Yosif Stalin has lived over eight decades named after one of the most ruthless leaders of all time. But Yosif Stalin is not his full name. His full name is Yosif Stalin Kim Roane, and he claims to be the first child of African-American parents ever born in the Soviet Union.
Of the Black men and women who traveled to the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s in search of a better or more promising life, Yosif, in his late 80s, is among the few living descendants of those Black men and women. Amid the Great Depression and Jim Crow’s racist laws of the American South, many of these Black men and women traveled to the Soviet Union for what they hoped would be a better life.
Yosif’s father, Joseph J Roane, was one of them. According to a report by RFE/RL, Joseph Roane was a member of a team of African-American agronomists recruited to the USSR in the 1930s to help improve cotton production in the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. Joseph Roane would become known for helping to create a hybrid of American and local cotton, which grows very quickly in Central Asia, enabling Uzbekistan to become one of the world’s leading growers.
Yosif’s father Joseph Roane had been raised in a comfortable home in Virginia and studied agronomy in college when he was recruited to the Soviet Union by an African-American cotton specialist from Mississippi called Oliver Golden. This cotton specialist and his team of agronomists were not the only African Americans taken to the USSR at the time. Another group of people joined them there to create a film about how wrong racism was. There were also political trainees who were drawn to the country that described itself as classless and non-racist.
Joseph Roane told Golden’s granddaughter, a Russian journalist and television personality called Yelena Khanga, that he agreed to leave the U.S. because the Soviet foreign trade agency hiring the workers “was offering better pay for a month than a lot of people would make in a year in the Depression.”
He said he was also young and wanted to see the world. In November 1931, Joseph Roane came to the USSR with his wife, Sadie, alongside the team of agriculture specialists. They then traveled to Uzbekistan, where they would be given better wages and housing than the locals. Joseph Roane also experienced less racism there than back home in the U.S.
By December 1931, his wife Sadie had given birth to Yosif in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent. In 1934, Joseph Roane extended his contract to work in the Soviet Union and began working at a tomato cannery in Soviet Georgia. He worked and lived in Soviet Georgia for three years before Soviet authorities set an ultimatum to the group of African-American agronomists including Joseph Roane: to renounce their U.S. citizenship and stay or leave the country. This came at the extreme point of Stalin’s Great Terror that killed over one million people.
Joseph Roane and his wife and son Yosif returned to Kremlin in Virginia where Joseph Roane lived before he moved to the Soviet Union. The fact that Yosif was born in an empire run by the Kremlin and then moved to the U.S. with his family to grow up in an area in Virginia also known as Kremlin is what inspired the title of a documentary, Kremlin To Kremlin. The documentary looks at the life and journey of Yosif’s father Joseph Roane.
Yosif was just five years old when he left Uzbekistan, but he remembers walking through forests and fields and having met some influential African Americans who visited the country including civil-rights activist Paul Robeson.
Apparently, Yosif, who has been living in his Kremlin home in Virginia, was not the first child of an African American to be born in the Soviet Union. RFE/RL reports that in the late 1920s before Yosif was born, Golden became the father of a boy named Ollava, who later became a ballet dancer and passed away in 2013.
But research by Joy Gleason Carew, author of “Blacks, Reds, And Russians: Sojourners In Search Of The Soviet Promise” shows that Yosif was the first whose parents were both African Americans. Many Black children born in the USSR at the time had Soviet mothers and African-American fathers. Although many of them stayed in the Soviet Union, Yosif and his parents returned to the U.S.
Back in Kremlin, Virginia, Joseph Roane became a local teacher while Yosif learned to adapt. Yosif later served in the U.S. Navy before becoming a teacher as well and starting a family. He also owned a barbershop.
“Nobody called me Stalin. In fact, a lot of people don’t know, even right now, don’t know nothing about Stalin,” he told RFE/RL in 2016.