The oil painting of a black Russian man lay quietly for years in a back corner of an antique shop in a dingy walking mall in Moscow.
Andy Leddy, a white American working on a U.S. government contract for a refugee program in 1992, a year after the Communist Party lost power, pulled the canvas out and unrolled it.
“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.
Notable figures included the poet Claude McKay, who traveled in the 1920s; the authors William L. Patterson and Wayland Rudd; and later the musicians Duke Ellington and B.B. King. Paul Robeson performed concerts and appeared on Soviet television and radio. In 1952, he was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize.
“In Russia, I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington,” Robeson told the House Un-American Activities Committee on June 12, 1956.
The contingent on that ship in 1932 had been invited by the Mezhrabpom film corporation, which wanted to make a movie called “Black and White.” “The objective of the film was to propagandize the plight of black Americans,” Cobb said.
Lloyd Patterson, who had just graduated from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), where he studied interior decorating, traveled on that boat with novelist Langston Hughes, who would write about his journey in “I Wonder as I Wander: an Autobiographical Journey.”
“In Helsinki,” Hughes wrote, “we stayed overnight and the next day we took a train headed for the land of John Reed’s ‘Ten Days That Shook the World,’ the land where race prejudice was reported taboo, the land of the Soviets. At the border were young soldiers with a red star on their caps. Spread high in the air across the railroad tracks, there was a banner: WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE. When the train stopped beneath this banner for passports to be checked, a few of the young black men and women left the train to touch their hands to Soviet soil, lift the new earth in their palms, and kiss it.”
A few months later, the film project collapsed. Several of the group returned to the United States, but Patterson stayed behind.
“Life and work in the Soviet Union affords me the widest opportunities and freedom to use my profession to the fullest,” Patterson told the Chicago Defender newspaper in a 1936 interview. In America, “although I spent four years at Hampton studying and mastering my trade, when I left school in 1931, I found no place to use my talents” because of racial discrimination.
A few days after Leddy left the Moscow antique store, he traveled home to Northwest Washington. He had the painting cleaned and hung it in his dining room. It intrigued visitors.
“Some visitors would sort of shake their heads, and ask, ‘Why is there a portrait of a black man in your living room?’ or some such question,” Leddy said. “I do think that many people were unaccepting of it as art, couldn’t understand the idea of having a stranger, a black stranger, hanging as art. It became a sort of litmus test for me about art. What I mean is, if I had to explain or argue that this piece transcended simple portraiture, then I felt that they weren’t looking hard enough.”
Months later, Leddy was reading a National Geographic article about the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin. The story was accompanied by a portrait of a black Russian poet identified as James Patterson.
“Though he had a shock of gray-white hair, he had a clear resemblance to the man in the portrait,” Leddy recalled. “I thought it was him.”
Leddy called the writer, got James Patterson’s phone number, and set up an appointment to meet him during his next trip to Moscow, where Patterson lived with his mother. Within months, Leddy was knocking on Patterson’s door.
Vera Aralova welcomed Leddy into the sunlit apartment and studio. Leddy carried a copy of the painting.
Aralova took one look and identified the man: He was her husband.
“ ‘It is Lloyd,’ she said,” Patterson recalled. “Then it was disbelief. ‘How come I’ve never seen this painting?’ ”
After Lloyd Patterson settled in Moscow, he married Aralova, an artist from Ukraine. They had three children.
One son, James, was chosen to star as a child in the 1936 Stalinist film called “Tsirk” (“Circus”), a propaganda work about race relations in the United States. “Circus” opens with a scene in the United States of a frightened white American woman, racing along railroad tracks carrying her half-black, half-white baby as she tries to escape a raging mob.
The woman flees to the Soviet Union, which the movie portrays as a country of racial acceptance. The movie ends with a scene that would become iconic: As the child star, Jimmy Lloydovich Patterson, is passed from person to person in a circus crowd, he smiles and the audience sings a song of racial acceptance: “And nobody in the whole world can laugh and love better than us.”
The child star grew in popularity — one reason that clerks at the Moscow gallery thought the painting was of him. Meanwhile, his father received more work. Lloyd Patterson decorated the Hotel Metropol and the Kremlin, according to the Chicago Defender, which had a Moscow correspondent, and his work was exhibited in the House of the Red Army and the Theater of Young Workers.
“I’m very happy to live in the free society in Soviet Russia and to take part in the building of socialism and the classless society. The life of a black man in Soviet Russia offers no comparison with the life of the Race in supposedly free America: there is only contrast,” Lloyd Patterson told the Defender.
In 1942, he died when German forces bombed Moscow.
In the 1990s, James Patterson, who published several collections of poetry in Russia, moved with his mother to the United States. It is unclear why. (One Patterson child died, and the other son remained in Russia.)
Today, Patterson lives in Northwest Washington. Ken Hamilton, a relative, said Patterson, 80, who was recovering from an illness, still writes poetry in Russian and English. Inside the blond brick house, the walls are covered with pastel paintings of Moscow.
When New York filmmaker Yelena Demikovsky was growing up in the Soviet Union, she watched “Circus” over and over again. The movie was to Russians what “The Wizard of Oz” was to Americans.
Demikovsky thought the movie “was absolutely beautiful and the music was perfect. There was one character in the movie that captivated me.” That was James Patterson.
“He was like a hero,” said Demikovsky on a recent trip to Washington. “It was like a Russian fairy tale. That hero who wins over the crowd. . . . From the time I was little, I thought, ‘Where did they find that boy?’ Nobody knew where he came from. Then I bumped into the book ‘Russia and the Negro,’ when I realized those people were Americans. I started researching to find how did that happen.”
Demikovsky, who moved to the United States in the 1980s, is making a documentary, “Black Russians — the Red Experience,” about the lives of the descendants of black Americans who left a segregated America for Russia.
“There are so many people who don’t know this story,” Demikovsky said. It seems contradictory, she said. “At the same time they invited Claude McKay, they were killing people in concentration camps.”
Demikovsky visited Leddy’s home in Georgetown to talk about his research on the black expatriates. “It’s not completely unknown, but remarkably unknown,” said Leddy. “They were educated blacks. They would be considered traitors — Communists.”
Leddy flips through posters and old photographs lying near the fireplace over which the painting of Patterson hangs. He pulls out a black-and-white photo of Lloyd Patterson and his family gathered around their dining room table. In the picture, a photograph of Stalin hangs in the background.
“Whatever we may think of Patterson’s choices from our remove, you have to put yourself in the context of a racially very ugly time in America to understand what compelled him to take such a step not so long ago,” Leddy says. “He just wanted to work. But over there, he was experiencing terror, Stalinists killing people off.”
Leddy has combed through files at Hampton University.
“I’ve learned that a lot of us really don’t know what others have lived through,” Leddy said. “Sometimes that stuff is too ugly or painful to look at or remember, but sometimes it’s incredibly enriching to our own lives and our understanding of others’ lives to go that extra distance.”
Last fall, Leddy sent a letter about the painting to the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia.
“I am struck how the pose of the figure seems to make reference to a kind of history of portrait paintings, evoking artists such as Anthony Van Dyck, who were celebrated for their portraits of kings and notable figures,” said Jennifer Farrell, curator of exhibitions.
Now the painting, whose artist is unknown, will be featured in an exhibition at Fralin that opens Friday. Perhaps the more the painting is exposed to the public, Leddy says, the more people will begin to research that period in American history and think about what would drive a black man to leave the United States for Russia.
“I wonder how well-known or well-reported Stalin’s crimes were at the time,” Leddy says. “Whatever they may have known or not known, their travel to Russia speaks volumes about what they were leaving in the U.S. It goes back to what I have often said about our over-romanticizing of the past. Even the very name ‘Harlem Renaissance’ sounds luxurious and flowering. The reality was that life was very hard and, after all, could Russia be worse?”
Opens Aug. 23 at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia and featuring other art and posters from the Stalin era. On Oct. 26, the museum hosts a symposium, “In the Shadow of Stalin: African American Artists and Intellectuals in Soviet Russia.”