Riikkamari Muhonen – Internationalism, Curiosity and Violence

Internationalism, Curiosity and Violence: Questions of Race in the 1960s and 1970s Moscow

March 24, 2021

12:15pm – 1:30pm (PST)
Riikkamari Muhonen, PhD Candidate of History, Central European University

Presented by the Institute for European Studies
Co-sponsored by the Department of Anthropology and the Eurasia Research Cluster



Register at: https://ubc.zoom.us/meeting/register/u5MtdO6vqTMpG9NwI_WWIz4SfTiOVfP7ikYT


Abstract – Officially racism did not exist in the Soviet Union, a society that stated it was based on the principle of friendship between peoples and had welcomed groups of black people seeking refuge from racism in Western societies already in the 1920s. After the death of Stalin this type of friendship became also a central part of Soviet foreign policy, as internationalism was re-introduced to Soviet political agenda as part of the Thaw atmosphere. In the field of higher education this meant opening the doors of Soviet universities to students from the newly independent states of the Third World. During the 1960s there were altogether thousands of foreign students from all over the world studying in Moscow, which created a new, more multicultural atmosphere to the Soviet capital. Despite the official statements of the nonracist nature of the Soviet society, the experiences of students concerning Soviet attitudes towards people from different ethnic backgrounds varied.

Drawing from a wide range of sources, including interviews with alumni of Soviet universities, published memoirs, and Russian archival sources,  Ms. Muhonen aims to present some of the different realities people of color experienced during their stay in Moscow. While especially during holiday seasons there were several racist attacks per week in different areas of Moscow city and the situation was eminently different in comparison to the experiences of black people in the 1920s, many students also experienced that their “exotic” looks made them interesting to the local population and that it was easy for them to find Soviet friends.

At the same time, orientalist perspectives that tended to highlight the underdevelopment reigning in the Global South due to colonialism were constantly present in the Soviet public sphere, portraying the Soviet Union as a developed and technically advanced supporter of these regions and their peoples, including foreign students. Promotion of internationalism as portrayed through the students was an important part of the Soviet public sphere and the students gained wide presence in Soviet media. In part, these efforts were also aimed to promote a positive image of the foreign students, as Soviet aid to foreign countries and reception of students also gained criticism among the general population.

Ms. Muhonen’s presentation aims to discuss the concept of race and racism in the Soviet context, as for instance it was not only the African students that were considered black in the Soviet Union, but, as one of her informants stated, “blackness” was a concept that was often applied to any people of non-European appearance. Ms. Muhonen will look at the explanations and reactions to different forms of “curiosity” and racism in the 1960s Soviet society as well as the change in attitudes that had taken place between the 1920s and 1960s.

Bio – Riikkamari Muhonen is a PhD candidate at the History Department of Central European University (Hungary/Austria). Her dissertation analyzes Moscow-based Peoples’ Friendship University as a case of Soviet cooperation with the developing world in the 1960s and 1970s, a topic she has also researched as a Fulbright visiting student researcher at University of California, Berkeley.