of a smartly dressed black student walking hand in hand with a white classmate is striking. Regardless of motivation, the empowering potential of the dignified depiction of people of colour should not be underestimated.
What About The White Gaze?
European Art is heavily characterised by the White Male Gaze. That is, the depiction of women – particularly women of colour – is informed by an imperialism and latent misogyny. Those nauseating paintings of ‘exotic’ looking odalisques in harems are not expressions of objective reality, but of the orientalising fantasies of the White Male. Thus, even though Soviet representations of people of colour are largely positive, one might argue that any potential empowerment is dampened by the fact that many of these images were produced by white artists. The picture, however, is not so simple. If you have visited Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, chances are that you have seen this painting: Semyon Chuikov’s ‘Daughter of Soviet Kyrgyzia’ (1948). Here we have a distinctly Asian-looking girl gazing boldly out over the fields of her homeland. Chuikov was himself Kyrgyz, so dismissing the image as the imposition of European-influenced artistic style upon a Central Asian culture would be overly simplistic.
While not Soviet, Chinese Communist Art provides an interesting addition. In Soviet depictions of USSR-PRC friendship, it would be possible to argue the discursive dominance of the former’s predominantly white leadership. However, in Chinese Communist Art we see a similar empowerment of people of colour. During the research for this post, I was particularly struck by this poster (left) in which an African mother with a child strapped to her back prepares to oust American imperialists from the continent. Here, we have a painting of an African woman created by a Chinese artist who was likely influenced by Soviet Socialist Realism. Below is a photograph of the tomb of Angolan Presidnet Agostinho Neto which demonstrates the influence of both Communist ideology and art in Africa. So yes, the Soviet Socialist Realism style in which people of colour are depicted can be considered the product of white European traditions – but I would argue that it also provided a new artistic language which was adopted and and adapted by non-white peoples for their own empowerment.
This post is a deeply subjective piece, reflecting my personal response to the racial representation in Soviet Art as a British woman of colour. It by no means seeks to represent how all people of colour do / should view the visual media of this period. Indeed, the controversy around Dakar’s ‘African Renaissance’ monument (pictured below) illustrates that the negotiation by non-white peoples of their relationship to Soviet Art remains very much a live and deeply fraught issue. As a person of colour living in Russia, I have found it particularly interesting to consider this topic in light of the worrying rise of racism and ethnic nationalism here. Modern adverts in Moscow are blindingly white to the point that it is a relief to look at the Soviet propaganda paintings featured above. Not that lack of representation is by any means an exclusively Russian problem – as I mentioned at the beginning, I grew up in the UK and have seen almost no powerful representations of East Asians. So as our societies continue to confront, negotiate, and tackle the entrenched dominance of White representation in the arts, it seems essential to revisit this too-often overlooked aspect of Soviet Art.