Marian Anderson in the Soviet Union (1935)

Kate Sullivan

According to music experts, Marian Anderson is arguably one of the best contraltos to have ever performed in the twentieth century. She is rooted in the civil rights movement and is recognized especially for her performance in 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter in front of President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt.[1] Before becoming entrenched in the civil rights movement in 1934 and for most of 1935 while her career was beginning, Marian Anderson toured Europe and performed in major cities, and her tour ended with multiple performances throughout the Soviet Union. She performed mostly opera and hymnals with Schubert’s “Ave Maria” being her iconic piece to perform.[2] By encouraging Anderson’s performance in 1935, the Soviet authorities were making a political statement. Marian Anderson’s 1935 performances in the Soviet Union reflect the Soviet effort in upholding the communist ideals of equality and antiracism but also illustrate how profoundly dignified her voice truly was.

Under a communist system, every person is treated equally in the guise of law, no matter their gender or race. Being racist goes against Marxist values. In the Soviet Union, antiracism was “a hard-line policy.”[3] Emphasizing the government’s commitment to upholding Marxist values, the Soviet Constitution and Criminal Code underlined that racial discrimination would be subject to “special approbation and criminal prosecution.”[4] In a multiethnic republic, antiracism and outlawing ethnic discrimination unifies the people even if the result does not match the law. The effort reflects an attempt at abiding by communist ideals. Soviet authorities supported African American delegates to travel to Russia because they wanted to accentuate their commitment to Marxism and antiracism.[5] African American delegates both reflect the Soviet authorities aim at antiracism and the idea that universal unification of the proletariat is needed for communism to be successful, and Soviet authorities wanted to show that the delegates were enjoying their time in the Soviet Union through the press and media so that the rest of the world understood the progressiveness and greatness of communism.

In the mid-1930s, the Soviet Press, who had regularly published photographs of African Americans in the Soviet Union out of context, slowly began to publish those photographs less frequently unless they were of musicians or singers like Marian Anderson. The threat of fascism was replacing the Soviet priority of slandering the United States for its terrible race relations, but prior to this change, the Soviet press circulated messages deprecating racism in the United States.[5] Especially during the 1920s and the early 1930s, these messages emphasized the importance of African Americans as alliances in the fight against capitalism. African Americans were part of the proletariat who were exploited and perfect for a communist revolution.[6] The Soviet Press denounced violence against African Americans by explaining that it threatened the “national security of the USSR” because communism works best when the proletariat unites.[7]

By illustrating African Americans as “lynched, imprisoned, and segregated in the United States” by means of cartoons, articles, and photographs, the Soviet press reflects how the Soviet Union is both abiding by Marxist ideals through discouraging acts of racial violence and proving the Soviet system is better than the United States system.[9] For Soviet citizens absorbing this material, they could have more hope in their nation even if in actuality they were missing basic freedoms and material comforts.[10] The material is also an “obvious distraction” from the toils of daily Soviet life.[11] Because the Soviet government controlled the Soviet press, the press’s actions highlight what the government wanted to do.

Encouraging performances by African American singers and artists is another way Soviet authorities showed their adherence to antiracism. In the beginning of the 1930s, most musicians and composers that visited Russia were from central Europe because Russian music is very much interconnected with European and the geographical distance is small, yet Marian Anderson’s name was well known by Russians.[12] Anderson’s opportunity to perform in the Soviet Union can be attributed to the antiracist ideals of communism and her amazing voice. In contrast, the historical episode of the Daughters of American Revolution refusing to let Anderson perform at Constitution Hall four years later shows a stark difference of race relations.

Marian Anderson did perform all over Europe which emphasizes how the United States is decidedly so rudimentary when it comes to race relations and that Marxist ideals did not count for the entire reason Anderson performed in the Soviet Union. Through 1934 and most of 1935, she toured Europe and gathered many fans, especially in Scandinavia where “Marian fever” took root in small villages because her voice was so captivating.[13] She was first trained by her instructor Guiseppe Boghetti who was a Russian Jewish Philadelphian and who helped her vocal technique and gave her the opportunity to excel as a singer.[14] To be able to tour Europe and perform in the Soviet Union reflects how desirable her performances were to an audience. Musical experts have called her “one of the most gifted singers of the twentieth century” and the esteemed conductor Arturo Toscanini said of her, “What I heard today, one is privileged to hear only in a hundred years.”[15]

New York Times Article published on December 31st, 1935 after Marian Anderson returned from Europe.

Marian Anderson’s 1935 performances in the Soviet Union reflect the Soviet effort in upholding the communist ideals of equality and antiracism but also illustrate how profoundly dignified her voice truly was. As the Soviet Union closed its “musical borders” to outside influences in 1937, Anderson had just had her opportunity to leave a mark on the Soviet people.[16] The Soviet authorities aimed to emphasize the importance of antiracism and the fact that the Soviet system was better than the system of the United States, the Soviet press aimed to enthrall its readership with hopeful aspects of how African Americans existed in their society, and the Soviet people simply aimed to be entertained by Marian Anderson.

[1] Eidsheim, Nina Sun. “Marian Anderson and “Sonic Blackness” in American Opera.” American Quarterly 63, no. 3 (2011): 660.

[2] University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Marian Anderson papers,, last accessed on October 16, 2019.

[3] ROMAN, MEREDITH L. ““This Is Not Bourgeois America”: Representations of American Racial Apartheid and Soviet Racelessness.” In Opposing Jim Crow: African Americans and the Soviet Indictment of U.S. Racism, 1928-1937, 57-90. Lincoln; London: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. doi:10.2307/j.ctt1ddr5sz. 15.

[4] Matusevich, Maxim. “Black in the U.S.S.R.” Transition, no. 100 (2008): 56.

[5] Roman, 15.

[6] Ibid, 21-22.

[7] Ibid, 6.

[8] Ibid, 3.

[9] Ibid, 2.

[10] Matusevich, 61.

[11] Roman, 3.

[12] Fairclough, Pauline. “Personal Friendships, Professional Manoeuvres: Edward Elgar in Russia before and after 1917.” The Slavonic and East European Review 97, no. 1 (2019): 19.

[13] [1] University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Marian Anderson papers,, last accessed on October 16, 2019.

[14] Eidsheim, 660.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Fairclough, 27.