American describes his 44-year Soviet odyssey. BACK HOME AGAIN
Washington — ROBERT ROBINSON will never forget Dec. 10, 1934. On that day, the black American working as a toolmaker at the First State Ball Bearing Plant in Moscow was ``elected'' to the city council. He didn't want the seat. He wasn't interested in politics. But fearing he would lose his contract, which would almost certainly mean returning to unemployment in a United States gripped by the depression, he accepted.
Two weeks later, Time magazine wrote: ``Negroes, so every Soviet child is taught, are the Black Hopes of Communism in the US. Sooner or later, if properly primed by Moscow, they will `arise and slash [their] thraldom's chains' as the Soviet anthem puts it.''
And so, the article continued, ``that coal-black prot'eg'e of Joseph Stalin, Robert Robinson, was elected, somewhat to his surprise, to the Moscow Soviet.''
This is but one episode in the extraordinary life of a man who ended up spending 44 years in the Soviet Union - most of them as a Soviet citizen, the last 27 of them trying to get out. Finally, in 1974, he did ``escape,'' as he put it in an interview with the Monitor, to Uganda, with the help of Idi Amin's ambassador to Moscow.
It was not until recently, with renewed American citizenship, that he felt free to tell his story. His just-released book, ``Black on Red,'' chronicles his 81 years.
A naturalized American citizen born in Jamaica, Robinson was working for the Ford Motor Company in Detroit in 1930 when the Russians came calling. They offered him almost twice what he was earning, free housing, and other luxuries to make tools and teach in the Soviet Union. The American depression had just begun; as the only skilled black laborer at Ford, he felt insecure about his future.
``I was under the impression that perhaps socialism was better than capitalism,'' he reflects, speaking slowly and deliberately. He also believed Russia was free of racism. He signed a contract.
Not long after he arrived in Stalingrad to work as a machinist, he began to understand part of his purpose for being there. When two white Americans working at the same factory beat him up, the Soviets tried and convicted them for racial prejudice. The Soviet news media made him into a celebrity.
``The Soviets tried to use me for their propaganda,'' he says. ``They tried to get me to denounce capitalism on radio broadcasts to the West, but I refused.''
Meanwhile, publicity about him in the States led Americans to believe he was a communist. In 1937, the US government ordered him to return home or relinquish his citizenship. With the depression continuing, he chose the latter. The Soviet government offered him citizenship, assuring him he could return to the US as soon as its economy recovered. ``Naively,'' he says, he accepted.
Robinson still marvels that he survived Stalin's purges. As he saw friends and colleagues vanishing one by one, including foreigners, who were viewed as particularly subversive, he figured it was only a matter of time. ``I wouldn't undress until 4 in the morning, out of fear,'' he recalls. ``I couldn't sleep, so I just lay down and waited for my time to come.''
Of the blacks he knew in the early 1930s who became Soviet citizens, he says, all had ``disappeared'' from Moscow by 1937. ``One of the reasons I'm sitting here with you today is because of my profession. I had both theoretical and practical knowledge.... They kept me to squeeze out everything that was in me.''
``Eventually,'' he continues, ``they wouldn't let me out because I knew too much about what life was really like there.''
His religious belief also gave him strength. He writes of ``reading the Bible and remembering God every day,'' and attending church every Sunday across the street from KGB headquarters.
Robinson speaks proudly of his professional achievements, which won him medals and bonuses (insultingly small though they were). His long and nimble fingers attest to years of exacting design work.
Robinson allows that living in the Soviet Union had a positive side: ``In those days in the US, it would have been almost impossible for a person of my race to become a mechanical engineer. I got the moral satisfaction that through their system I accomplished something. They were forced to recognize my contributions.''
But the specter of racism was everpresent. One evening Robinson was running to a tram when a peasant woman saw him, dropped her basket of cucumbers and bread, fell to her knees, and crossed herself. ``My God,'' the woman exclaimed, ``there's the devil there.''
Being black and foreign-born sometimes brought Robinson unusual opportunities. In 1947, he was recruited to play the role of a black American in a film about Myklujo Maklai, a 19th-century Russian anthropologist. The experience of having a white Russian director telling him how Southern blacks are supposed to act was ``grotesque,'' he says.
When an Odessa theater director prepared to put on a production of the American play ``How Deep Are the Roots,'' Robinson was consulted on how Southern whites and blacks interact. But the director didn't believe what he heard: that while black-white animosity is real, rich white women and their maids often have close relationships and speak to each other as equals. In the end, Robinson says, the actors' performances reinforced the worst stereotypes, a characterization he considered part of the Kremlin's campaign to discredit the US.
Robinson also got to know such black American luminaries of the day as Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes on their periodic visits to the Soviet Union. Robinson hoped Robeson could help him get out of the country, but his pleas were turned down because of the singer's desire to maintain good relations with the Kremlin.
Robinson describes Robeson's last visit to the Soviet Union, in 1961, when he apparently had a falling out with Khrushchev over the treatment of Jews. Shortly thereafter, Robeson fell ill and never recovered.
Robinson's relations with American black communists living in the Soviet Union were sometimes strained over ideology. ``They called me a nationalist,'' he says. ``They said I was too much concerned about the blackness of the black race.'' Ironically, the Soviet government treated these Americans like royalty, giving them cars, room suites, and servants, he says.
Although Robinson describes his 44 years of Soviet life as a constant battle of wits with the secret police and bureaucracy, he was also shown great acts of individual kindness. During World War II, when many Russians were fortunate to have boiled shoe leather to eat, Robinson nearly starved to death. The doctor who treated him, a woman named Seplayeva, took pity on him and invited him for Sunday dinner with her family each week.
But up until his final moments in the Soviet Union, Robinson was on guard against dirty tricks that might prevent his departure. When he got his passport allowing him to vacation in Uganda, he hid it under the wallpaper in his apartment, lest a KGB interloper steal it. Throughout his years in the Soviet Union, he rebuffed romantic advances from women for fear they might be KGB provocateurs. And he never allowed himself to fall in love or marry there. Even if the KGB kept its hands out, he reasoned, starting a family with a Russian might hinder his efforts to leave. And of course, the racial barriers were fierce.
``My youth was stolen from me,'' Robinson declares emotionally. ``But no, I'm not bitter.''
Once in Uganda, Idi Amin informed the Soviets that Robinson would stay and teach. At last Perfect Gentleman Robinson, as the 1934 Time article called him, felt free to marry. In 1975, at age 69, he met a black American college teacher named Zylpha Mapp, who became his wife.
For several years he made attempts to regain his Jamaican citizenship, but they were hindered, he believes, because of an old newspaper article calling him a possible communist subversive. Eventually, he got a US green card, acquired through the efforts of a black American diplomat, Bill Davis. On Dec. 9, 1986, Robinson became an American citizen once again.
Robinson isn't ready to retire just yet. He has plans for two more books. Then ``as soon as I can, I'll go back to Africa. I can contribute something there that is deep in me. It is my duty to my race.''
How about a return visit to the Soviet Union? ``Not for 1 million dollars!'' he exclaims, his normally serious face coming alive. He says he doesn't need to go back to understand that glasnost and perestroika are just ``tactics.'' It's only a matter of time, he says, before the Soviet government denounces him and his book publicly. And now that he's out of the ``workers' paradise'' once and for all, he has better things to do.