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Meet Yosif Stalin, The Soviet-Born Black American From Kremlin, Virginia

  • Carl Schreck

KREMLIN, Virginia -- Yosif Stalin stood before his Kremlin home on a windswept afternoon this spring, his weathered hands gripping his walker. "I still own it," he said of the white, two-story house off a lonely country road.

It's no coincidence that this octogenarian was named after one of the 20th century's bloodiest dictators, but it's just half of his name. His full name is Yosif Stalin Kim Roane, and he was the first child of African-American parents ever born in the Soviet Union.

"Didn't nobody pay that no mind," Roane said of his notorious namesake in a recent interview with RFE/RL. "They mostly called me Joe."

Roane, 84, is among the few living offspring of African-Americans who traveled to the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s to seek a better life in the nascent communist state.

Most of these voyagers were driven by political convictions or economic hardship amid the Great Depression and pernicious racism in the United States, including the segregationist Jim Crow laws of the American South.

That Roane was born in an empire run from the Kremlin and grew up in this tiny Virginia hamlet of the same name is a coincidence that inspired the title of a recent documentary, Kremlin To Kremlin, aimed at preserving the record of his family's remarkable journey for future generations.

The film, produced by local historians, tells the story of Roane's father, Joseph J. Roane, a member of a team of African-American agronomists recruited to bring their expertise to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, most notably to improve cotton production in the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.

The elder Roane, who died in 1995, is widely credited with helping develop a successful hybrid of American and local cotton capable of growing more quickly in Uzbekistan.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov stands in front of his country's biggest export.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov stands in front of his country's biggest export.

To this day the commodity is virtually synonymous with the Central Asian country, whose autocratic post-Soviet president, Islam Karimov, has faced searing criticism from rights groups for forcing workers -- including children -- to harvest the crops.

"Of course Uzbeks knew cotton growing, but these new types of cotton dealt big changes in the industry," Bekjon Toshmuhammedov, a biology professor from Uzbekistan, tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. "As far as I know, Uzbeks still grow the types of cotton created by the Americans."

'Celebrity' Treatment

Raised in a well-to-do African-American family in Kremlin, Joseph J. Roane studied agronomy in college. After graduating, he was recruited to come to the Soviet Union by Oliver Golden, a black cotton specialist from Mississippi who would ultimately give up his U.S. citizenship and remain a Soviet national until his death in 1940.

Golden had been a student of the renowned African-American agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver, who helped select the team of agronomists.

Soviet authorities had seized on the plight of black Americans as an antipode to what they promoted as their new classless society free from racism. Indeed, many of the dozens of African-Americans who relocated to the Soviet Union praised the way they were treated there, even as more and more Soviet citizens were being targeted in the snowballing Stalinist purges.

These travelers came in various groups. In addition to the agronomists recruited by Golden, one group that was brought over to make a Soviet propaganda film about the evils of racism included the influential Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. The film never materialized, though Hughes traveled through the Soviet Union and met Golden and the elder Roane in Uzbekistan.

"Then you have some political trainees from the 1920s who were very attracted to this country that professed a nonracial society and actually treated them in a hospitable way that was totally unheard of in the United States," Joy Gleason Carew, author of Blacks, Reds, And Russians: Sojourners In Search Of The Soviet Promise, tells RFE/RL.

"It's amazing when you think about these people willing to leave home, and country, and language, culture for what they hoped would be a better life," adds Carew, an associate professor at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky.

Both Golden and his wife, a Polish-Jewish American named Bertha Beliak, were committed communists. But the elder Roane said later that he "hardly knew where the Soviet Union was when Golden came to my college to speak" and that that he didn't know "exactly what a communist was."

Roane told Golden's granddaughter, Russian journalist and television personality Yelena Khanga, that he signed on with Golden because the Soviet foreign-trade agency hiring the workers "was offering better pay for a month than a lot of people would make in a year in the Depression."

Joseph J. Roane as a young man

Joseph J. Roane as a young man

"Secondly, I was young and I wanted to see the world. I thought this might be the only chance I'd ever get," Khanga quotes him as saying in her 1992 book about growing up as a black Russian-American.

Roane and his new bride, Sadie, decided to make a honeymoon out of the trip. The group of agriculture specialists arrived in Leningrad in November 1931 after a four-week journey and then traveled to Uzbekistan, where they found ramshackle housing and infrastructure.

But they received better wages and accommodations than the locals. "The Soviets did make extra overtures to them to make sure they were a little more comfortably housed than the average Uzbek," Carew says.

This hospitality was evident when Sadie Roane gave birth to Yosif in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, on December 4, 1931. "She had at least five nurses to help her take care of me," Yosif says. "She had all kinds of help, as if she was a celebrity."

Much of what Yosif recounts about the Roanes' life in Soviet Uzbekistan is based on hearsay because of his young age at the time.

But he says that he remembers meeting other prominent African-Americans who visited the country. These include the famed performer and civil-rights activist Paul Robeson, who came under withering criticism at home for his vocal admiration for Stalin and the Soviet state.

"Paul Robeson carried me around on his shoulders," Yosif says.

'You Don't Know You're Black?'

Yosif Roane's sometimes diffuse recollections narrow to a laser-like focus when he discusses certain anecdotes from his childhood, like exploring nature in Uzbekistan and creeping around Red Army barracks in the Soviet republic.

He's less mobile these days, his walker compensating for a bad right leg. During a recent interview, Yosif shuffled into the room wearing a brown tweed jacket, a white tie, and a black shirt with gray stripes that matched his thinning hair and neat mustache and soul patch.

He erupts in laughter after telling about a time he saw a man from Africa on a bus he boarded with his family in Tashkent. "I said: 'Mama, Mama, look! Look at that black man!' And everybody on the bus cracked up. I was almost as black as he was. And everybody said, 'You mean to tell me you don't know you're black?'" Yosif says.

Yosif Stalin Kim Roane at around age 5/6

Yosif Stalin Kim Roane at around age 5/6

Like many other black Americans who came to the Soviet Union during this period, Yosif's father said that he experienced less racism there than back home. He told Khanga that the only incident he could recall was when two white Americans hurled racial slurs at him in a Moscow barbershop and were thrown out after the barbers learned what they had said.

The elder Roane extended his contract to work in the Soviet Union in 1934 and was sent to Soviet Georgia to work at a tomato cannery. The family remained for another three years before Soviet authorities delivered an ultimatum to the group of African-American agronomists: Give up their U.S. citizenship and stay, or leave the country.

This turning point came in the fateful year of 1937, at the height of Stalin's Great Terror. This campaign is estimated to have resulted in more than 1 million killings by the Soviet state amid an atmosphere of rising paranoia. According to Khanga, it nearly ensnared her grandfather and Joseph Roane's recruiter, Oliver Golden.

She writes that Golden learned that the Soviet secret police had come in the middle of the night to arrest him while he was away on vacation in southwestern Russia. When he returned home, Khanga writes, he went to the local secret service office and asked to be arrested "if you think I'm an enemy of the people."

"Comrade Golden, don't get so upset. We've already fulfilled the plan of arrests for your area. Go home and work in peace," she quotes the police official as responding.

According to Yosif, the increasingly perilous political situation in the Soviet Union played no role in his father's decision to bring his family back home. He says Joseph Roane's mother was ill. "He wanted to come back here quickly to get to see what he could do for my grandmother," he says. "My father loved his mama."

Speaking to Khanga, Yosif's father portrayed his return as bittersweet. "In just a few years -- you'd be surprised -- you could forget what segregation was like," she quotes him as saying. "When Golden spoke at my college, I didn't believe him when he said there was no segregation in the Soviet Union. Why should I? But it proved to be absolutely true."

'Nobody Called Me Stalin'

Yosif was not the first child of an African-American to be born in the Soviet Union. In the late 1920s, a few years before Yosif's birth, Golden fathered a son named Ollava who went on to become a ballet dancer and choreographer and died in the Russian city of Vladimir in 2013, at age 87.

But based on open sources and research published by Carew, he was the first whose parents were both African-Americans. "I'm the first black American born in the Soviet Union," Yosif says emphatically.

Almost all of the children born to these African-American expatriates in the 1920s and 1930s had Soviet mothers and were Americans only on their father's side.

"They all practically stayed in the Soviet Union," says New York-based filmmaker Yelena Demikovsky, who has interviewed numerous descendants of these African-Americans for her film Black Russians: The Red Experience, which is in postproduction.

Yosif, however, returned with his family to Kremlin, Virginia, at age 5 and settled in the clapboard home that he still owns. On a recent visit to the house through rolling fields of green spring wheat, a rusty windmill -- once a sign of the Roane family's self-sufficiency and affluence -- creaked and whined as it twirled.

Yosif's father became a widely respected local educator, teaching at A.T. Johnson High School in the nearby town of Montross, one of the first high schools for African-American students in the area.

The school, which opened the same year that the Roane family returned from the Soviet Union, was turned into a museum under the direction of Marian Ashton.

She co-produced the documentary Kremlin To Kremlin along with Jon Bachman of Stratford Hall, a museum that is part of the Virginia Historical Society. "My passion for sharing this...is to introduce and engage the minds of all persons, especially the youth," Ashton says. "Hopefully they notice that these are ordinary people who just happened to have done some extraordinary things."

The schoolhouse museum that Ashton runs features a small exhibit space that includes artifacts from Joseph Roane's life, including a fur hat and vest that he brought back from Uzbekistan.

Sitting amid the relics of his father's life, Yosif says that he did not speak English -- only Russian -- when he returned with his family from the Soviet Union. "When my mother and father didn't want me to know what they were talking about, they spoke English," he says.

Nearly eight decades later, Yosif knows only a few words of Russian. Greeting a reporter at the museum, he says, "Idi syuda" -- or "come here" -- with a decent Russian accent. He rattles off the word for dog -- "sobaka" -- and kitty-cats -- "kiski" -- and adds that he once had a dog named Tuzik, a Russian analogue to popular English-language canine names like Fido or Rover.

After serving in the U.S. Navy, Yosif followed in his father's footsteps and became a teacher, had a family, and ran a barbershop as well.

As for his name, Yosif says: "Nobody called me Stalin. In fact, a lot of people don't know, even right now, don't know nothing about Stalin. It didn't matter. It's just a name."

He seemed unclear precisely why the Uzbek doctors added Kim to his birth certificate as well. The name, in fact, is a Russian acronym for the Young Communist International, the youth branch of the Communist International. It was among the newfangled names that became popular during Soviet times, many of which were based on Bolshevik leaders and buzz phrases.

Less clear are the origins of the name of his town in Virginia. According to Khanga, the elder Roane's hometown nearly prevented him from renewing his American papers at the newly opened U.S. Embassy in Moscow after the establishment of U.S.-Soviet diplomatic ties in 1933.

She writes that a low-level U.S. diplomat initially refused to believe that he hailed from a town called Kremlin and grudgingly signed off on the paperwork after cables with Washington confirmed his story.

An authoritative history of the county in which Kremlin is located -- titled Westmoreland County, Virginia 1653-1983 -- sheds little light. "Besides being the citadel of Russian government, Kremlin is a suburb of Paris," the book notes. "How the name came to be applied to a place in Westmoreland is unknown."

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