The Wayland Rudd Collection
Propaganda posters, works of art, and other pieces of print culture reveal a complex and at times incongruous approach to race.
The Wayland Rudd Collection
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021)
Wayland Rudd first visited Moscow in 1932 as part of a delegation of Black actors and thinkers working on the Soviet film Black and White. His companions included Lloyd Patterson, a fellow actor, and the writer Langston Hughes. While Rudd, like Patterson and Hughes, had a successful career back home—he had been cast in several films and broke ground as the first Black man to play Othello in a US production—he still faced severe restrictions as a Black man living under Jim Crow. In the Soviet Union, Rudd and his fellow visitors saw the potential for a life free of racism, where they would be assimilated into Soviet society and have their accomplishments recognized. Rudd would ultimately decide to remain in the Soviet Union, appearing in a host of Soviet plays and films.
Nearly a decade ago, Yevgeniy Fiks, a Russian artist whose work explores the afterlives of the post-Soviet world, began collecting print material related to representations of Black people in the Soviet Union. This archive, which included propaganda posters, works of art, and other pieces of print culture, revealed a complex and at times incongruous approach to race. As one of the country’s foremost Black actors, Rudd appeared frequently in the collection’s propaganda posters. More than that, Rudd’s experience as a Black man in the Soviet Union reflected the complicated relationship between race and Communism evinced in the images Fiks collected. It was for that reason that Fiks decided to name the archive, and the resulting project, after the actor. The Wayland Rudd Collection opens on reproductions of works from the collection, offered without captions. This leads into a compendium of critical essays on race in the Soviet context, which takes up the bulk of the book, and rounds out with a complete catalogue of works in the collection.
The works in the collection fall into two main categories: depictions of Soviet unity, featuring images of individuals from a variety of racial backgrounds coming together under the banner of Communism, and portrayals of racial inequity in the US. The former was meant to bolster the USSR’s self-image as a racially egalitarian (though not de-racinated) utopia, while the latter served to point out America’s sanctimonious approach to the Soviet Union. A 1980 poster designed by Viktor Koretsky mocks America’s role as the self-determined “policeman of the world” by conflating the country’s imperialist foreign policy with domestic racism. It depicts Black men facing a variety of distinctly American punishments, including a tribunal of KKK members and forced labor at the command of a soldier. The caption at the top of the poster reads “Imperialism—it is war, it is the deprivation of rights for millions of people, it is legalized and everyday racism.”
Early works in the Wayland Rudd Collection reveal an uncritical approach to racist imagery in the Soviet Union, though changing understandings of race did in fact alter the portrayal of Black subjects in propaganda. During the New Economic Policy era, a seven-year period starting in 1921 that was marked by an embrace of Western goods, depictions of Black figures were often explicitly racist, mirroring similar images in American visual culture. As Christina Kiaer notes in one of the collection’s essays, the rejection of NEP coincided with an embrace of anti-racism and a growing awareness among Soviet artists of their own racist depictions of Black people. This is perhaps most clear in the evolution of artist Aleksandr Deineka. His early portraits in Moscow were replete with faux-primitive depictions of Black women with exaggerated facial and body features. After the adoption of the “Resolution on the Negro Question in the United States” in 1928, however, Deineka quickly ceased producing these racist works, and his output focused almost exclusively on glamorizing the Soviet worker.
While the purpose of these posters was propaganda, they were honest accounts of the conditions faced by Black Americans in the twentieth century. Not only did artists like Koretsky depict the perils facing Black men and women, but they also revealed the hypocrisy of American rhetoric during the Cold War. Taken together, the two categories of posters in The Wayland Rudd Collection produce a straightforward narrative of Soviet supremacy. The United States claims to be a beacon of freedom while oppressing its minority populations, whereas the Soviet Union, which has been derided by the West as intolerant and dogmatic, is the true champion of multiculturalism.
As Rudd himself would learn, the Soviet Union was not the anti-racist idyll its propagandists portrayed. During his early years in Russia in the 1930s, Rudd would be cast almost exclusively as uneducated Black American characters. In both cases, Joy Gleason Carew argues in one of The Wayland Rudd Collection’s essays, his role in the films was less about his skill as it was to make the audience feel bad for him, thereby mobilizing them against racism.
The images in The Wayland Rudd Collection similarly reveal how Soviet propaganda leaned on racist stereotypes of Black people. In one caricature, which appeared in Pravda, the official Party newspaper, an anti-Soviet Congolese politician is portrayed with exaggerated features and a belt of skulls. Even as they claimed to oppose racism, the Soviets were not above playing up racist tropes to further their political goals. Similarly, Fiks notes that when a group of races is portrayed, the Caucasian Soviet figure will always be in the central or leading position. The same holds true for images of hands and other body parts. The Soviets may have stood against overt racism, but the “white chauvinism” they derided in American culture was nevertheless present in their own art.
Rudd spent the rest of his life in the Soviet Union, acting in a variety of productions, and eventually producing his own play—none of which would have been possible had he remained in the US. Rudd, Meredith Roman writes, was pulled to the Soviet Union “by the Soviet state’s unapologetic attack on US white supremacy and its propaganda’s insistence—on a world state—that Black lives matter.” While the documents in the Wayland Rudd Collection reveal that race was a fraught topic for Soviet propagandists, the fact remains that the Soviet’s denouncement of American racism were some of the first and most potent indictments from any state.