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.