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Did I experience racism in the Soviet Union?
Patrick Asare -- Author of 'The Boy from Boadua' Patrick Asare -- Author of 'The Boy from Boadua'
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Wyomissing, PA
Wednesday, April 10, 2024


When I speak to audiences about my memoir, The Boy from Boadua, I am often asked whether I experienced racism in the Soviet Union in my days there as a foreign student. The best response to that question, in my view, is that I don’t know if I did or not. But each time I answer that I did not, which is what I have always truly believed.

The Soviet Union that I traveled to from Ghana in 1985 was a closed society. Because there was little interaction between the Soviets and the rest of the world in those days, the only non-natives in the country were foreign diplomats and the small number of overseas students like me. Mostly, we lived in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kyiv, Odesa, and other big cities and towns where the embassies and large universities were located.

I lived in Kyiv for a year, spent another year in Kharkiv, and the remaining four years in Donetsk. All three are Ukrainian cities. But in those six years, I traveled extensively throughout the Soviet Union, to cities, towns and villages. Regardless of where I went, I was often one black man in a sea of white people. That picture was especially pronounced any time I found myself on a metro station platform.

Because of television coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war, the rest of the world has seen what the Soviet underground railway stations look like. They are massive subterranean spaces designed to serve as bomb shelters during wartime, in addition to their everyday uses. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have taken refuge there since the beginning of the war. Some stations have even been converted to mini-townships with areas carved out for classrooms and other essential services.

It took a while, after I arrived in the Soviet Union, for me to get used to standing in one of those spaces as the only black person surrounded by hundreds of white people. There were always curious glances by the Soviets, which was understandable given the contrast. They were also noticeably polite. It was a slightly different story on the streets. There were many occasions when buses full of people passed me and some passengers pointed at me to fellow riders and then they all broke into laughter. I always took those incidents in stride, viewing them as nothing more than instigations by class clowns trying to make harmless jokes at my expense. The pranksters were almost always men.

The reason I think I was not subjected to racism in the Soviet Union is that there was no historical basis for it. Racial tensions between blacks and whites in America—and parts of the Western world—are rooted in slavery. Soviet society wasn’t burdened by that history. Moreover, there were so few foreigners there that our presence couldn’t have made any discernible impact on the lives of the average Soviets. As students, we did not compete with the natives for jobs and other economic resources. Such competition is what usually generates resentment toward foreigners in most countries.

I am actually quite surprised by how well we were treated in the Soviet Union. My sense is that most of the natives didn’t even know why we were in their country. There wasn’t much communication between the Communist party bosses and the population in those days, and I don’t think anyone had explained to the people why we had been brought there to study with them in their universities. I had extremely cordial relationships with all of my Soviet classmates in every university where I studied during those six years. That geniality extended to the streets. It often felt as though some of the people had made it their mission to take good care of us.

One of my most vivid memories from my days in the Soviet Union is an incident that occurred at a farmers’ market in Donetsk one afternoon. I had gone to the market with one of my Ghanaian classmates, Victor, to buy some fruits and vegetables. As we walked through the bazaar, a Soviet man walked up to us. Without saying a word, he swiped my right arm with his forefinger. He had a shocked expression when he looked at his finger and saw no stain on it. Apparently, he thought we had smeared some kind of tar on our bodies. He blurted out: why are you so black? Victor and I burst into hysterical laughter, which seemed to have spooked him. He quickly retreated.

The man happened to be heavily drunk. He therefore had none of the inhibitions that perhaps stopped other similarly curious Soviets from asking why our skin color was so different from theirs. That is how isolated the population was in those days. Without access to foreign media and movies, many Soviets had never seen anyone who looked like us, even in pictures. To them, we were some alien creatures.

In some ways, our presence in the country provided some badly needed exposure to the outside world for the natives. Because we were allowed to travel anywhere we wanted, most of us spent our summer vacations in Western Europe and faraway places like the U.S. and Canada. Even on short winter breaks, we hopped onto trains and went to other countries. With savings from our stipends and earnings from summer jobs, we bought and brought back a variety of Western-made goods that were of much higher quality than those sold in Soviet stores. Our Soviet friends clearly saw the difference. Whenever we traveled, the few who could afford it gave us money to buy them some of those items. What they craved most were clothing items and electronic equipment such as stereos and televisions.

I always found it ironic that we were supposed to be the poor people their country was doing a favor through those educational scholarship offerings, but we lived better than them in so many ways. Ordinarily, that should have been a source of resentment. Surprisingly, our Soviet friends showed no signs that they were bothered by it.

I will forever look back on those six years I spent in the Soviet Union with great fondness. They were truly some of the best years of my life. I will also be eternally grateful for the tremendous education I received, and the many friends I made there. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan once referred to the Soviet Union as an evil empire. There was nothing evil about the numerous kind-hearted Soviets that I was privileged to sit next to in classrooms, live with in dormitories, and interact with on the streets.   

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