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  • Recent Reading: Black on Red, by Robert Robinson

    Posted by David Foster on November 26th, 2010 (All posts by )

    In 1930, Robert Robinson–a black toolmaker working for the Ford Motor Company in Detroit–accepted a one-year assignment to apply his skills in the Soviet Union. He didn’t get out until 1974. His first renewals of his Soviet residency were voluntary; his later residency there, not so much.

    Robinson gives a detailed account of day-to-day life in the Soviet Union and of the attitudes he encountered toward blacks and Americans; he also comments on the postwar rise of anti-Semitism. His book gives a good feel for what it must be like to live in an environment where everything you can do is entirely dependent on the government. He describes, for example, the joy of the peasants when Malenkov briefly replaced Stalin and it was announced that “all peasants are free to sell to sell their personally grown agricultural products in the free market.”

    The Russian peasants were ecstatic. That night, as we were finishing dinner, we heard people singing in the distance. We went outside and saw more than two hundred peasants holding torches, dressed in prerevolutionary clothing, and heading our way. When they reached our building, several accordionists started playing music and peasants of all ages began dancing. Soon an elderly woman mounted the stairs, asked for quiet, and sang a song praising Malenkov as the savior of Russia….The peasants celebrated until around 10:30PM that night and for the two nights that followed.

    The celebration was premature, however, because Georgi Malenkov was soon removed as first secretary of the Central Committee. And even if he had remained in power, of course, there is no certainty that the peasant-friendly agricultural policy would have been retained for very long.

    The state even interfered in Robinson’s romantic life: when he and a Russian woman became interested in each other, she was told by officials that he was not an acceptable choice for her.

    An interesting story, very much worth reading. Another worthwhile story by an American who went to work in the Soviet Union is Behind the Urals, by John Scott, who worked on the construction of Magnitogorsk–the “city of steel.”

    Wikipedia article on Robinson here.


    4 Responses to “Recent Reading: Black on Red, by Robert Robinson”

    1. Jim Bennett Says:

      “Magnitogorsk, City of The Fatal Conceit” is more like it. Read The Ghost of the Executed Engineerfor the full story of Magnitogorsk. It’s probably the second-worst catastrophe of central planning in Soviet history, after the Aral Sea disaster. Unless of course you just count Soviet agriculture as one 70-year long disaster.

    2. David Foster Says:

      John Scott reported that several of his co-workers disappeared in the purges; however, IIRC, his emotional reaction to these events seems rather flat. Robinson shows considerably more affect; his book is IMNSHO the better of the two. There’s a lot to be learned from Scott’s book, though: for example, contrary to propaganda he *did* observe unemployment in this centrally-planned economy.

    3. David Foster Says:

      Also, I’d like to take this opportunity to again hype Gennady Andreev-Khomiakov’s book “Bitter Waters,” in which he describes his experiences helping to run a Soviet-era sawmill. My review is here.

      Gennday’s boss “Neposedov” comes across as a really excellent executive trying to do a good job in impossible circumstances. It is sad to reflect on how much human talent has been wasted or destroyed by the actions of politicans over the past century.

    4. Dan from Madison Says:

      Thanks for the recommendation, I bought the Robinson book used on Amazon for $2.99 plus $3.99 freight. Worth it I would bet.