The MacLaren Art Centre is home to the Sovfoto Archive, 23,116 vintage silver gelatin prints of the Soviet Union from the 1936 to 1957. A working press archive, this collection is organized by topics considered newsworthy at the time. In honour of Black History Month we present Binder 172, sequenced as it was at the New York offices of Sovfoto in the mid-1950s. Titled, simply, “Blacks” this binder contains twelve photographs representing the lived experience of some 400,000 black Soviet citizens.
From the 1920s onwards, the Soviet government actively promoted itself as a place where racism had no foothold. Prominent African-American artists like Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson visited the USSR to see for themselves the utopian society that Soviet propaganda described. Others settled in the USSR, including actor Wayland Rudd who sought to escape the racism that he experienced working as an actor in the United States. Seen voting in several of these images, he was the public face for black Americans who immigrated looking for better opportunities in Communist-controlled countries. The Soviet Union held particular appeal for African-Americans in mixed-race marriages, illegal in several states before being banned at the federal level in 1967’s Loving v. Virgina Supreme Court decision.
These photographs are press prints that were taken in the Soviet Union and sent to Sovfoto in New York for distribution to American news media outlets. As such, they present only state-sanctioned views of the black experience in the Soviet Union. Displayed here are both the front and back of each of the twelve prints in this binder, showing both image and official caption for each photograph. While inherently flawed as historical documents, these prints nonetheless describe a little-known aspect of Soviet history.