Africans feel the sting of Russia’s colour bar
SUNDAY TIMES December 1963
In their march on the Kremlin last week, 700 African students gave vent to their feelings about the treatment they experience from their Russian hosts. Two incidents described below by Tom Stacey, who has just returned from the Soviet Union, show how harsh the Russian attitude to Africans can be — and with 3,000 African students in the U.S.S.R. these could be multiplied many times.
Naomi and Ruth could hardly have outdone our greeting. We embraced — the beastly British colonialist and colonialism’s oppressed victim — we embraced with fervour; he Ghanaian and black and l — well, an Orwellian pinko-grey. The thronged airport at Alma Ata was no longer self-immersed; it was witnessing a dialectical impossibility.
lt was the eve of the Soviet Union’s ‘Christmas’ — that is, the (forty-sixth) anniversary of the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution.’ I had flown into Alma Ata, capital of Soviet Kazakhstan, only to find that the usually infallible Intourist organisation had broken down. There was no Intourist guide to meet me and carry me away. It was 7 p.m. and after dark. Amid the packed humanity of Russians and Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Tartars, there was but one, I felt, who might bring me the companionship and guidance I needed in a lonely, crowded world.
Abram J— (the Ghanaian) a had himself just flown in from the neighbouring city of Frunze (named after the Russian general despatched to Central Asia in the 1920s to crush the anti-Moscow nationalist insurrection) to spend the two-day anniversary holiday with his Russian girlfriend, whom he had met during his first two years of training as a helicopter pilot when he had been posted at Alma Ata. It was now his third consecutive year in the Soviet Union.
Apart from fellow students, I was the first visitor from the outside world he had seen in these three long years. As it happened I knew the very street in Kumasi where his home and heart were, and several of his Ashanti friends I knew too. As we waited for his girlfriend (she soon arrived), delight and relief overflowed. But then, the incident.
With the girl (a dumpy thing with lipstick) we had walked out of the airport building to get a taxi. We approached the first in the rank. The driver’s window was shut, because of the cold; and Abram, who speaks good Russian, called politely through the glass. Driver, sitting at the wheel, ignores him Abram taps gently at the window. No reaction. A second tap brings no reaction. Abram puts his face against the glass and calls once more. Suddenly the driver thrusts the door open so that it hits Abram hard in the face. The driver gets out and — paying no heed to the mild protest and repeated request from Abram, rubbing his cheek — strolls away to chat to a group of fellow cabbies. The girl drew Abram away. In the end it as I who found a driver to take us. It might, I felt, have been a cold night in Baton Rouge.
Later, at the girl’s home, it all a came out. ‘We all long to leave Russia,’ Abram said. ‘It is a terrible place. I cannot tell you what we feel.’ But he did. ‘They eat bread like rats! They drink — it’s terrible how they drink! They drink to escape their suffering. But this is worse — they speak nonsense, always, nonsense, about our country.’
He was a proud man, and tough but he had had plenty. There were no exceptions, he said, among his group. They were all now implacably anti-Communist. By the end of the first year they had, collectively, won the right to remain exempt from all indoctrination classes. Because of that, they had been separated from their fellow Soviet trainees ever since, lest they contaminate them with the free and vigorous spirits.
When the next incident occurred, I recognised it at once. It was at the Alma Ata Hotel, where I had gone rather late (about 10 p.m.) through the light snow to arouse Intourist. Two very intelligent and charming Guineans, also from Frunze, whom I had met earlier — a trainee pilot and a meteorological student— were being thrown out. Not physically; but were being ordered out by a stony Russian patronne behind the reception desk. On the face of it, the situation was surprising. The Guineans were sober, respectful, and had money; and already earlier in the day they had been given a room in the almost empty hotel. But evidently that was when this senior patronne was off duty.
She had discovered a regulation that ‘military’ students must sleep at their military billets, not at the hotel. But their billets, the Guineans were pleading, were 150 miles away, at Frunze. Must they sleep in the snow? That, she replied into her clicking knitting, was no concern of hers.
For the sake of closer cultural relations among all peoples, I intervened. What a pity, I said in due course, that when I returned to Moscow I would have to report to Mr Khrushchev that student African comrades in Alma Ata were having to sleep in the snow.
Fatuous British joke. The knitting became intense. ‘Let’s have a drink,’ I suggested to the Guineans, ‘and we’ll come back and finish the argument.’ I left a pile of my papers on the reception desk. On the top of the pile was a photograph taken in February of Khrushchev and myself clasping hands in a room in the Kremlin.
The Guineans slept in the hotel, that night and the next.
© Tom Stacey 1962