Academic journal article The Historian

Forging Soviet Racial Enlightenment: Soviet Writers Condemn American Racial Mores, 1926, 1936, 1946

Academic journal article The Historian

Forging Soviet Racial Enlightenment: Soviet Writers Condemn American Racial Mores, 1926, 1936, 1946

Article excerpt

DURING THE FIRST three decades of Soviet rule, four prominent literary writers visited the United States and wrote about their experiences--the revolutionary poet Vladimir Maiakovskii; the popular humorists Il'ia Il'f and Evgenii Petrov; and the novelist Il'ia Ehrenburg. (1) American race relations were central to their published accounts of US society which appeared at ten year intervals: in 1926, 1936, and 1946. Their writings attest to the importance of American racism in Soviet critiques of the United States prior to the Cold War and the modern US Civil-Rights movement in the late 1940s and 1950s. (2) Certainly, none of these men were experts on American racial oppression, but they wrote as though

they possessed a keen racial enlightenment relative to white Americans. Indeed, their discussions of American racial mores were intended, as this essay argues, to forge and exhibit simultaneously as fact the superior racial consciousness which the New Soviet Person was supposed to possess.3 At the same time, Maiakovskii, Il'f, Petrov, and Ehrenburg raised attention to the violation of human rights that African Americans routinely suffered in the first half of the twentieth century. (4)

Several scholars have addressed the important ways that race informed Soviet and Western perceptions and interactions. (5) Michael David-Fox argues that many Western fellow travelers to the USSR during the 1920s and 1930s racialized their Western superiority by condemning manifestations of "Asiatic" backwardness in Soviet society, among whom Theodore Dreiser, the American journalist and novelist, was most egregious. He compared Russians' "Asiatic primitiveness" to the "less developed state" and "primitive childishness" of blacks. (6) As this essay demonstrates, Maiakovskii, Il'f and Petrov, and Ehrenburg racialized Soviet superiority in an alternative way. They denigrated white Americans as backward and primitive in their "mental development" and thinking on race (and more specifically about African Americans) to insist on Soviet (moral) superiority. In other words, they claimed an enlightened, modern perspective on race that they derived from the October Revolution and from Russians' own multi-century relegation to the "primitive childishness" of blacks (and their exclusion from the bounds of civilized European whiteness). (7)

Maiakovskii, Il'f, Petrov, and Ehrenburg were of course not the first Russian literary writers to indict US racism. Yet while writers like Vladimir Korolenko and Maksim Gor'kii visited and wrote about the United States prior to 1917, their discussions of African Americans were brief by comparison (if they mentioned them at all) and lacked the function that such commentaries assumed by the late 1920s. (8) Even in the early 1920s and consistent with the permissive spirit of the New Economic Policy (1921-1927), "speaking anti-racism" or exhibiting a superior "Soviet" racial consciousness--relative to white Americans--was not yet a requirement for Russian writers. (9) The brief remarks about African Americans that Sergei Esenin, the popular Russian poet, wrote in the account of his American journey in 1922 make this most evident. Esenin acknowledged African Americans' "enormous influence" on US "music hall" culture, which he attributed to their inherent or "instinctive" musical ability in "song and dance," characterizing African Americans as "completely primitive" ("dovol'no primitivnyi") and possessing extremely "ungovernable" ("neobuzdannyi") manners. (10)

The same year Esenin recorded his negative assessment of African Americans, Comintern leaders designated Claude McKay, the Jamaican-born US poet, the face or "poster child" of the organization's alliance with black workers at the Fourth World Congress, and commissioned him to write two books about the plight of African Americans. (11) The Comintern's line on African Americans as valuable, revolutionary allies became a hard-line policy of Soviet propagandists by the end of the decade when the country embarked on an intensive campaign to build socialism. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.