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  • Jim Crow in the Soviet Union
  • Rebecca Gould (bio)

"We are all colonized"

marginalia in a library copy of Dominance Without Hegemony by Ranajit Guha, Indian historian

The reader of Langston Hughes's writings on the Soviet experiment is bound to be confused. In the 1930s, during the peak of Stalinist repression, Hughes produced volumes praising the Soviet Union, particularly the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan where, as he writes in the second volume of his autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander (1956), "the majority of the [Soviet Union's] colored citizens lived" (123). When Hughes penned these words, his sporadic involvement with the Communist party and the Soviet project belonged to a former era. Two decades earlier, Hughes had published A Negro Looks at Central Asia (1934) soon after his first visit to Uzbekistan. In this incendiary work—notable for its contrast with Hughes's later writings—Hughes compared the American South where "the colour line is hard and fast, Jim Crow rules, and I am treated like a dog" to Soviet Uzbekistan where "Russian and native, Jew and gentile, white and brown, live and work together" (Hughes, A Negro Looks 5-7). The entire narrative of these sketches, originally published in the prominent Moscow newspaper Izvestiia, is structured by such contrasts (Chioni Moore 1118). Images of Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, where cotton has lost its value in the post-Depression economy and the factories are closed, are juxtaposed to an exotic Soviet paradise where "textile mills now run full blast" (12). Hughes's scathing critique of the politics of share-cropping and indentured servitude in the American South is followed by a programmatically positive and, some might argue, willfully blind account of Soviet Central Asia where "everybody lives better than they did before" (26). At the time of Hughes's writing entire classes of people, the kulaks (or landholding peasants), were being dispossessed of their homes and livelihood. "Here, in the Soviet Union," Hughes enthusiastically exclaimed, "all the ugly barriers of race have been broken down" (18-19). Hughes predicted that Russian and Turkmen boys growing up in 1930s Central Asia "will never know the distorted lives full of distrust and hate and fear that we know in America" (19).1

The 1930s Soviet Union, particularly in Central Asia, the territory Hughes knew best, appeared to Hughes as the fulfillment of an otherwise unrealized and unrealizable American dream. A panorama of Uzbek students learning to read the Latin alphabet which the "mullahs who formerly controlled education deemed unholy" (25) is counterpoised to an American Bible Belt where "hundreds of Negros are lynched . . . and farces of justice like the Scottsboro trial are staged" (27). Hughes did not note—in part because he did not know, but also in part because he chose not to see—that the replacement of the Arabic [End Page 125] script by Latin and later Cyrillic was part of a systematic campaign to suppress Central Asians' rich Islamic heritage. In certain respects, this coercive Soviet "enlightenment" was simply a twentieth-century extension of Tsarist Russia's colonial policies.2

In Langston Hjuz Shecrlari, an Uzbek collection of his poems published in Tashkent in 1934, Hughes memorably eulogized the month that changed world history:

Then OctoberCame to cleanThe world's shoes,

To purify

The mercenary minds.Look: here

Is a countryWhere everyone shines,Stomachs fullFrom their arms' toil.Under the Soviet sun.3

If the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917 "cleaned the world's shoes" in Hughes's estimation, the significance of this month was not so overwhelmingly positive for the millions of Soviet citizens who were killed, tortured, exiled to GULAGs, systematically dispossessed of their lands, and deported. Hughes's "October" resonates with the oeuvre of Vladimir Mayakovsky, a revolutionary poet whom Hughes cites as a source of inspiration (A Negro Looks 27). As every aficionado of Russian literature knows, Mayakovsky, the most eloquent herald of the revolution in its earliest phase, was ultimately one of its many victims: persuaded that the Soviet experiment had culminated in failure, Mayakovsky killed himself on April 14, 1930. Eight years later, Sanjar Siddiq, the poet who translated Hughes's poems into Uzbek...