What growing up black in the USSR can teach us about race relations in America

What we can learn from the life and story of Yelena Khanga.

When many first hear of the story of Yelena Khanga, an Afro-Russian journalist, they are surprised. Many Americans have misconceptions of Russia that it is not diverse, and in the words of Khanga herself, “as a land of dark limousines, sinister KGB agents and 100 percent Caucasians.” However, this could not be further from the truth. The Soviet government’s anti-racism policies attracted people of all races across the world, especially many African Americans who fled the United States during the height of Jim Crow in a quest for equality. While Afro-Russians, such as Khanga, only make up a small percentage of the population of Russia, their legacies have had a great impact across many fields, from journalism to sports. By looking to the past, we can discover new perspectives on diversity and understanding that can be applied to America today. Yelena Khanga’s story not only challenges many foreigners’ ideas surrounding diversity in Russia but also can teach the United States important lessons surrounding race relations.

Khanga was born in 1962 in Moscow to a former president of Zanzibar, Abdulla Khanga, and a prominent black Russian social activist and tennis champion, Lily Golden. Her family’s history with the Soviet Union began when her grandparents fled the United States to Soviet Uzbekistan with a group of black agronomists in 1931 after being disowned for being in an interracial relationship. While Khanga’s grandparents intended to return to the United States, Khanga recalled they chose to stay in the Soviet Union “after [her] mother was born to protect her from the racism she would have faced in America.”

In the Soviet Union, Khanga was able to pursue her passions at levels that she would not have been able to if she resided in the United States. Khanga attended Moscow State University and obtained a degree in journalism. She then went on to become the first black correspondent for the TV station, Moscow World News. In 1987, Khanga was selected for a prestigious journalist exchange program, in which she wrote for the Christian Science Monitor in Boston. She was the first woman to be selected for such a program in the Soviet Union. In addition to furthering her career in journalism, Khanga embarked on a search for her roots through attempts to track her family down during her time in the United States. She began exploring her intersecting identities as well as her experiences of racism in both the United States and Russia. These ruminations lead her to write articles and an autobiography, Soul to Soul: The Story of a Black Russian American Family: 1865-1992, that describe her personal experiences with her identity both in America and Russia.

Khanga’s experiences in the Soviet Union can serve as an example and as inspiration. Khanga was able to achieve things in the USSR that she certainly would not have been able to in the United States, as a result of Soviet anti-racism policies. The lack of institutionalized racism in the USSR allowed Khanga to not just survive during her time in the Soviet Union, but flourish in her studies and journalistic career. From being able to interview Soviet leaders to becoming the first female journalist to be awarded the journalist exchange with the United States, Khanga was free to accomplish at high levels. When discussing her time in the Soviet school system, Khanga even explains that she “was never made to feel less intelligent, less capable, less likely to achieve” than her classmates. Khanga was able to accomplish things she would not have been able to in the U.S. at the time. In this way, Soviet society and policy were far ahead of the historical curve.

However, while Khanga was granted many opportunities that she would have not been if she resided in the United States, she was not free from discrimination during her time in the Soviet Union. While at the time, the Soviet Union claimed to adhere to principles of antiracism, Khanga and other Afro-Russians still experienced some racism and discrimination in Soviet society. For example, Khanga also recounts that while she never was made to feel that she was less intelligent or capable than her peers during her time in the Soviet Union, she did feel as though she was an outsider. Both Khanga’s previous and more recent experiences with racism and discrimination highlight that while in the USSR she was able to have many opportunities African Americans were not able to have at the time, there is still a great amount of work that needs to be done regarding race relations both in Russia and the United States. Soviet anti-racism’s deficiencies, just as much as its successes, can be looked towards for historical reflection today.

Khanga’s story does not just serve as a lesson for Americans on race relations, it also challenges many American’s perspectives on Russia. Americans largely hold overgeneralized perceptions of Russia as a monolithic society, with very little diversity in both peoples and thought. However, Khanga’s story and her successes in the Soviet Union directly challenge those beliefs. Khanga herself frequently affirms, that like the United States, Russia is also home to a diverse group of people, representing many races and backgrounds. Her experiences in the Soviet Union are just one example that we, as Americans, can look towards to challenge our generalizations of Russia and Russians.

Despite the complex past of Soviet anti-racism, the things Yelena Khanga was able to achieve in the Soviet Union are evidence that it was ahead of its time. The voices of Black Russians, such as Khanga’s, are valuable to look towards to better the future of American race relations. By looking towards Russia’s past with race relations, we can not only gain a new perspective on Russia and its diverse people but strive to emulate its successes.

Alana Cross is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee.