Just a few years ago, Liberty Weekend for Robert Robinson meant only a deep and wistful yearning. Truly a stranger in a strange land, he was a black man living in the Soviet Union, which, for 47 years, was his home.
But Robinson will spend this July 4 in the nation's capital, where he now lives and where for the first time in more than a half-century he will celebrate the holiday as a U.S. citizen.
Robinson's incredible journey began in the mid-1920s when he went to work at Ford Motor Co. in Detroit. A Jamaican who had gained U.S. citizenship, he was a tool and die maker who said that because of racial discrimination he could get hired only to sweep the plant. Permitted to pursue his craft after several years, Robinson was the only black among 700 tool and die workers.
When Ford agreed to help the Soviets start a plant, the Soviets came to Detroit to study the assembly line. They recruited Robinson, along with several others, to work in Gorky.
The 23-year-old Robinson signed a one-year contract to go to the Soviet Union to train workers and invent machinery. For him, the journey was a chance to flee his second-class status at home and to earn higher wages.
Robinson was well treated by the Soviets -- and prominently featured in their propaganda. Hailed every time he achieved a new post, the Soviets used him to dramatize the fact that they were doing something for oppressed people and were a society where black people could achieve.
He was "elected" to the city council, a largely honorary status much like being given the keys to a city.
Robinson signed up for another one-year stint, and then another. By then, the Depression was raging and many other Americans migrated to the Soviet Union seeking work. Back home, millions of blacks, for many of whom economic depression seemed a constant state, were jobless.
In the late 1930s, Robinson made what he now says was his biggest mistake. When his American passport expired as World War II was getting under way, he followed the advice of Soviet officials and sought "temporary" Soviet citizenship. Soon the special privileges ended. He ate the same black bread as ordinary Soviets and stood in the same lines.
In 1947, he began to seek exit visas to return to America. But every year, for the next 27 years, he said, "the answer was always 'nyet.' "
Ever hopeful that he would be returning home, Robinson refused to marry a Soviet woman because he knew that would hinder his exit, preferring to endure the loneliness. And though he worked at the same factory for 47 years and lived as a Russian among Russians, he was still a stranger. Entering parks where he was unknown, for instance, he said he was often thought to be a spy and taken to police headquarters until he was identified.
Finally, in the mid-1970s, when the Soviets granted him a temporary visa to vacation in Uganda, Robinson made a desperate escape.
With the help of William Davis, a Russian-speaking black USIA official he had met in Moscow, Robinson traveled to Jamaica and later to the United States.
For seven years, Robinson has lived here quietly. While feeling "used" by the Soviets, he also feared retaliation. But something happened in December to free him to talk: He became a U.S. citizen again.
A few days ago, Ebony magazine, which featured him in its June issue, threw Robinson an 80th birthday bash in its Washington offices.
Among those attending the party was journalist Daniel Schorr, who had met Robinson in Moscow. At that time, Schorr had given Robinson two pairs of shoes, one pair of which Robinson was wearing. "I made myself a promise," said the frail man, "that I would only wear this pair when I walked on American soil." The guests applauded.
Commenting on Robinson's life, Allison Blakely, a Howard University history professor and the author of the new book "Russia and the Negro," said: "Blacks leaving the U.S. should not necessarily be viewed as lacking patriotism. Those who went in the 1920s and 1930s were often reacting to racism and their sense of rejection by a society they loved and wanted to be part of."
Often, blacks -- from Martin Luther King Jr. to the 1960s college students registering blacks to vote -- have been accused of being communists when they tried to make America live up to its promise. But Robinson's unusual odyssey makes his message a special one: "No matter how many problems blacks have in America, at least here, unlike in Russia, we can fight for freedom."