A while back, the mini-series “Chernobyl” came out to rave reviews. The story revolves around a series of events following the explosion at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union (now Ukraine). This was the biggest nuclear accident in history and caused a lot of human drama. The area surrounding the power plant was inundated with radiation, and it sometimes took superhuman effort not only to deal with the consequences of what happened, but also to prevent it from becoming worse.
Of course, as is usually the case with anything on television, there was some controversy surrounding the series. However, the uproar came from a curious direction. British screenwriter Karla Marie Sweet complained that there were no “people of color” featured in the show. The notion was ridiculed, and rightly so. Wishing something to be the case, does not make it so. In history, the main actors of the tragedy that unfolded on the plains of northern Ukraine were all of the pinkish, greenish, sometimes pale variety.
However, curiously there were people of color present at Chernobyl at that time. Recently, the story of a black Soviet soldier present at the cleaning of the site surfaced. The guy posted some pictures of himself on the site Vkontakte (which is the Russian version of Facebook), where he is in full Soviet uniform gear posing for photos with some comrades from his army unit. I trolled through the pictures that he had, and the unit also contained several soldiers who could be termed as Asian.
While this is an interesting side note to the story of Chernobyl, it does not vindicate what Karla Marie Sweet said. Had she done some research and actually supported her statement with the above facts, then she could have had an argument. Instead, she engaged in wishful thinking, without getting back to reality first. This is what is called a moralistic fallacy, substituting what is for what you thing should be, and this fallacy is a very common cognitive bias.
Rewriting history in order to make some sort of a moralistic point in fact detracts from other real life stories. There are many fascinating stories where the main characters were in fact “people of color”, and which can be told. Sometimes real life is much more interesting than fiction.
People of color in the USSR
While none of the principal actors in the story of Chernobyl were “people of color” (whatever that is), there is a rich and quite interesting history of multi-culturalism in the lands of the former Soviet Union. While the majority of the population could be termed as white, there are significant populations of Central Asian, Middle Eastern, and also East Asian descent. For example, there is a history of immigration of Koreans to the country and now their descendants number around half a million, spread across Russia, the Central Asian republics (where they were deported by Stalin), and also Ukraine.
While this is pretty well known, what is less familiar is the story of the blacks in the USSR. Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, is actually of partial African descent. His maternal great-grandfather was Abram Petrovich Gannibal, who was born in Africa, so was what is termed as black. This ancestry is why Pushkin had such curly hair.
While most Soviet or Russian blacks are of African descent, there is even a fascinating sub-story of African-Americans in that part of the world. The story begins in the times when Russia was a monarchy and an empire spreading from Europe, all the way to Alaska (and for a time even controlled a part of Hawaii) and California (the Russians had established a fort called Fort Ross in what is now Sonoma County). At that time, a small number of African-Americans moved to Russia, mostly to work as entertainers.
One of them was Corette Elisabeth Hardy. Born in 1881 in Churchville, New York, she grew up singing and dancing. As an adult, she joined a troupe of black female musicians who went on a tour of Europe. At one point of the tour, the group arrived in Russia. While visiting the country, several members of the troupe, including Corette, decided to stay. Corette, Emma Harris, and Fannie Smith formed the “Harris Trio” and started performing across Russia.
Known for her beautiful voice, Corette, became quite famous and married into a rich family, gaining Russian citizenship in the process. Later she divorced and remarried, but ended up staying in what became the Soviet Union, even after the Communists took over. She continued performing across the entire country, now mostly focusing on jazz routines. She even appeared in several Soviet movies. Corette died in Moscow in 1951 and was buried next to the graves of some of the most elite entertainers of the Soviet Union.
Another group of African-Americans emigrated to the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution, when Communism was the chief ideology of the country. They were part of the thousands of Americans who emigrated to the Soviet Union at that time. This is a story that is not well-known, but in the 1920’s and early 1930’s, many Americans ended up moving to the USSR, with the trickle becoming a flood when the Great Depression hit the US. Some came because the USSR was looking for skilled workers, others because they didn’t have a job back home and they found one in the USSR, others because they were sympathetic to the Communist cause. A minority of these emigrants were black.
Some of these African-American emigrants were included in a small team of agronomic specialists that came to settle on the plains of Uzbekistan in Soviet Central Asia. This group was led by Oliver Golden, who was an agronomic specialist whose field of expertise was the growing of cotton. His family ended up staying in the Soviet Union and his grand-daughter, Yelena Khanga, is a famous Russian journalist.
Another member of this group of agronomic specialists was Joseph Roane from Kremlin, Virginia. Him and his wife traveled to Uzbekistan and their son was born there. His name is Yosif Stalin Kim Roane. It is quite a huge coincidence that his parents came from a little town in Virginia called Kremlin!
People of color in Russia today
Some of these emigrants were the founders of the black community in Russia today. Apparently, there are over 40 000 black or mixed race people living in Russia at the moment, and a few more thousand in the other former Soviet republics. Some of them are successful athletes, entertainers, or doctors, while others live ordinary lives just like the rest of the Russian population. Unfortunately rising racism in Russia makes life difficult for them from time to time.