In 1930, a 23-year-old toolmaker from Detroit named Robert Nathaniel Robinson accepted an offer from Soviet recruiters to work in a Stalingrad tractor factory. Robinson’s decision was influenced by the conditions he endured at his Ford Motor Company job, where he was the only black toolmaker out of 700. His white co-workers were openly hostile to him and he was afraid that he would be laid off as a result of the Depression. Robinson joined thousands of Americans and Europeans who took jobs in the the Soviet Union’s booming industries during the 1930s.
Robinson was a reserved and unassuming man with little interest in politics. Never a Communist, he walked a tightrope while living in the Soviet system. He survived Stalin’s purges, famine and the German invasion of Russia.
Beginning in the 1950s, Robinson began to apply annually for a vacation visa to travel abroad. He was denied each time. Finally, after 24 years of unsuccessful attempts to leave the U.S.S.R., Robinson “escaped” to the United States with the assistance of the Ugandan government. He was granted temporary refuge by then president Idi Amin.
Robert Robinson returned to the United States in 1976, remaining there until his death in 1994.