Thousands of Russian-bought Facebook ads that the social media company is preparing to deliver to Congress reveal a very sound knowledge of America’s racial discord. With some of the ads calling for protections of gun rights, warning of the so-called dangers of immigration and of promoting Black Lives Matter groups, the Kremlin has shown a shrewd willingness to manipulate race relations in the United States at any cost to the Americans it once claimed to support: black people.
The Washington Post recently reported that members of Congress have already discovered that some of the ads have depicted a rise of Black Lives Matter groups in ways aiming to evoke fears among white Americans of an opposing political threat rising. CNN published its own reporting detailing how some of the ads promoted gun rights and the Second Amendment, both topics that resonate with many white Americans who feel their rights are being infringed upon. Conceivably, this tactic, in turn, was supposed to encourage white Americans, with their racist insecurities, to vote for Donald Trump.
While more studies are revealing that false information spread on social media in swing states more often than in nonswing ones, the jury is still out on whether or not “fake news” actually impacted people’s voting at the ballot box.
But one thing is 100 percent clear: The Russian Federation—a nation that, through its former state of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, long claimed to be an advocate for black liberation—never loved us. This week’s revelations of Facebook ads specifically using Black Lives Matter activists as bait for white aggrievement is a sharp reversal of Russia’s racial manipulation tactics in the United States.
As early as the 1920s, Soviet leadership realized that they could take on Western imperialism by exploiting its mistreatment of black people—be it under Jim Crow in the United States or colonialism on the continent of Africa. The selling point was that the USSR was better, which it never really was.
The USSR financed tens of thousands of black people to study in various republics throughout the union with the hope that they would return to their homelands to start their own Red Octobers. On the U.S. front, the USSR also recruited black Americans to spread its propaganda.
One of their prized recruits was the great writer Langston Hughes. He and several dozen other black people were selected to act in a USSR-funded filmed titled Black and White, a cinematic chiding of American Southern racism. Hughes details in his autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander, that the black performers were not trained actors; nor could most of them sing for the parts the roles required. (Hughes determined that Russians assumed all black people could sing, dance, play sports and act, so there was no need to vet them for any real qualifications.)
At any rate, the film ended up getting scrapped because the U.S. granted the USSR diplomatic recognition in 1933. One of the conditions, among paying unsettled debts to Washington, D.C., was to end all propaganda against America—which, of course, included Black and White. Rightfully, the young black wannabe actors felt betrayed and considered the Soviets’ attempts to curry favor with the black struggle insincere and downright fraudulent.
They were correct.
In Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union, Robert Robinson wrote about how he was recruited by the USSR to be an engineer in a Moscow plant in 1930. Robinson was looking for engineering work, which he could never find in Detroit, where he worked a dead-end job in a Ford Motor Co. plant. Soviet representatives, who were very likely spies, convinced him that he’d be able to earn an engineering degree in Moscow—which he did—and not face any racism—which, of course, he faced a lot of, including from his own bosses.
Soviet authorities plastered his face on state-run newspapers with reports of his job promotions throughout the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. All the while, he was regularly called nigger by his colleagues and passed over for managerial roles at his factory by less-qualified Russians who often took credit for his work. Worst of all, Soviet authorities refused to let him leave the country for fear that he’d reveal how much of a sham the USSR’s claim of solidarity with black people really was. He ended up escaping to Uganda in 1974.
Allison Blakely, professor emeritus of history at Boston University and one of America’s leading authorities on Russia’s relationship with black people, said that the kinds of experiences black people like Robinson lived through were common. While the USSR was proficient in attracting black Americans, it made little real effort to have meaningful relations with them.
“It really wasn’t so much of the success of what the communists were offering,” Blakely said. “It was the disappointment of what the United States was doing.”
Indeed, while the USSR proved to be just as discriminatory as America in many respects, it was creating propaganda for its citizens designed to show that black people were treated better in Russia than in the United States. One of the classic examples of this is an old 1960s Soviet cartoon called Mister Twister, which depicted an American imperialist being chided for bringing his racist attitudes with him to the Soviet Union:
Another propaganda film, from 1936, was Circus, in which a white American circus performer, played by Soviet actress Lyubov Petrovna Orlova, gives birth to a black baby and faces racism in the states. But when she arrives in the USSR, everyone loves her and her black baby. Just like that.
It’s all bullshit, since both Russian and white American men weren’t cool with their women messing with black men. But the film was well-produced at the time and is worth watching to see how hard the USSR worked to convince black people (and their own Soviet citizens) that the Soviet Union had their backs.
All the while, the KGB was working to undermine America’s sovereignty at the expense of the same black people they claimed to support. Perhaps the most egregious example was the KGB’s attempt to plant fake stories in black newspapers about Martin Luther King Jr. being an “Uncle Tom,” according to former KGB Officer Vasily Mitrokhin. The KGB also tried to exploit King’s death by spreading fake news among black nationalists, the Ku Klux Klan and the Jewish Defense League about his murder in order to start a race war, according to Darien Cavanaugh over at War Is Boring.
Simply put: Evoking racial fears among Americans is an old game for Russia.
What is new with today’s Kremlin is that a new opportunity to exploit race in a different way has presented itself. Instead of siding with the oppressed black American population, Russian security services have clearly realized that it is to the Kremlin’s advantage to side with racist white people. Russia’s own rising nationalism, which views immigration from Central Asia as a threat, and Russian politicians’ support of it make for a very convenient relationship with American racists.
“The Russian leadership sees themselves as the redeemers of whiteness,” said Maxim Matusevich, director of the Russian and East European Studies program at Seton Hall University. “It is a reversal of the past when the Soviets were standing up for the oppressed and the minorities. Now all of a sudden they’re standing up for whiteness. That’s why I think Putin is so popular with segments of the American right, because they see Russians as the guardians of whiteness: They’re white and they are Christian, they are anti-gay and anti-minority.”
For more than 70 years, the USSR engaged in a robust propaganda campaign to prove it was the oasis of black liberation. It was all a lie. In its current model of the Russian Federation, the Kremlin has proved that, like its USSR predecessor state, it will use black people as a political tool whenever it suits them.
We were a tool of the USSR foreign policy then, and we are a tool of Vladimir Putin’s Russia now. The Soviets didn’t love us then, and Putin’s Russia certainly proves it doesn’t love us now.