“Those crazy Americans, of course Pushkin’s not black!”

by Elizabeth (Betty) Banks

Last Friday, a group of scholars gathered in the wonderful space of NYU’s newly established Africa house to discuss connections of various forms between Russian and Africa.

We were a notably eclectic collective, including a Nigerian professor who studied in the USSR, the daughter of a Russian woman and an Angolan man who was born in Soviet Uzbekistan, an American historian of Russia married to an Africanist, a young scholar working on a book manuscript about the Soviet Afro-Asian writers’ organisation, a historian of African interested in global expression of blackness, a documentary film maker, and a early-stage graduate student perhaps feeling her way to a Russian-African topic.

Our speakers were similarly cosmopolitan: Allison Blakely, who wrote probably the first monograph on Africans in Russia back in the mid-1980s, and is now the director of the African-American studies program at Boston University; Anne Lounsbery, a specialist in Russia literature at NYU who investigated Pushkin’s reception the African-American press; Constantine Katsakioris, who recently defended his dissertation in Paris on African students in the Soviet sixties; and Peter Gatrell from the University of Manchester, who having just completed a book on refugees, was able to offer comments on the movement of peoples. Such a wide variety of backgrounds and approaches highlights the complexity of defining, conceptualising and situating the connection between Russia and Africans.

In his introduction to the panel, Allison Blakely spoke of how he found himself the unwitting founder of a sub-field. Blakely began learning Russian while in high school as his response to the 1957 launch of sputnik, and after focusing mainly on American history as an undergraduate, switched to Russia while in his PhD program, perhaps mainly because he already knew Russian. The project that became his 1986 book Russia and the Negro was born out of his own experiences of race prejudice on both sides of the iron curtain and personal scepticism towards the claims of both superpowers during the Cold War. Although Blakely’s focus has since shifted away from Russia onto the wider European black Diaspora, he stressed that the themes of identity, race and movement of people that are seen in his first book continue to influence his research.

Next we heard from Anne Lounsbery who introduced her paper, “‘Bound by Blood to the Race’: Pushkin in African American Context”. Pushkin, the Russian national poet, is famously descended from an African slave, can be found in the “Mulatto” section of Cuban bookstores and was vociferously discussed in the African-American press in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century. Lounsbery argued that African-American literary critics were attracted to Pushkin not only because he was of African descent – although this was critical – but for a number of interconnected reasons. Due to his status as an aristocrat, a friend of the tsar and a serf-owner, Pushkin offered the chance to discuss issues of access to power and privilege for people of African descent, as well as the intriguing case of a black man owning white bonded labourers. Pushkin gave African-American writers to discuss taboo issues of race-mixing at a time when miscegenation was illegal in the majority of American states. Perhaps most significantly, Pushkin is seen as an exemplary Russian and the founding father of Russian literature despite his black heritage; could an African-American writer ever occupy a similar place within the mainstream American canon? Perhaps the pessimists among us would point to the most common Russian response to Lounsbery’s work: “Those crazy Americans, of course Pushkin isn’t black!” It seems that Pushkin isn’t a black Russian at all; could he have become so important if he were? This we don’t know. We do know however that Pushkin’s African heritage is well known and even celebrated. Africa has a central place in the Russian literary canon, but perhaps one that is so ordinary as to be overlooked, and one that proves Africa is not linked automatically to blackness, race or ethnic identity.

The multiple Russian meanings of Africa were highlighted in our second paper, from Constantine Katsakioris, which analysed Soviet violence towards African students during the Khrushchev era. This violence, he argues was borne out of opposition to Khrushchev’s new internationalist policy, rather than racism per se. Noting that the number of foreign students grew tremendously as a result of Khrushchev’s extension of friendship to the developing world, Katsakioris interprets students as embodiments of this new policy and argues that Soviet reactions to them were public responses to Khrushchev’s unpopular doctrine. Citing many claims from Soviet people that foreign students were “eating their bread”, Katsakioris posited that the Soviet public was jealous of the privileges foreign students enjoyed in the USSR, including easier access to prestigious universities, higher stipends, and exemptions from unpopular, compulsory courses in Marxism-Leninism. African students found themselves targeted as the most visible foreigners, and violence towards them exposed the limits of internationalism in Soviet public opinion. In Katsakioris’s analysis of “racist” violence, race had little to do with it. Just as Lounsbury’s Russian respondents did not see Pushkin as black, Katsakioris’s Soviet public barely saw African students as African. Blackness did not really matter, but citizenship, foreignness and xenophobia certainly did.

Responding to these papers, and the theme of Russia and Africa more broadly, Peter Gatrell suggests that given the great gulf in American and Russian views on race, evident in how Pushkin can be African, but not black, and Russian at the same time, our understanding of Africans in the USSR would be greatly enhanced by comparing their experiences to those of the non-Slavic Soviet students who studied alongside them. These students, he points out, were often just as far from home as their Egyptian, Nigerian, and Ghanaian peers. This suggestion was seconded by a Nigerian professor present who held positive memories of his time studying in the USSR. He asserted that he saw more discrimination between Soviet people of different nationalities than between a Soviet people and Africans. Another respondent likewise questioned the idea of a monolithic, undifferentiated Soviet people who were hostile to Africans and suggested looking into Soviet internal “racism”, while also being careful to note that Soviet and post-Soviet racisms, and ideas of race, are different. Yanni Kotsonis strongly suggested that we must engage with the Soviet doctrine of druzhba narodov (friendship of the peoples) even when faced with real-existing racism.

Gatrell also drew our attention to the vast body of Russian-language writing on African history as another possible avenue for research. Western Africanists tend not to read Russian, and Russianists tend not to read about Africa – except perhaps for those of us sitting in that room last week – so these works remain an untapped resource. Another avenue for further investigation is Soviet investigation in translating African literature plus Soviet marketing of Russian culture to the third world, including Africa. Anne Lounsbery drew another parallel here between Africa and Soviet internal minorities; perhaps the Soviets were so successful cultural imperialist due to their domestic practices.

Other attendees offered fascinating questions. What was the rationale of African governments who sent their young people to study in the Soviet Union? Why did parents send their sons to study in cold, distant Russia? What did the students think of their adventures? And mirroring a question Peter Gatrell asked himself every day during his year-long sojourn in 1970s Kiev, what were they doing there? What is the experience of mixed-race Russians, the children of African students and Soviet mothers? Has anyone gathered their oral history testimonies, and why not? All in all, the afternoon sparked a productive discussion among attendees and generated much food for thought. Interest is growing in this area; let us see where the discussion takes us next.

16 responses to ““Those crazy Americans, of course Pushkin’s not black!””

  1. Loren Riley says:

    Interesting article. But if I may respond to this: “It seems that
    Pushkin isn’t a black Russian at all; could he have become so important
    if he were? This we don’t know.”

    Wasn’t Abram Gannibal (Pushkin’s African great-grandfather) very well to do? Gannibal himself was important, in the military, in court, he became a nobleman, etc. I don’t know if Pushkin would have become as important, and certainly Gannibal owed much of his success to circumstances that were not typical, but still, he himself was very important in his own time, so isn’t it likely that Pushkin could have been as well?

  2. Tam Chen says:

    Black is Black. You should know history, and stop trying to white wash it. Pushkin’s was a black man. Give the credit where credit is due.

  3. gemini says:

    I don’t.t understand _ he was only 1/8 black and the rest white. He was more white than black _ so why do we call him black?

  4. Sharon says:

    African Americans are admixed with European blood as well but we are still considered black. It’s a lineage more so than phenotype. And he even looks black, muluatto. My guess is Gannibal was Peter the Great illegitimate son which is why he schooled him, allowed him to live with him, gave him a noble title. This should be obvious to anyone with common sense.

  5. Ex-Oligarch says:

    Abram Gannibal, who was Pushkin’s great-grandfather, was married to Christina Regina Sioberg, who was Swedish. Perhaps some day the winds of political correctness and academic fashion will blow from a different quarter; then desperate scholars and committed ideologues can discuss Pushkin as an embodiment and symbol of Swedish cultural values. Given the great poet’s actual life experience, that would make a lot more sense than trying to concoct a socioliterary relationship to Africa from a tenuous genealogical link.

  6. The mention of Black and greatness tend to incite skepticism of all types. Unless you live it, you’ll never understand, but conjecture is fun. Carry on!

  7. “Pushkin was black!”

    “Pushkin was white!”

    Really, does it matter…?

  8. Jim Reilly says:

    For many, probably most, Americans, one-eight black still means “black”, unless that one-eighth black person has chosen to hide that 1/8 heritage and other people don’t know about it. This, of course, is not exactly logical, but how often does logic apply to “race”? There of course is also the thing of “not being black enough”, often referring to behavior as much as color. Remember the question about whether Barack Obama was “black enough” to get the “black vote”? So when Americans speak of Pushkin as black, like they are speaking like they would about a 1/8 black American.
    Other cultures may have different perspectives about these things, some of which may be more and some less logical than ours, and it might be helpful to Americans to think about those perspectives without reacting immediately from an American perspective. And while I can judge many American ideas about race as crazy-making and harmful, I’m a little less quick to enter into such debates when they are applied to another culture, Russia or African or whatever, because I just don’t know enough. Pride, shame, fear–they seem to enter the beliefs and actions of so many cultures when it comes to differences of many kinds; it’s really easy to stumble if you don’t know the lay of the land (or even if you do, or think you do). That all said, it seems perfectly normal to me that Pushkin’s “blackness” would give satisfaction to many people in many places. And that kind of satisfaction is still needed and useful in our crazy world.

  9. RS says:

    Pushkin was 1/8 black, not nearly enough to be considered black by Russian standards, even though he looks like a mulatto. Abram Hannibal was just a link in a long chain of European ancestors. Pushkin was Russian to the core. He felt perfectly comfortable about his African blood, but didn’t make a very big deal of it either, although he wrote some verses about it. In Russia there was no stigma attached to it. It didn’t stop him and his descendants from marrying whom they wanted, living where they wanted, having the same privileges as other persons of rank or holding high positions in court. Pushkin was Russian to the core, and wrote mostly about Russia, Russian people and Russian problems…

  10. Sabrina says:

    Pushkin was of African and Russian descent. He was Russian by citizenship, and by lifestyle. He never made his blackness a secret, but he was decidedly proud to be Russian, too. So…what is the problem? Americans, black or white or mixed need to stop imposing 21st Century American race issue problems to a 19th Century person! It’s ridiculous. No has to choose either/or, and people need to stop insisting on that. Me? I’m Black American by birth/circumstance, and I also have Russian heritage per my genealogy DNA test…and I freely embrace them both and no one can stop me from doing so!

  11. Yogibreeze says:

    Idiocy.

  12. Audrey says:

    Pushkin was mixed race – this did not and still does not seem to be a problem with Russians as he has been and is still highly revered.

  13. Serious Reader says:

    Pushkin was as “black” as the brilliant French writer,
    Colette.That is to say 1/8. In America (and probably in Russia) you aren’t “black” unless you appear to be. But it’s important that mixed ancestry does not get erased. We are all mixed, ultimately.

  14. Илья Воронин says:

    Seriously, why bother. Is anthropometry making a huge come back? Is black the modern equivalent of arian? The man in question was Russian to the core. It saddens me deeply to see that we have entered an era of neoracism but this time it’s whitebashing to the extreme. Is that 1/8 black heritage responsible for that mans genius? Is that some kind of fairy dust which grants greatness and makes a genius? That applies to any kind of “blood”. There were many ingenious people of each and every race. My point is : you are no better than Cesaro Lombroso and others like him. Instead of concentrating on races, perhaps you should concentrate on developing a way for people to peacefully coegsist with one another? What am I saying, of course not. Let’s play race wars all day long.

  15. Free says:

    If a black man parted the ocean and devised a cure for cancer, he would be hard pressed to receive credit from Anglo Saxons. All one has to do is look at how Obama was treated after saving the banks, the auto industry, millions of uninsured poor and more.

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