Ruth Epperson Kennell went to the Soviet Union with other Americans to build up a communal colony. Dorothy West arrived in Moscow with African American actors slated to make a movie. Isadora Duncan went to dance and teach. Jessica Smith arrived as a relief worker during the great famine of 1921, and Anna Louise Strong went to find a career as a newspaper journalist. During the first half of the twentieth century, hundreds of American women traveled to Russia. As Julia Mickenberg details in this compelling and original volume, their motivations were as individual as the women. Some went to prove, if only to themselves, that they were not bourgeois. Some went as curious tourists or with humanitarian purpose. Others arrived as committed Communist Party members while many sought a place that purported to offer gender and racial equality. For their part, the Soviets set out to influence “the world views of visitors” by establishing the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, which encouraged visits from artists, writers, educators, filmmakers, performers, and other prominent people (13). Of particular interest to the Soviets was the recruitment of African Americans, not only as visitors but as dedicated members of the American Communist Party. The African American press at home, including the journal of the NAACP, published pro-Russia pieces that echoed black visitors’ reports of encountering little prejudice in Russia. At the same time, the Soviets put considerable energy into organizing blacks in the American South and protesting on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys hailing them as “champions of the interracial proletarian unity” (259). Despite the great interest in African Americans displayed by the Soviets, very few women of color traveled to Russia, and most that did were performers who arrived with little, if any, leftist ideology and with no intention of enrolling in a Comintern school. Women’s observations and accounts of life in the Soviet Union were transmitted back to the United States via letters home, through newspaper and magazine articles, and lecture tours by returning visitors. Almost always these were pro-Soviet in tone. They attempted to explain to the American people the new world of social and economic equality being created or, in the case of the devastating famine, raise money for relief while extolling the Bolsheviks’ passionate concern for the children affected. And then, there were the World War II photographs by Margaret Bourke-White and the movie script for The North Star by Lillian Hellman. During the 1920s and 1930s, there was a fascination with the “new” Russia and with Russian women as a role model liberated from old norms. Unlike American women, they had abortion rights and open access to birth control information. The dominant image of Russian women was one in which they had gained educational opportunities equal to those given men and careers outside the home—although the Soviet regime seemed to waffle on whether work outside the home should be valued over domesticity. Only with World War II did there seem to be a consensus on the role Russian women were to play as defenders of the homeland. After the U.S. and the Soviet Union became war allies, this portrayal was propagandized in the United States to the point of disbelief, but at the time it seemed necessary in gaining public sympathy for the Soviet Union. As a rule, however, Americans were generally wary of the Soviets and their communist doctrine. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, strikebreakers and attempts to unionize industrial and agricultural workers in the United States were negatively characterized as Communist inspired. Writers, actors, artists, and musicians employed in the New Deal Federal One projects were routinely labeled left-wing radicals. Anyone accused of being a Red or a Bolshevik was viewed with suspicion and, although the author does not mention the Dies Committee as the forerunner of McCarthyism, the 1930s had its own hunt for communist sympathizers. One would assume that the women sending back their impressions of Russia, especially those who became regime apologists during the Stalin purges, Moscow Trials and collectivization violence, were aware of the Dies Committee and F.B.I. investigations into communist connections. The author does not say, and there is only a brief glance at the House Committee on Un-American Activities of the 1940s and 1950s—specifically as it concerned Margaret Bourke-White and Lillian Hellman. In her epilogue, the author writes that initially she was interested in exploring the ideals of loyalty to one’s country and in identifying American women who spied for the Soviet Union, but she soon found that there were “many more shades of gray than a Cold War-infected discourse” (328). This perhaps explains how the idea for this volume began, but it is a disjointed departure from the rest of the volume and, with the exception of further biographical references to some of the women featured in the book, a disappointing close. Nevertheless, the volume as a whole tells a strong story that combines political and social history. The lure of the Bolshevik Revolution and the evolution of the Soviet Union drew women of many backgrounds and personal outlooks. Some of the women were true believers in the Soviet state. For most, however, the “Soviet dream” was at best a passing interlude in their lives and at its worst an experience that shook them to their core. In this well-researched and wonderfully written volume, readers will find a story that has long been overlooked. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Diplomatic History – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 6, 2018
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