Can a man endowed with genius squander it through extreme political blindness? This is a question that must be asked when assessing the legacy of the multi-talented actor, singer, and political activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976). Yet this question is often swept under the rug by those who want to lionize Robeson, while ignoring his servile devotion to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. Indeed, Stalin had few more loyal devotees in America than Robeson—though you wouldn’t know it from the official narrative.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Robeson’s graduation from Rutgers University, and the school is pulling out all the stops to celebrate. A new “Paul Robeson Plaza” now graces the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, and a yearlong tribute is underway. There is plenty to admire. As an undergraduate, Robeson was class valedictorian and a ranked All-American football player. After graduation, he went on to Columbia University Law School, where he earned his law degree while playing football in the NFL. He then became an actor, appearing in Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and used his remarkable bass-baritone to establish himself as a popular singer. After moving to Britain in 1928, he appeared in Jerome Kern’s Showboat, stopping the show with his famous rendition of “Ol’ Man River”; later, he played the titular role in Shakespeare’s Othello on Broadway. And he did all this while both suffering from and actively fighting the scourge of American racism.
But this is not the only Paul Robeson. A full-fledged Stalinist in his time, Robeson had enough up-close experience with the Soviet Union to know better than most fellow travelers—yet he nonetheless persisted in denying and excusing the regime’s crimes. Sadly, Rutgers has chosen to downplay his radical political views, instead painting him as a victim of official Redbaiting. That does a disservice to history, rendering in hagiographic terms a man whose remarkable achievements and remarkable failures of vision deserve to be understood side by side. Robeson, like many American communists, married a sincere commitment to social justice at home with a blinkered commitment to a totalitarian regime abroad. To understand how this could happen requires a deeper look at the man in full.
No one can deny Paul Robeson’s personal achievements, nor the many obstacles he faced in attaining them. When he first joined the all-white Rutgers football team he was routinely harassed by his teammates. At his first job after law school, his assigned stenographer refused to take his dictation; when Robeson complained and threatened to resign, he was told by the law firm’s head that he should look for another line of work. Even after he became famous, he was refused service in restaurants and sometimes had difficulty booking hotel rooms.
It is small wonder, then, that Robeson and other African Americans responded positively to Soviet overtures. After the 1917 revolution, its leaders had wooed disaffected African Americans to Russia, posing the Soviet Union as a welcoming alternative to racist America. During the Depression, they encouraged communist sympathizers and jobseekers to move there. By the early 1930s 100,000 Americans had applied to go, responding to Soviet ads in American newspapers. As the decade progressed many would be swept up during Stalin’s Great Purge.
Among the blacks who packed their bags were Frank Goode and John Goode, Jr., the two brothers of Robeson’s wife Eslanda. Both had become sympathetic to Soviet communism, with its promise of racial equality. In addition to blue-collar workers, the Russians also appealed to black professionals and artists: poets Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, radicals such as lawyer William J. Patterson, and the great pan-Africanist W.E. B. DuBois had all visited Moscow a few years before Robeson did in December 1934.
It was then that Paul Robeson’s love affair with the Soviet Union first began. Before arriving in Moscow, the Robesons had stopped in Berlin, where they were harassed and threatened by Nazi storm troopers. Paul told friends that he felt lucky to get out of Germany alive. When he arrived in Moscow, by contrast, he was greeted by throngs of admirers. His handlers gave him a Potemkin tour of the Soviet Union, hoping to gain an influential American citizen who would sing their praises.
Robeson did not disappoint. Shortly after his arrival he gave an interview to reporter Vern Smith of the American Communist Party’s newspaper, the Daily Worker, telling him, “I was not prepared for the happiness I see on every face in Moscow. I was aware there was no starvation here, but I was not prepared for the bounding life; the feeling of abundance and freedom that I find here, wherever I turn.” Robeson related that his passport was irregular, and yet “all this was brushed aside by the eager helpfulness of border authorities.” There was only joy and happiness, which the singer compared to his day in Berlin: “a day of horror in an atmosphere of hatred, fear, and suspicion.”
Of course, the Robesons’ stay was highly orchestrated. They were given grand accommodations in the hotel suite once occupied by the first U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, William Bullitt. They met leading playwrights, artists and filmmakers, including the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. Maxim Litvinov, the Foreign Minister, told Robeson at a Christmas Eve dinner how glad he was that he had come to Soviet Russia, where they understood the plight of African Americans.
In reality, they found the situation of at least one African American to be far from perfect. After Eslanda visited her brother John, Jr. she wrote to their mother that he looked “cold, worn, and old.” According to Robeson biographer Martin Duberman, she bought him warm underwear and a heavy leather coat, paid his rent for six months, and during their stay provided him “with enough foreign money to buy scarce eggs, meat, and vegetables.” Yet in an interview with Communist Party leader Ben Davis, Jr. in the Sunday Worker of May 10, 1936, Robeson said that Goode’s apartment offered proof of how the workers all “live in healthful surroundings, apartments, with nurseries containing the most modern equipment for their children.” Robeson went on to say that he wished workers in the United States, especially blacks in Harlem and the South, “had such places to stay in.” His brother-in-law’s apartment, he told Davis, “had plenty of light, fresh air, and space. Believe me he is very happy.”
Goode was most certainly not happy. In fact, his sister and Robeson feared he was going to be arrested after they left the country, because of what Goode had privately told them. Already, they were informed, the Soviet authorities were showing distrust toward the Americans who had come to help the revolution. At Goode’s request, Robeson helped to get him out of the country after his concert tour, telling authorities that Goode was going to take a short vacation with them. Goode left with only one small suitcase, to sell the story. Robeson had saved his life. On February 19, 1938, the NKVD issued a decree for his arrest.
Goode’s roommate Arthur Talent was not so fortunate. Talent had arrived with his family from Boston in 1920, when he was seven. A gifted violinist, he attended the Moscow Conservatory to study music before meeting his future roommate Goode. In January 1938, Talent simply vanished. He had been arrested by the NKVD, who accused him of stealing a suit from the Robesons, who had given it to him as a gift during their 1934 visit. After 28 days of endless interrogation, Talent confessed that his apartment had become “a center for foreign espionage.” Talent was forced to give the names of other innocent Americans and was then immediately taken from his cell and shot.
When word got out that Goode was going to leave the country, other Americans asked Robeson for help but were ignored. Black members of an amateur baseball team in the USSR appealed to him without success. In his memoir written years later, Robert Robinson—one of the most prominent African Americans who had moved to the Soviet Union in the 1930s—wrote that he had sought Robeson’s help to leave the USSR en route to Ethiopia. An aide to the singer told him: “What do you think you’re doing, Robinson, running away from here? You must stay right where you are. You belong here . . . or maybe you’re trying to tarnish Paul’s reputation, by getting him involved in your attempt to leave.”
African American Communists in the USSR who challenged the party line were especially in danger. Lovett Fort-Whiteman, who had been a leading black Communist in the United States and the head of the American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC), suffered as a result of his apostasy. The Communist Party’s line on America had long been “black and white unite and fight,” but that changed when the Comintern applied Stalin’s definition of a nation to the black population of the American South. Harry Haywood, a leading black Communist who trained in Russia, worked to draft the “Comintern Resolutions on the Negro Question.” It stated that African Americans in the “black belt” in the South of the United States made up an oppressed nation, with the right to self-determination up to and including secession.
Fort-Whiteman did not buy the new Party line. When he publicly objected, he was quickly removed from his leadership post in the ANLC—but was then sent to Moscow to work for the Comintern, in an effort to keep him quiet. Fort-Whiteman welcomed the change, telling a friend he was “coming home to Moscow.” He went around Russia, speaking to workers and farmers about the oppression of blacks in the United States.
In 1933, one year before Robeson arrived in Moscow, Fort-Whiteman told the American Communist Party that he wished to return home—but it refused to support his request to the Comintern. In 1938, the NKVD sentenced him to five years of hard labor in Siberia, where a survivor of the prison camp said that he was regularly beaten and eventually died of malnutrition, “a broken man, whose teeth had been knocked out.” In his memoir Robert Robinson described Fort-Whiteman’s crime: At a Party meeting in 1936, he had criticized a book by Langston Hughes, then ardently pro-Communist, and another participant at the meeting accused him of being a “counter-revolutionary.” Next, he was branded as a Trotskyist—the equivalent of a death sentence—by William L. Patterson, a black leader of the Party’s U.S. section dealing with racism. Fort-Whiteman was still in Moscow when Robeson arrived in 1934 but was noticeably absent from the delegation of African Americans the singer met with, which had been put together by Patterson. Evidently, the American Party and the NKVD did not want Robeson to be exposed to dissenting voices. (Robinson, too, was excluded from the group.)
Robeson left Russia in 1935, a year before the infamous show trials of 1936-38, but repression and terror were already underway. The once-large anarchist community had been arrested, as was anyone accused of following Trotsky. Thousands who resisted the forced collectivization of agriculture had been arrested, some 140,724 in just a three-month period from January to mid-April 1930. In that same year, prominent engineers and scientists were accused of plotting against the regime, and 2,000 others were accused of trying to destroy Soviet industries from within. While Robeson was in Russia, the trial of those accused of the murder of Leningrad party chief Sergei Kirov—used by Stalin as a pretext to launch the Great Purge—was also underway.
When Vern Smith interviewed Robeson for the Daily Worker about the court-martial and execution of a number of “counter-revolutionary terrorists,” Robeson declared:
From what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet Government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot! It is the government’s duty to put down any opposition to this really free society with a firm hand and I hope they will always do it, for I already regard myself at home here. This is home to me. I feel more kinship to the Russian people under their new society than I ever felt anywhere else. It is obvious there is no terror here, that all the masses of every race are contented and support their government.
When Robeson returned to Moscow in 1937 for yet another concert tour, he attended a ballet performance at the Bolshoi Theater, where he saw Joseph Stalin enjoying the show in a private box seat. Remembering this incident years later, Robeson said that tears flowed from his eyes to see a leader who was “wise and good . . . the socialist world was fortunate indeed to have his daily guidance. I lifted high my son Pauli to wave to this world leader, and his leader.”
In his own biography, The Undiscovered Paul Robeson, Paul Jr. wrote that he had trouble understanding his father’s passionate support for Stalin. He had read that a friend of his father, physician Ignaty Kazakov, was found guilty of poisoning top Soviet leaders in the major third purge trial in March 1938. Pauli thought that perhaps “something had gone wrong under Stalin’s rule.” Finding his father reticent to answer his query, 11-year-old Pauli charged: “We all knew he was innocent and you never said a word.” His father showed “an intense rage mixed with hurt.” A few days later Robeson explained to his son that “sometimes great injustices may be inflicted on the minority when the majority is in the pursuit of a great and just cause.”
War and Peace
Before World War II, the Communist Party proclaimed anti-fascism as its main goal and worked hard to seek an American-Soviet alliance against the growing threat posed by Adolf Hitler. Then, on August 23, 1939, the world learned that the German and Soviet Foreign Ministers had signed a non-aggression pact: the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Suddenly, Moscow instructed all Communist Parties to cease anti-fascist propaganda, and to portray both the United States and Britain as warmongering imperialist powers, while Nazi Germany was depicted as benign and unthreatening.
Martin Duberman explains Robeson’s response: “In the two-year period following the pact, and until Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Robeson took his position on the CP side of the sundered left-wing coalition.” As always, “he sounded the alarm and advocated the policies” endorsed by the CPUSA and its various front groups. Along with the Party, Robeson made his central demand that of aid to the USSR. In doing so, he found himself at odds with black leaders more concerned about the needs of black workers.
During World War II the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph, built a movement to protest segregation in defense industries and the armed forces; the threat of a march on Washington got FDR to sign the Fair Employment Act, an Executive Order banning discrimination in defense industries. There is no record of Robeson supporting Randolph’s militant demands and the march. Indeed, the Communist Party sought to keep its alliances with the mainstream liberal movement, which meant looking the other way at racist practices. Communist Party-led unions, like “Red Mike” Quill’s Transport Workers Union in New York City, did nothing to advance job opportunities for black workers. The Party did not want to upset the apple cart, by saying or doing anything that might interfere with the war effort.
After the war, Robeson became entangled in a dispute over whether African Americans should serve in the armed forces, which furthered tensions with black leaders. It started when Robeson gave a speech at the Communist-led “World Peace Congress” in Paris on April 19, 1949. An Associated Press dispatch which went out across the United States erroneously quoted him as saying “it is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against a country [the Soviet Union] which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.” The dispatch caused an uproar, but what Robeson had actually said was “we shall not make war on anyone. We shall not make war on the Soviet Union.” But the very next day in Stockholm, he actually said what he had been wrongly accused of saying in Paris: “I can assure you that they [American Negroes] will never fight against the Soviet Union or the People’s Democracies.” Robeson was presuming to speak on behalf of all African Americans, which black leaders both rejected and resented.
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., New York City’s militant black Congressman from Harlem, stated, “By no stretch of the imagination can Robeson speak for all Negro people.” Both Randolph and his chief lieutenant Bayard Rustin objected to Robeson’s elevation of Soviet interests over the principled issue of opposing segregation in the armed forces. At any rate, Rustin, a strong social-democrat and anti-Communist, called for America’s black civil rights leadership to convene to “create a united front to make sure that America understood that the current black leadership totally disagreed with Robeson.”
The controversy caught the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which then heard the testimony of prominent African American leaders. As a result, Jackie Robinson appeared before HUAC and read aloud a statement written for him by Lester Granger, head of the Urban League. He began by saying that black Americans had very real grievances, and when a Communist expressed them it did not change “the truth of his charges.” Racism was not, Robinson stressed, “a creation of Communist imagination.” But he went on to say that Robeson’s apparent suggestion that Negroes would not fight a war against the Soviet Union “sounds very silly to me. . . . that is his business and not mine.” As for himself, he believed that “we can win our fight without the Communists and we don’t want their help.”
Robinson’s statement got front-page attention throughout the country, and an endorsement from famous liberals and civil rights activists, including Eleanor Roosevelt. Robeson, still desiring a united front between the Communists and the civil rights community, said he had no argument with Robinson and warned about the danger ahead if “we fight among ourselves.” The problem was that the NAACP and the Urban League—both strongly anti-Communist—no longer supported a Popular Front. Americans for Democratic Action, (ADA) a new liberal activist group, had been formed precisely to allow the liberals to openly exclude Communists. It gained the support of prominent Americans including the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Auto Workers union president Walter Reuther.
Robeson tried to explain to his critics why the Soviet Union was so important to him:
I have heard some honest and sincere people say to me, “Yes, Paul, we agree with you on everything you say about Jim Crow and persecution. We’re with you 100 percent. . . . But what has Russia ever done for us Negroes?” And in answering this question I . . . put my finger on the very crux of what the Soviet Union means to me—a Negro and an American. For the answer is very simple and very clear: “Russia,” I say, “the Soviet Union’s very existence, its example before the world of abolishing all discrimination based on color or nationality, its fight in every area of world conflict for genuine democracy and peace, this has given us Negroes the chance of our achieving our complete liberation within our own time, within this generation.”
Robeson did indeed fight on many fronts against the second-class status of black Americans, and for their full equality. But even this fight was characterized by blinkered loyalty to the Party line. Robeson worked with and supported the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a Communist front group which carried on the Party’s legal defense in the 1950s, when the government indicted top Communist leaders around the country for violation of the Smith Act. That law stated that anyone belonging to a group that sought to overthrow the U.S. government with use of force could be indicted and brought to trial. In Cold War America, American Communist Party leaders fit the bill, and mainstream rights organizations, including the ACLU, refused to take a stand in their defense.
Robeson did, speaking at a CRC “Bill of Rights” conference in New York City in 1949, but he failed to extend his defense of civil rights to the Party’s enemies. Early in the proceedings, a resolution was proposed to restore the civil liberties of the 18 members of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party who were convicted during the war for violating the same Smith Act. The SWP had opposed the U.S. alliance with the Soviet Union and advocated a revolution against the Stalinist leadership. That made them anti-war, and because they had power in the Teamsters Union, they were also a danger to the no-strike policy endorsed by the Communist Party.
When Robeson was called upon, he vigorously opposed the resolution, calling the SWP “allies of fascism who want to destroy the new democracies of the world,” referring to the Soviet-imposed states in Eastern Europe. “Let us not be confused,” Robeson said. “They are the enemies of the working class. Would you give civil rights to the Ku Klux Klan?”
Speaking in the resolution’s favor was the meeting’s chair, Paul J. Kern, and Yale Law Professor Thomas Emerson. To deny the SWP civil rights, Emerson said, would be “a repudiation of the Bill of Rights.” The head of the Trotskyist group, Farrell Dobbs, once leader of the Teamsters’ Union in Minneapolis, said, “Either this conference is going to vote to defend the civil rights of everyone or prove on the record that so far as the Communist Party is concerned you would rather wreck a cause than support those with whom you do not agree.” The CRC proceeded to do the latter, and overwhelmingly voted the resolution down. Instead, they passed one that simply said, “We pledge to defend all anti-fascist victims of the Smith Act,” thereby excluding the Trotskyists. In making such ludicrous statements about the SWP, he inadvertently revealed that the CRC was anything but a group committed to defend the civil liberties and civil rights of all Americans.
That same year, William L. Patterson, who now headed the CRC in conjunction with Robeson and DuBois, presented a statement to the United Nations, later published as a book: We Charge Genocide. Their petition used the official UN definition of the word to argue that “the oppressed Negro citizens of the United States . . . suffer from genocide as the result of the consistent, conscious, unified policies of every branch of government.” As evidence the petition cited the prevention of blacks voting in the South, lynchings, police brutality, and persistent inequality between blacks and whites. They failed to prove, however, that these were the actual policies of the U.S. Federal government as opposed to actions by individual racists and state governments. The petition was rejected by the UN, but it served as lasting propaganda for the Soviets.
In 1952, at the height of the Cold War, Stalin rewarded Robeson for his loyalty by giving him his country’s most prestigious international award, the Stalin Peace Prize. In Robeson’s statement accepting it, he told the American people that the time had come to build a “united front of the people . . . for peace.” Addressing American blacks, he told them that a war between the United States and the USSR would mean “an end to our struggle for civil rights, FEPC, the right to vote, an anti-lynching law, abolition of segregation.” All of these were worthy causes supported by the mainstream civil rights movement. What differentiated Robeson from them is that he tied achieving these aims to endorsing Soviet foreign policy, which was focused on the Moscow-supported “liberation” movements arising in Asia and Africa. Soviet policy also called for unilateral Western disarmament.
Robeson’s statement quoted Pravda’s editorial, which said the prize proved that the peace movement was growing throughout the world; in reality, this meant that more fellow travelers in Europe were parroting Soviet policy. The award to Robeson, Pravda said, “reflect[s] the important historical fact that broader and broader sections of the masses of the Western Hemisphere are rising to struggle for freedom and independence.” Robeson continued that he therefore accepted the award “on behalf of these new millions who are moving into the organized fight for peace . . . especially in the United States.”
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Robeson wrote a eulogy for Stalin titled “To You Beloved Comrade” that appeared in New World Review, an American magazine dedicated to spreading Communist propaganda about the Communist bloc. He concluded:
Yes, through his deep humanity, by his wise understanding, [Stalin] leaves us a rich and monumental heritage. Most importantly—he has charted the direction of our present and future struggles. . . . How consistently, how patiently, he labored for peace and ever-increasing abundance, with what deep kindliness and wisdom. He leaves tens of millions all over the earth bowed in heart-aching grief.
The Grand Inquisitors
When accused of being a Communist, Robeson always denied it and called such claims Redbaiting. On June 12, 1956, Robeson appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and was asked the $64 question: “Are you now a member of the Communist Party?” Robeson answered in the usual evasive way Communists were coached to deal with the question. “What do you mean by the Communist Party?” he asked. “As far as I know it is a legal party like the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.” Then he attempted to turn the question around on the Committee: “Do you mean a party of people who have sacrificed for my people and for all Americans and workers, that they can live in dignity? Do you mean that party?”
The online narrative of the Rutgers exhibit, too, makes it appear that Robeson was not a Communist. News coverage touted by Rutgers says that the U.S. government “labeled him a Communist” during the Red Scare. The website also reprints an article saying that Robeson was “branded a Communist sympathizer, a ‘Red’ during the height of the Cold War,” as if the charge were a falsehood.
The truth is that Robeson was a secret member of the Communist Party, U.S.A. At the centennial celebration of his birthday, in May 1998, Gus Hall, the Chairman of the Party, announced that he could now reveal the truth—that Paul Robeson had always been a Party member, but “the U.S. Ruling Class and its corporate-ruled government made it impossible for Paul to declare his commitment to the Communist Party.” Hall wrote: “My own precious moments with Paul were when I met him to accept his dues and renew his yearly membership in the CPUSA. I and other Communist leaders . . . met with Paul to brief him on politics and Party policies and to discuss his work and struggles.”
In a cover story in the Party’s “theoretical and political” monthly journal, Political Affairs, the Party’s Executive Vice Chairman, Jarvis Tyner, explained that because “of the extreme repression of the McCarthy period, Robeson was not able to publicly announce the nature of his association with the Communist Party.” Tyner was angry that during the centennial celebrations for Robeson, many were “shamelessly going out of their way to distance Robeson from his Party.” “Unfortunately,” Tyner wrote, “if these lies go unanswered, Paul’s legacy will be at war with the life he actually lived.” Robeson was not “an ordinary liberal,” he stressed—“he was a freedom fighter, a revolutionary, a Communist, a 20th Century giant.”
Despite Robeson’s constant cheerleading, he was privately dismayed by Soviet repression of the Jews. During his 1949 Soviet concert tour, Robeson asked to meet his friends Itzik Feffer and Solomon Mikhoels: two Jewish artists whom he had first met in 1943 when Stalin sent them to tour the United States on behalf of the “Jewish Anti-Fascist League.” Little did Robeson know that Mikhoels had since been murdered on Stalin’s orders, on January 13, 1948, in what was disguised as a hit-and-run car crash. Feffer, meanwhile, was being held at the infamous Lubyanka prison in Moscow, having been arrested by the NKVD in December 1948. The authorities made him presentable for the occasion and brought him to meet Robeson in his hotel room. Feffer signaled that the room was bugged, and that they should only make pleasantries but communicate with hand gestures and written notes. Feffer told Robeson about the growing anti-Semitism, and the prominent Jewish cultural figures who were under arrest. Then Feffer put his hand across his throat, indicating that he expected that his days would be short. He was shot to death a few years later.
Robeson was shaken, and to his credit told the audience at his concert in Moscow that night that he was friends with Feffer and Mikhoels and had just met with Feffer. He then sang in Yiddish the Warsaw Ghetto resistance song written by Hersh Glick, a Jewish poet and fighter, “Zog Nit Kaynmal.” It was indeed a bold gesture. By singing this song and mentioning his friendship with Feffer, he signaled his disapproval without having to say anything publicly against Stalin.
Yet when Robeson returned to the United States, he told the waiting press that he had seen Feffer in Russia and saw no traces of anti-Semitism there. “I met Jewish people all over the place,” he told New World Review, “and I heard no word about [anti-Semitism.]” Robeson’s denial of Soviet anti-Semitism was the one always given by American defenders of the Stalinist regime. As Martin Duberman writes, Robeson “had come to believe so passionately that U.S. racism and imperialism were the gravest threats to mankind . . . that he felt public criticism of anti-Semitism in the USSR would only serve to play into the hands of America’s dangerous right-wing.” Hence Robeson never said anything publicly that would be considered critical of Stalin and the Soviet Union.
No amount of dissembling could prevent the true story of Robeson’s visit with Feffer from eventually coming out. One of the first people to write about it was Robeson’s friend, the actor and filmmaker Herbert Marshall. Robeson had spent time with Marshall during his 1934 trip to Russia, when Marshall was studying filmmaking with director Sergei Eisenstein at the Soviet Cinematography Institute. Robeson, who was scheduled to make a film about the life of Toussaint L’Overture, also spent some time during his visit at the Institute. “It was from that time,” Marshall wrote, “that we became firm friends.” Robeson told him that he planned to live and work in the Soviet Union, where he would produce plays and films in which he would present blacks not as “noble savages,” but as normal people. But first, he needed to return to America to fulfill concert engagements.
The growing power of the Nazis and the threat of an imminent war, however, prevented Robeson from returning to Russia. Instead, in 1937 he moved to Britain where he lived on the edge of Hampstead Heath, close to Marshall’s home. As Marshall’s wife daily posed Robeson for a sculpture, Robeson and Marshall made plans to collaborate to create and perform in socially significant plays at the leftist Unity Theatre, which Marshall had founded. As Robeson reflected in 1951, “I gave up two years of my time then—way back in 1937—to help build workers’ theatres in Great Britain, to help develop working-class culture in the full meaning of the term.” Marshall and his wife wrote The Proud Valley, which depicted Robeson’s welcome by coal miners in the Welsh community; it became his most well-known film. Plans for other films were scuttled when war forced Robeson to return home. He only returned to London in 1947 after the war, where he triumphed, singing in major stadiums and venues.
In 1950, while Robeson was in the United States, the State Department declined to renew his passport when he refused to sign a loyalty oath; it was restored only after protest and legal actions in 1958, an act which greatly interfered with his career and his ability to make a living.
Communists around the world were shaken when Nikita Khrushchev, who had become the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, delivered his famous “secret speech” denouncing Stalinism to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party on February 25, 1956. Marshall wrote that it was then that Robeson “learned the truth about what had happened to so many of our old comrades and friends, who had been imprisoned in the Gulag, murdered or who had died from privation and torture.” He was devastated when Soviet officials in Moscow told him that, after his meeting with Feffer in 1949, he was immediately taken back to the Lubyanka and had been shot in the back of his head three years later. They also told him about the fate suffered by Mikhoels.
Returning to Moscow for another scheduled tour in 1961, Robeson’s dark moods took over. After a boisterous party in his hotel room on March 27, at around two or three a.m., his translator found him in the bathroom with slit wrists and a razor blade in hand. Two years later, recuperating in East Germany, Robeson told a doctor that “people whose parents or whose relatives were in jail approached him—‘Can’t you help me?’—this sort of thing had put him into conflict.” It was yet another reminder of the repression that still existed even under Nikita Khrushchev’s “thaw.”
Even before his suicide attempt, Robeson’s behavior had become erratic, and friends were worried that he was severely depressed. Paul Jr. immediately flew to Moscow. When he asked his father why he tried to commit suicide, he answered that “someone close to me had done irreparable damage to the USSR.” Clearly, Robeson was referring to Stalin, to whom he had been loyal for decades. That admission, I think, explains why Robeson never publicly mentioned Stalin again.
The cover-up of Robeson’s condition began immediately, as fans and admirers were told that Robeson had a “heart attack” in the Soviet Union and was receiving treatment there and in the GDR. At a forum held in East Germany in 1971, an American Communist said, “The many forms of repression took a toll on Paul’s health. He is now recuperating from the efforts made to destroy him by ideologists of racism and their government.” At the same East German symposium, Norbert Kraja, an East German Communist official, said it was “no coincidence that Paul R., whose health was greatly impaired by imperialist tyranny and persecution, sought treatment in the USSR and GDR, for he could find the security and shelter he urgently needed only in the socialist countries.”
Robeson actually spent most of his time recuperating not in the Eastern bloc but in Britain, receiving shock treatments at the Priory hospital outside of London. As he was being driven there for the first time, the car passed by the Soviet Embassy. Seeing it, Robeson told all the passengers with him to “get down.” His friend Helen Rosen related how he pushed her down in the back seat and said that it seemed Robeson feared that “great danger was at hand.” Perhaps Robeson, knowing the truth, feared that he too might suffer the fate of Mikhoels and Feffer.
Despite promising periods, Robeson never recovered his mental health. In 1963, he requested to return to the United States where he alternated his time between his home in Harlem and his sister’s house in Philadelphia. The Party carefully guarded his image and vigilantly kept both former friends and anti-Communists from visiting. Marshall was told that he did not “want to see anyone connected with that period which had turned to dust and ashes.” He was one of the few close friends that Eslanda had allowed to visit Paul at the Priory and then at his London home, but after Robeson returned to America, he became persona non grata, presumably because of his evolving anti-Soviet views.
After Paul Robeson passed away in Philadelphia on January 23, 1976, Marshall wrote a long obituary published in the bulletin of the Center for Soviet and East European Studies at Southern Illinois University. In it he told the true story of Robeson’s fateful meeting with Feffer in 1949, which he had first heard about from Sergei Eisenstein’s widow, Pera Attasheva. When Marshall told her about Robeson’s total breakdown, and that he had still not recovered, Attasheva commiserated and replied, “But I understand why. It nearly happened to all of us,” referring to the Stalinist terror. Marshall recalls her saying “that when Paul returned to Moscow after the war, he had asked to meet all the old friends he had met from 1934 (including Feffer). But he could hardly meet anybody. Eisenstein had died of heart failure after the Party attack on his Ivan the Terrible, Part II. Many were in the Gulag or already dead, but not a word was said.” When Robeson learned the fate of his friends, Marshall wrote, “the truth of their imprisonment, torture and murder, and the scale of it was too much for him.”
On the same Moscow visit in 1949, Marshall also revealed, a celebration was scheduled in honor of the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem. Robeson offered to perform Yiddish songs, Israeli folk songs, and the Kaddish of Ben Sarah of Berdichev, which he regularly sang in both Yiddish and Hebrew, at the event. But the Soviet authorities, who had lately been gearing up attacks on Jews as dangerous cosmopolitans, denied his request, “and he was profoundly mortified.
After reading Marshall’s obituary, Paul Jr. wrote Marshall on April 29, 1976, that his father would not see Marshall because “he did not wish to have any contact with you,” and wrote, “Your description of events that supposedly occurred during two of Paul Robeson’s visits to the USSR are wholly false according to my father’s personal recounting of these visits to me.” Marshall responded that Paul Jr. was simply “repeating the Communist Party’s version” of his father’s breakdown.
Marshall was not alone in his account. A letter from an anonymous black writer, cited by Marshall in his reply to Paul Jr., wrote Marshall that his obituary “confirms a theory which I have had for over ten years but which has been very difficult to document—that Paul little by little broke, or wanted to break, with the Communist Party, but due to his infirmity was never able to make his position known to the outside world.” The writer told Marshall he had peripheral evidence to support his story, but that Robeson’s guardians would only allow “safe people” to see the singer.
Professor Charles Robinson, head of Black Studies at Southern Illinois University, likewise wrote to him, “Your new information only supports what my black friends long ago understood, that Paul became disillusioned with the Soviet Union.” The prominent black singer William Warfield told Marshall that he “had always heard that Paul had become disillusioned and found out that no one was allowed to see him.” Nevertheless, Warfield offered to sing at Robeson’s 75th birthday tribute at Carnegie Hall but was turned down by the Communists in charge of the concert for what Warfield believes were political reasons. Marshall was excluded from the same event, even though Dr. Edward Scobie, Deputy Chairman of the Black Studies Department at CUNY, had personally petitioned the organizers to include him. According to Marshall, Scobie concluded that this too was part of a “cover-up” around Robeson’s disillusionment with the Soviet Union.
The debate still rages as to why Robeson tried to kill himself and why he suffered a devastating breakdown. In Marshall’s view, “for Paul not to have reacted so emotionally to the tragic truth of Stalin’s crimes would have been against his very sensitive nature. It hit him harder than most of us—there was a kind of delayed reaction and then complete collapse.” He writes that “Paul wasn’t running away from ‘imperialist tyranny or repression.’ . . . No, Paul retreated from another world that had betrayed him, the world of the CPSU.”
Robeson’s biographer Martin Duberman disagrees and offers a variety of theories to explain his emotional decline. Robeson may have had a bipolar depressive disorder that “fed on political events;” he felt like a “stranger” when abroad; he was depressed in the United States because he believed he had been bypassed by the new civil rights movement; and he felt acutely the “pressure of [U.S.] government harassment and worldly disappointments.” Duberman denies that Robeson had become disenchanted with the Soviet Union, writing that he found “scant evidence” to support the claim. Indeed, he discounts Marshall’s veracity altogether, pointing to his own interview with Zina Voynow, the sister of Pera Attasheva, who told him that Marshall was not a reliable witness. Voynow, however, remained a firm apologist for the Soviet Union, which puts her own account into question. Duberman ultimately suggests that Robeson’s disillusionment was with “the way the world works” in general, and not with the Soviet Union in particular.
Duberman, however, seems to regularly believe those who were candidly pro-Soviet, while distrusting those whom he considered anti-Soviet. For instance, he cites Angus Cameron—the pro-Communist editor notorious for rejecting George Orwell’s Animal Farm—as seconding Voynow’s claim. He also complains in another footnote that Robert Robinson, the black memoirist who spent 44 years in the Soviet Union, wrote such a “bitterly anti-Soviet book” as “to suggest some sort of ‘official’ sponsorship”—essentially slandering the author as a CIA stooge.
Given his own sympathies, Duberman’s strained denials that Robeson was disillusioned with the Communist cause remain unpersuasive. Even Duberman’s biased biography offers a plausible case for the other interpretation: that Robeson became distraught precisely when he learned that the country whose praises he had sung for years was in fact a police state led by a ruthless dictator. Other factors surely played a role, but one must ask why Robeson attempted to kill himself soon after learning from his Soviet aides in 1961 about Stalin’s heinous crimes and the truth about Mikhoels and Feffer. Indeed, it is a tribute to Robeson’s sensitivity and honesty that when confronted with the truth he was devastated.
Eventually, Robeson’s son would confront the truth, too—if only partially. (His action also confirmed that in his 1976 letter to Marshall he had lied to him.) On August 12, 1981, Paul Jr. gave a speech in New York City celebrating the life of the Yiddish poets and artists martyred by Stalin. He publicly acknowledged that during his stay in Moscow, his father was well aware of “the virulent campaign throughout the press against ‘Cosmopolitans’ and ‘Zionists,’ . . . which reminded him of the purge of the mid-1930s.” He recounted his father’s meeting with Feffer. Calling it “evil,” Paul Jr. said, “One must be blind and deaf not to see and hear this evil.” The terror, he added, “that struck them down engulfed all the peoples of the USSR. Tyranny, like freedom, is indivisible.” However, Robeson’s son denied any suggestion that his father was complicit in failing to speak out about the persecution. He also would cling to leftist conspiracy theories—arguing, for instance, that his father’s mental breakdown was actually caused by a CIA plot to administer him LSD in Moscow—and he remained unwilling to admit that his father had been a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. In a 1993 New York Times profile, Paul Jr. claimed that his father had never been a member of any political party. “He was an independent artist and would never submit to any kind of organizational discipline,” he said.
The tragedy of Paul Robeson’s life is that he did submit to that discipline. He unswervingly put his faith in Joseph Stalin and the Soviet experiment even as others ended their support, having had their own Kronstadt moment. Robeson continually defended the Soviet Union because he believed it proved that racism could be abolished—and indeed, that American racism and European colonialism could not be ended without the actions of the USSR. When he returned to the States from his hospitalization abroad, Robeson continued to make limited statements and a few public appearances, in which he gave no indication that he had any doubts and made the usual arguments in defense of the Soviet Union.
Knowing the truth about Stalin, while failing to tell anyone in the West about it, must have caused Robeson great emotional turmoil. It is tempting to excuse him for his silence. In an interview, Paul Jr. asked parenthetically that his father must have thought to himself, “What do you do?” He added: “You’re hardly going to stand on a street corner and make a lot of noise, that’s foolish. If you did make a public fuss, they’d probably shoot him immediately.”
But there was always another option available. Paul Robeson’s colleague and close associate in the Communist movement, the author Howard Fast, openly quit the Communist Party after Khrushchev’s speech and the revelations of Soviet anti-Semitism. He screamed at a friend and fellow Party member that, had they spoken out publicly, they could have saved Feffer’s life. What Fast’s biographer Gerald Sorin writes about Fast applies equally to Robeson. Why did Fast and Robeson stay in a movement about which they knew the truth for so long? Perhaps because, as Sorin put it, there was simply “too much to give up”:
The adulation and respect of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, even as his own stock dropped in his own country; very high regard and status within the American Communist cadre if not within the leadership at the very top; his like-minded Communist friends and the exciting social and political life they shared; and not least . . . years of intoxicating ideological and emotional investment in a cause—one that he kept thinking might even be rescued with a little more patience.
Fast, at least, would come to acknowledge the Party’s crimes eventually; Robeson never did. His continued insistence that the civil rights movement take a pro-Communist view is what isolated him and enabled his blacklisting. Supporting the Soviet regime is the tragedy that explains the meaning of Robeson’s life, even as it casts a shadow over his fight against racism and oppression. The irony is that in holding to his life-long support of the Soviet Union, which he regarded as the freest country on earth, Robeson took as an ally a totalitarian regime that was the enemy of the very goals in which he believed.