The Soviet press reported on the March on Washington, but the message of its leader has been a hard sell in Russia.

 Martin Luther King: No hero for Russian politicians. Photo: Votock Photo

Sergey Vishnevsky, who served as the staff correspondent in the United States for Pravda, the most influential Soviet newspaper, filed a frank report about the events of Aug. 28, 1963. Vishnesvksy wrote that although the speakers who appeared at the March on Washington provided texts of their speeches to journalists the day before the event, the printed speeches were not the spoken ones.

Maybe this is why Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous line, “I have a dream,” did not appear in Vishnevsky’s report nor in the reports of Yury Barsukov, the U.S. correspondent for the other major Soviet paper, Izvestiya. Moreover, King himself appeared last in the list of speakers, with no indication of the organization he represented. He was called only a “Negro movement leader.”

Much more attention was given to some of his colleagues. Asa Philip Randolph featured in the reports as the organizer of the march and called “a prominent figure in the Negro trade union movement.” Nevertheless, only a few years later reports of “the preacher Martin Luther King” appeared in the Soviet press nearly every day.

Today, 50 years since the March on Washington, it is difficult to explain to Russian students why Martin Luther King, Jr. occupies such an important place in American public consciousness. In the minds of many Russians, he is distinguished from a number of other civil rights activists only by the fact of his tragic death.

One of the possible explanations for this glaring difference in the worldview between the Russians and the Americans is the fundamental difference in the structure and internal organization of the pantheon of national heroes.

In Russian history, a politician could achieve true greatness in one of two ways – if he successfully strengthened the foundations of the state, or if he destroyed those foundations successfully. Some of Russia’s best-known rulers – Peter the Great, Lenin and Stalin, for example – managed to achieve success in both categories during their political careers.

In such a context, the significance of Martin Luther King, whose political program was limited to preaching about racial equality, and who made no attempt to destroy the foundations of the state, instead acting within the existing constitutional framework, is especially hard to understand.

However, the appreciation of King was much higher in Soviet scientific literature and journalism during the Cold War period than in modern Russia. The struggle of black people for their rights in the United States at that time was one of the most important trump cards in the hands of Soviet propagandists. It allowed them to accuse the American “ruling circles” of trampling on their own proclaimed principles of freedom, equality and democracy convincingly and without any obvious exaggeration.

“Nothing can wash away the shame of racism from the imperialistic face of the United States” read one of Izvestiya’s headlines on Aug. 28, 1963. Naturally, Martin Luther King, as one of the most prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, was a favorite character of various publications on the subject, and quotations from his speeches fitted well into the fabric of accusatory articles written by Soviet Americanists.

However, “I have a dream” was not one of his better-known sayings. In fact, the Soviet press started to mention King actively much later, in 1966–1968, in connection with his speeches and initiatives against the war in Vietnam.

Only after he was assassinated was the Soviet public able to read the full texts of his most famous speeches. A collection of speeches, featuring I Have a Dream as the title speech, was published in Russian in 1970.

Martin Luther King . Photo: Votock Photo

It appears the Soviet propaganda machine was a little confused by the fact that King was in essence a human rights activist who could have been an example for Soviet dissidents. For them, the ideas of racial equality and the U.S. political system were too far from the realities of “developed socialism” and its internal contradictions to encourage Soviets to resist the regime.

The events that occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Soviet ideology have only confirmed that the success story of the Civil Rights Movement has little relevance in Russia.

Martin Luther King was interesting for Soviet leaders as the author of denunciations of shameful racist policies of the American authorities, but today's Russian authorities cannot use him in their anti-American constructions. Today’s Americans are proud of Martin Luther King and the success he represents – the possibility of achieving the most incredible political dreams.

Russian opposition groups, which should be inspired in their fight by King’s legacy, are little interested in him. Protection of the rights of racial, ethnic, sexual and other minorities is a losing issue in modern Russia for all politicians, even those in the opposition. Their political instinct tells them that one can succeed in the struggle for power, and even go down in history, only by struggling against authoritarianism and bureaucratic lawlessness or, in contrast, by building a great empire.

Unfortunately, the ideas and experience of Martin Luther King, Jr. are not suitable for these aims.