The St. Petersburg Times   Issue #1314 (80)
Friday, October 12, 2007


Black Russians

Special to The St. Petersburg Times

For The St. Petersburg Times

Russian national icon Alexander Pushkin is considered Europe’s first black poet.

Scholars from the U.S., Russia, Europe and Africa celebrated 200 years of U.S.-Russian diplomatic ties in St. Petersburg last month by exploring the once-hidden African-American contribution to Russian and Soviet history.

The legacy of African-Americans in pre-Revolutionary, Soviet and post-communist Russia was the focus of “Russian-American Links: African-Americans in Russia” on Sept. 20-21 at the Russian Academy of Sciences with academics and speakers presenting more than 30 papers that mediated the past with the present and smashed stereotypes surrounding the role of African-Americans in Russia.

“At a time when Europeans were solidifying their grip on Africa and as [segregational] ‘Jim Crow’ laws etched the division lines between black and white deep into the fabric of American society, there emerged a new state with a broad and emotional appeal to the world’s downtrodden,” Dr. Maxim Matusevich of Seton Hall University said, referring to the emergence of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s.

“Africans on the continent [of America], the diaspora [and] the prominent political and intellectuals among them, traveled to the ‘Red Mecca’ [the Soviet Union] to experience firsthand the reality of deracialized egalitarianism,” Matusevich explained.

Professor Lily Golden countered by saying that “the notion that the so-called influx of Black Americans following the formation of the Soviet communist state early last century was motivated by a lust for greener pastures denied at home, seems to be highly exaggerated.”

Golden then cited the example of her father, Oliver John Golden, an African-American agronomist from Mississippi who resettled in the Soviet Union.

Oliver John Golden also selected only “Sixteen African-Americans [for] their academic merits amid thousands of applications he had received from his black compatriots seeking employment opportunities in the new Russia” in the early 1930s, recounted Professor Golden.

When Oliver John Golden died in 1940 in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, his daughter Lily and wife, Bertha Bialek, a Polish Jew who originally hailed from Brooklyn, New York, were left behind in the U.S.S.R.

As Dr. Fon Louise Gordon from University of Central Florida put it, in a review of Professor Golden’s daughter’s book about her family, the Goldens were left to reflect on the “intergenerational and diasporic questions of race, authenticity, self-definition, family and negotiations on tradition, modernity and creolization.”

Professor Golden’s daughter is Yelena Hanga, a journalist and television personality, who is probably the most well-known black Russian.

For The St. Petersburg Times

Russian television journalist Yelena Hanga has written about her African ancestry.

Hanga’s father was Abdullah Kassim Hanga, a Zanzibari who became vice-president of the Zanzibar Revolutionary Government in January 1964 and who was brutally murdered by his former comrade-in-arms in 1967.

This tangled ancestry suggests that it is impossible to talk about African-Americans in isolation to non-American Africans from the diaspora who live in Russia.

In Professor Golden’s view “non-American Africans are more integrated to modern Russian society than their American brethren.”

The conference produced some heated discussions. In taking the academics to task for focusing on the world of theories and neglecting the practical experience of black people in Russia today, often the targets of hate attacks and racial abuse, a representative of St. Petersburg’s African community backed Golden, saying “we may be different in attitudes as we belong to different societies, but before the eyes of an ordinary Russian we are one and the same since we share similar physical features dominated by our dark skin, and equally face the consequences of racial hostilities of contemporary Russia.”

Addressing the African experience in modern Russia, Dr. Svetlana Boltovskaya of Albert-Ludwigs-University of Freiburg, Germany, described a contemporary Moscow neighborhood where an African man and his colleagues had set out to feed elderly and poor Russian people at Moscow’s Protestant Chaplaincy, an international, interdenominational, English-speaking Christian congregation that has of late adopted the task of monitoring the surge in race-related hate crimes.

Dr. Yury Tretyakov who chaired the conference, challenged Russians to learn from this experience in a nation he condemned for lacking history of similar charitable endeavors based on harmonizing race relations.

“It’s an invaluable contribution and a lesson we should learn from this community however tiny it might appear,” he said.

But as the discussion raged over the history and the role of African-Americans in Russia, Dr. Irina Udler of Chelyabinsk State University, took listeners back to the late 18th century Russia with a discussion of a book about the experience of an African-American in Russia back then. Udler said “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African,” is an “abolitionist text” that conveys the experience of someone yearning for freedom.

She drew parallels with “Travel from St. Petersburg to Moscow” by the Decembrist rebel Radishev and pointed out striking similarities between American slavery and Russian serfdom.

Meanwhile, St. Petersburg’s Africans today hail Ibragim Petrovich Gannibal, the great grandfather of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, as Europe’s first black intellectual who made an invaluable contribution to the Russian Empire. Dr. Larry Greene of Seton Hall University pointed out that African-Americans such as poet Langston Hughes, civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, journalist Claude McKay and singer Paul Robeson also took pride in Pushkin as black poet. All four were communists or communist sympathisers who visited the Soviet Union.

Previous Russian-American Links conferences were also held in St. Petersburg in 2003 and 2005. Organizers of the most recent conference included the Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg State University, U.S. Consulate general in St. Petersburg, Collegium for African-American Research, European University in St. Petersburg and the English-Speaking Union.

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