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Black Russians

Historical links between Africa, America and Russia were unravelled at an academic conference last month in St. Petersburg.

Published: October 12, 2007 (Issue # 1314)

  • Russian national icon Alexander Pushkin is considered Europe’s first black poet.
    Photo: For The St. Petersburg Times

  • Russian television journalist Yelena Hanga has written about her African ancestry.
    Photo: For The St. Petersburg Times

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.”

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Friday, Jan. 30 through Wednesday, Feb. 4

A retrospective of the films of Roman Polanski starts today at Loft-Project Etagi, 74 Ligovsky Prospekt, with a screening of ‘Repulsion’ at 7 p.m. and ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ at 9:15 p.m. The series runs through Feb. 4 and will include Polanski's eminently creepy ‘The Tenant,’ the cult comedy ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’ and ‘Cul-de-sac’ among others. Tickets are 150-200 rubles and the complete schedule is available at

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