News & Politics

This DC Poet Was Once the USSR’s Biggest Kid Actor

How the son of a Black American found Soviet stardom.

James Lloydovich Patterson’s dad moved to Russia in the ’30s. Photograph by Katya Chiligiri Balaban.

In a modest apartment building in Northeast DC, across from a Home Depot parking lot, lives the Soviet Union’s most famous child star: James Lloydovich Patterson. Recently, the 88-year-old Mr. Patterson—his friends always refer to him, somewhat reverentially, as “Mr. Patterson”—was holding court from his armchair, entertaining several friends with stories from his past. “I was extremely favored in Russia,” he explained.

Patterson talks like a native Russian speaker, but his appearance isn’t what you’d expect if you aren’t familiar with his story. Born in Moscow, he’s the son of an African American father and a Russian mother. His dad—the grandson of enslaved people in Virginia—emigrated with other Black intellectuals in the 1930s, drawn by the promise of supposed Soviet racial equality. In Russia, he met and married Patterson’s mother, a prominent artist and designer.

When Patterson was three years old, he starred in the Russian film Circus, a musical comedy about racial harmony, which was a phenomenon in the USSR. “It’s still well known,” Patterson said with a flourish of his thin hands. Circus became a sort of Soviet Wizard of Oz—and Patterson the country’s Judy Garland.In his living room are Circus posters featuring his likeness, with facial features still recognizable in the old man sitting beneath. “Mr. Patterson is like an onion—you peel and peel and never get to the center,” says Amy Ballard, who decided to meet Patterson in 2020, having heard about his story. She’s been visiting him ever since.

After Circus, Patterson never appeared in another film. He later attended an elite military school and became a sailor with the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. He also had a long career as a poet. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Patterson—then in his sixties—and his mother moved to DC, which was close to his father’s family in Virginia. (His dad had been killed during World War II; his mother died in 2001.)

From his apartment in DC, Patterson still feels connected to the country of his birth. (He’s particularly attached to bottled water imported from Russia.) However, recent events have been hard to watch. Vladimir Putin, he says, “doesn’t support Russian [interests]. He supports his own interests.”

Patterson has never stopped writing, but at almost 90 and in poor health, he has slowed down considerably. Ballard recently helped get a book about his paternal grandmother translated and published. Mostly, though, he likes to sip his Russian water and occasionally visit with friends. Reflecting on his life, he said, “I’m a naval [officer]. I’m a poet. I’m an actor.” He gave a distinctive Russian-style shrug of his slight shoulders. “Enough for me.”

This article appears in the May 2022 issue of Washingtonian.