Posted on March 10, 2022

Anti-Black Racism Is Upending Easy Narratives About the Exodus From Ukraine

Nana Osei-Opare and Thom Loyd, Washington Post, March 3, 2022

Amid the unfolding tragedy of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, anti-Black racism is creating tiers of sympathy and exclusion over who is permitted to receive Western and global sympathy and escape the crisis.


Inspired by the Soviet Union’s forcefully anti-racist, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist attitudes and calls, the first wave of Africans who went to the U.S.S.R. to study in the 1920s were Communists, anti-colonialists or pan-Africanists. To get to Moscow and avoid colonial detection, these individuals forged documents, employed pseudonyms and used circuitous routes. In Moscow, they learned about Marxism-Leninism and met other anti-colonialists from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. These interactions helped spur common global anti-colonial and anti-imperial collaborations. But this honeymoon period quickly collapsed.


By the 1950s and 1960s, the Cold War had carved the world into two opposing camps. During this period, many African colonies had either become independent or were in the process of throwing off the yoke of colonialism, threatening the established international order. In both Moscow and Washington, political leaders looked to education to tie the nascent African postcolonial elite to their own respective systems. Newly independent nations encouraged education abroad as an expedient way to “Africanize” their governments and build human capital, a civil service and an industrial economy. To curry favor, the Soviets offered scholarships to young Africans from newly independent states such as Ghana and Senegal as well as countries like Angola and Mozambique, which were still struggling against colonial rule.

The Africans who went to study in the Soviet Union in the 1960s were nonideological, scientific-technical-medical students or military trainees.

One-third of African students in the U.S.S.R. studied in Ukraine — in the cities of Kharkiv, Kherson, Kyiv, Kryvyi Rih, Lviv and Odessa. Many vacationed in Crimea and along the coast of the Black Sea. By the end of the 1960s, several thousand students from across Africa were studying in the Soviet Union each year.

Ukraine was a Soviet showcase. To highlight the successes of the socialist economic model, Soviet authorities routinely showed African delegations and dignitaries Ukraine’s industrial success and beauty.

Yet many African students had difficulty adjusting to life in Ukraine. They complained about cold weather, the monotony of life, lack of access to familiar foods and routine violence inflicted upon them. A deadly and bloody violent clash between Ghanaians and Ukrainians in Kherson in 1964 characterized these fears.

In 1964, a Ukrainian accosted a Ghanaian student who was smoking a cigarette. A massive brawl between Ukrainians and the Ghanaians ensued. {snip}


In the 1960s, the Soviets often blamed Ghanaians themselves for the attacks they suffered, accusing them of “disturbing the peace.” They even expelled and deported at least a few Ghanaian students in Kharkiv and Kyiv for alleged “bad conduct” and “hooligan behavior.”

The anti-Black racism they encountered deeply troubled the Africans in Ukraine, and Africans often protested their treatment. In 1975, protests in Lviv and Kyiv focused on racist representations of Africans in the Soviet media, for example. As in the West, Africa was often presented as a backward continent completely untouched by the trappings of modernity.


The relationship between African students and Ukrainian citizens was further complicated by their differing experiences of imperial rule. For some Ukrainians, the growing number of African students in their towns and cities was a reminder of their subservient position within the Soviet Union. Without their input, the Soviet government in Moscow encouraged these exchanges. That African students often referred to the Soviet Union generally as “Russia” exacerbated the feeling of some Ukrainians that African students were a tool of their own colonial subjection.


Moreover, the Western media has largely portrayed the war between moral binaries — good against evil, autocracy against democracy and the free-loving peoples of the world against those who seek a different global order. Yet, anti-Black racism upends these convenient narratives and binaries, as it did during the Cold War. {snip}

Suffering is not zero-sum, and to show solidarity for Ukraine and Ukrainians needn’t mean forgetting those with whom Ukrainians have been living for more than 60 years. African people have become part of the fabric of life in Eastern Europe. They have made homes, started families and profoundly shaped the towns and cities in which they live.