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Opinions | Anti-Black racism is upending easy narratives about the exodus from Ukraine

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/3/2022 Nana Osei-Opare, Thom Loyd
People wait to go to Poland at the Shehyni Ukrainian border post on March 1. © Emmanuel Duparcq/AFP/Getty Images People wait to go to Poland at the Shehyni Ukrainian border post on March 1.

Amid the unfolding tragedy of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, anti-Black racism is creating tiers of sympathy and exclusion over who is permitted to receive Western and global sympathy and escape the crisis.

Nearly 1 million people have fled Ukraine in recent days. But reports on social media and videos have emerged of African students and residents of Ukraine saying they are being prevented from boarding trains and buses as they attempt to escape the violence, while others say that they have been stopped at border crossings. Some observers have seemed surprised that there are any Black people in Ukraine. But there is a long history of African students and others spending time in Eastern Europe and Ukraine, including during the Soviet era. There is also a long history of anti-Blackness in these places, and those legacies are playing out today in troubling ways.

In the late 19th century, European empires colonized large parts of Africa primarily through violence and destruction. Many Africans resisted and fought against European colonization and laws, but European empires hardened. After World War I, while the Western world accepted President Woodrow Wilson’s ideals of self-determination, this was not extended to Africans.

Inspired by the Soviet Union’s forcefully anti-racist, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist attitudes and calls, the first wave of Africans who went to the U.S.S.R. to study in the 1920s were Communists, anti-colonialists or pan-Africanists. To get to Moscow and avoid colonial detection, these individuals forged documents, employed pseudonyms and used circuitous routes. In Moscow, they learned about Marxism-Leninism and met other anti-colonialists from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. These interactions helped spur common global anti-colonial and anti-imperial collaborations. But this honeymoon period quickly collapsed.

Stalin’s stranglehold on power, pivot from internationalism, reported atrocities of the Soviet gulags and his support for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia — a global symbol of African independence and Black liberation — sparked disillusionment with the Soviets in the 1930s and 1940s. Only after Stalin’s death and Nikita Khrushchev’s recalibration of Soviet policy and attitudes toward Africans in the 1950s did Africans begin to view the Soviets positively again.

By the 1950s and 1960s, the Cold War had carved the world into two opposing camps. During this period, many African colonies had either become independent or were in the process of throwing off the yoke of colonialism, threatening the established international order. In both Moscow and Washington, political leaders looked to education to tie the nascent African postcolonial elite to their own respective systems. Newly independent nations encouraged education abroad as an expedient way to “Africanize” their governments and build human capital, a civil service and an industrial economy. To curry favor, the Soviets offered scholarships to young Africans from newly independent states such as Ghana and Senegal as well as countries like Angola and Mozambique, which were still struggling against colonial rule.

The Africans who went to study in the Soviet Union in the 1960s were nonideological, scientific-technical-medical students or military trainees.

One-third of African students in the U.S.S.R. studied in Ukraine — in the cities of Kharkiv, Kherson, Kyiv, Kryvyi Rih, Lviv and Odessa. Many vacationed in Crimea and along the coast of the Black Sea. By the end of the 1960s, several thousand students from across Africa were studying in the Soviet Union each year.

Ukraine was a Soviet showcase. To highlight the successes of the socialist economic model, Soviet authorities routinely showed African delegations and dignitaries Ukraine's industrial success and beauty.

Yet many African students had difficulty adjusting to life in Ukraine. They complained about cold weather, the monotony of life, lack of access to familiar foods and routine violence inflicted upon them. A deadly and bloody violent clash between Ghanaians and Ukrainians in Kherson in 1964 characterized these fears.


Video: Ukrainian school in Brooklyn helps kids cope with troubling situation overseas (CBS New York)

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In 1964, a Ukrainian accosted a Ghanaian student who was smoking a cigarette. A massive brawl between Ukrainians and the Ghanaians ensued. The melee resulted in the Soviets suffering several “casualties,” while Ghanaians “sustained considerable physical injury.”

Before the unprovoked attack, Kherson residents had threatened the principal at the Ghanaians’ school “that they would molest the trainees of the school.” Soviet authorities turned a blind eye.

In the 1960s, the Soviets often blamed Ghanaians themselves for the attacks they suffered, accusing them of “disturbing the peace.” They even expelled and deported at least a few Ghanaian students in Kharkiv and Kyiv for alleged “bad conduct” and “hooligan behavior.”

The anti-Black racism they encountered deeply troubled the Africans in Ukraine, and Africans often protested their treatment. In 1975, protests in Lviv and Kyiv focused on racist representations of Africans in the Soviet media, for example. As in the West, Africa was often presented as a backward continent completely untouched by the trappings of modernity.

Protesters also criticized the Soviet government’s indifference to racist violence. Such violence was dismissed as the work of, to use a contemporary turn of phrase, “bad apples,” rather than a systemic problem.

The relationship between African students and Ukrainian citizens was further complicated by their differing experiences of imperial rule. For some Ukrainians, the growing number of African students in their towns and cities was a reminder of their subservient position within the Soviet Union. Without their input, the Soviet government in Moscow encouraged these exchanges. That African students often referred to the Soviet Union generally as “Russia” exacerbated the feeling of some Ukrainians that African students were a tool of their own colonial subjection.

To serve their Cold War goals, Western governments were eager to report instances of anti-African sentiment among Soviet citizens. Western media became key outlets for stories of racist violence in the Soviet Union, just as Soviet media loudly decried racism in the United States and South Africa.

Yet, foreign governments often proved more interested in showcasing Soviet malfeasance than supporting African students. A British Foreign Office memo written in 1963 remarked: “Rather than do anything to alleviate the discomforts of [African] students behind the Iron Curtain, [we] would prefer to see them increased.”

As the battle for the hearts and minds of Africa lost steam in the 1970s and 1980s, so too did Western coverage of Soviet racism against its African population. But African students continued to arrive in the Soviet Union through government cultural agreements.

Despite an epidemic of racist violence in the 1990s, African students continued to travel to the former Soviet republics after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. because it is where their parents studied and remains a more affordable option than Western Europe or the United States.

Today’s African students in Ukraine are banding together in difficult times and are pleading with their national governments for support. Unfortunately, like many African governments of the past, many present African governments are unable to protect their citizens as Russia’s tanks, bombs and bullets rip through Ukraine.

While nearby countries are opening their borders and hearts to the Ukrainians who have fled, African citizens have faced much narrower, if not closed, doors and hearts. Alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin’s disastrous decision to invade Ukraine, European border policies essentially barring most Africans also demand strict scrutiny. The European Union has even paid for secret prisons to hold escaping Africans.

Despite outpourings of support for the Ukrainian people among Americans, the United States has yet to extend immigration relief for Ukrainians — though a bipartisan group of senators is pushing to do so. Moreover, the United States has continued to deport Black immigrants fleeing crisis and persecution, including from Haiti and Cameroon.

Anti-Blackness has suffused most media coverage of recent events. For example, under the guise of fighting Putin’s tyranny, the Western media has simultaneously played down and erased Alexei Navalny’s history of expressing xenophobic views.

Moreover, the Western media has largely portrayed the war between moral binaries — good against evil, autocracy against democracy and the free-loving peoples of the world against those who seek a different global order. Yet, anti-Black racism upends these convenient narratives and binaries, as it did during the Cold War. It has only been under a wave of negative press and condemnation by the African Union that the U.S. government publicly urged neighboring European countries to accept Africans.

Suffering is not zero-sum, and to show solidarity for Ukraine and Ukrainians needn’t mean forgetting those with whom Ukrainians have been living for more than 60 years. African people have become part of the fabric of life in Eastern Europe. They have made homes, started families and profoundly shaped the towns and cities in which they live.

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