On June 14, 1932, a group of 22 Black American artists and writers, led by labor researcher and organizer Louise Thompson, journeyed to Moscow to work on the Soviet film project Black and White, which promised to be an unflinching critique of anti-Black racism in the US. The group consisted of future luminaries like poet Langston Hughes (who served as the project’s screenwriter) and writer Dorothy West, as well as college students and social workers keen to break into professional acting.
The production was plagued with issues, including script rewrites and clashes with the director. The project was eventually scrapped, much to the disappointment of those involved. Most of the cast returned to the US, although a few decided to stay in Moscow indefinitely, intrigued by the Soviet experiment that promised, among other things, a raceless society. One of the expatriates, Wayland Rudd, parlayed his previous stage experience into a 20-year career that spanned theater, film, directing, and playwriting. He became a Soviet citizen, and save for a brief return to the US in 1934, remained in Moscow until his death in 1952.
The artist Yevgeniy Fiks, who was born in Moscow in 1972, has spent the last few years collecting Soviet art and media images depicting Africans and African Americans. When choosing a name for his ongoing archive, he saw a fortuitous chance to pay homage to Rudd while also unpacking the little-known history reflected in his personal story. Between 2010 and 2012, Fiks amassed over 300 digitized images — including cartoons, postcards, propaganda posters, and stamps — spanning the entire Soviet period from the 1920s to the 1980s. Since then, he has called on artists and academics to respond to and complicate the archive’s depiction of race, gender, and international solidarity.
The Wayland Rudd Collection, published by Ugly Duckling Presse, presents 150 of these images alongside contextual writings by Fiks’s collaborators. Most of the media was created to disseminate Communist principles, particularly anti-racism and anti-colonialism. For a time, the USSR was a vocal “ally of Black liberation causes,” as philosopher Lewis R. Gordon writes in the book’s foreword. There are posters of lithe Black men breaking chains accompanied by slogans like, “Freedom for all African nations!” and “Colonialism is doomed!” Equally striking are the posters that address the violence of anti-Black racism in the US. Many display graphic renderings of lynchings, clear in their denoucement of US white supremacy and hypocrisy. These mass-printed materials were circulated widely, exposing US racism on a global scale.
These images and sentiments attracted Black Americans like Rudd, who had grown weary of the routine terrorism attending life in in the US. For them, the USSR was seen as a welcoming refuge, as Meredith Roman explains in her essay. Other essays explore the contradictions of the Soviet experiment. Despite the enthusiastic support for Black liberation, many images in the archive drum up racist assumptions about people of African descent. Even Rudd grew disillusioned with the Soviet experiment, unable to ignore his own exoticization.
The Wayland Rudd Collection by Yevgeniy Fiks is published by Ugly Duckling Presse.