On paper, Paul Robeson was an American publicist’s dream. He had a law degree from Columbia University, he was a first-class athlete and a star player in the National Football League, he could act and he could sing. Moreover, as a man of colour he embodied the American ideal of a society open to everyone, whatever their ethnicity or social background.
Yet there was a problem, not rare among sensitive intellectuals of his generation: disillusioned by Western democracy, Robeson began looking to the East for political solace. His principal motivation is not hard to fathom. His reverend father had been born into slavery, and all his life Robeson had suffered racial abuse. Even at the height of his fame, restaurants and hotels would refuse him entry on account of his skin colour.
Insulated from events that occurred many decades ago, Robeson’s strong attraction to Stalinism seems almost inconceivable. Yet during the Great Depression of the 1920s, Soviet Russia had bombarded newspapers with promises of a fairer society, particularly for disaffected African Americans – among those who left for a ‘better life’ were Robeson’s wife Eslanda’s two brothers. The turning point seems to have been Robeson’s first visit to Moscow in 1934. Having been menaced by Nazi soldiers at a Berlin checkpoint, he was welcomed in Moscow like a returning hero. ‘Here, I am not a Negro,’ he declared, ‘but a human being for the first time in my life.’
Yet Robeson saw only what he wanted to see. Despite being made aware of the plight of many immigrants, including his brother-in-law John, he insisted that ‘all masses of every race are contented here’. By 1937, on a return visit to Moscow, he was so in thrall of Stalin that he recalled sitting in tears during a Bolshoi performance at the sight of a man who was so ‘wise and good’.
Following World War II, his political relationship with the US became increasingly strained, until in April 1949 at the World Congress of Partisans for Peace in Paris, he announced that black Americans ‘do not wish to fight the Soviet Union’. Two months later, he was back in Moscow to give a live broadcast concert at Tchaikovsky Hall and re-establish contact with a number of his Jewish friends there.
Principal amongst these was the celebrated poet Itzik Feffer, whom Robeson had first met in New York six years earlier. Reports had reached the US that he had been shot, and Robeson was keen to prove them wrong. When he asked to see Feffer, he was told the poet was holidaying in the Crimea and would join him soon. In fact, Feffer was behind bars and emaciated through lack of nourishment. In the limited time available, he was fatted up and made to look respectable, but nothing could disguise the look of dread in his eyes.
Accounts differ as to exactly what happened during his official encounter with Feffer, although Robeson appears to have been left in no doubt as to the seriousness of the situation. To his credit, at his concert on 14 June 1949 – the recording of which can still be heard today – Robeson spoke openly of his friendship with Feffer, and in tribute sang in Yiddish the Warsaw ghetto resistance song Never Say You Have Reached the Very End, having pointedly spoken the text in Russian beforehand.
The final irony is that in 1952, the same year Robeson was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize, Feffer was executed alongside 12 other prominent Jewish prisoners as part of the Night of the Murdered Poets. Back home, Robeson was effectively relegated from national hero to media pariah.
Top image: Paul Robeson at the World Peace Council in Paris, Getty Images