“Why would there be a portrait of a black man in Russia?” Leddy recalls thinking. “They treated people of color horribly here. But look at it. It’s heroic and romantic. It is odd to see a black subject in a heroic pose.”
The clerks told him the unsigned painting depicted a man named Patterson who had starred in a classic Russian movie, but that was all they could tell him.
“It was a mystery to me,” Leddy said.
There was something compelling in the man’s eyes, his broad forehead, his wavy black hair, his brown suit, and the way he stood: his left hand behind his back and his right hand propped against a railing, with the Moscow landscape an abstract gloom rising in the background.
“Who was he? When did he live here? What must it have been like for him?” Leddy wondered. “Who went to the trouble to honor him with a portrait? Any look at headlines regarding rising nationalism in Russia and increased racial crimes after the U.S.S.R. dissolved only makes the painting all the more remarkable.”
That afternoon would be the beginning of a quest that would consume Leddy for years. He left the antique shop with the “mysterious portrait” tucked beneath his arm.
Sixty years earlier, 22 “Negro workers, actors, students and writers” had set sail to Moscow on the S.S. Europa at the invitation of Joseph Stalin’s government. They were going to make a revolutionary movie that would depict the atrocities of racism in the United States.
The black American intellectuals and artists would arrive at a time of famine. During the “Great Purge” in the ’30s, millions of ordinary citizens were imprisoned and those deemed enemies of Stalin were executed by the state.
Stalin came to power after the death of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin in 1924 and transformed the Soviet Union into a totalitarian state. Stalin, who wielded control over political, economic and intellectual thought, hoped to spread the ideals of communism by starting a black revolution in the United States, believing that oppressed black Americans could be instrumental in destroying capitalist governments throughout the world.
His government openly recruited black Americans. “They created something called Communist International,” said Jelani Cobb, director of the Institute of African American Studies at the University of Connecticut. “They gave the order to organize black Americans with a hope to create a radical cadre of black people.”
In Russia, which never enslaved black people, class was more important than color, Cobb said. Even as Stalin’s reign of terror spread, droves of black Americans came, attracted by the promise of racial equality in a newly formed country that advocated economic equality for the working class. They came during the Great Depression and the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and they brought a wide range of talents from jazz music to how to grow cotton.