Emily Couch on The Ethnic Avant-Garde and Diversity in Russia Studies

By Emily Couch

In 2015, Steven S. Lee published the monograph The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures & World Revolution. It may seem strange to write about a book four years after its publication, but the continued lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Russia studies makes Lee’s work more relevant than ever. Today we should consider The Ethnic Avant-Garde as not only a valuable source of information and analysis on a much neglected topic, but also as a springboard for reconsidering the field’s methodologies, as well as dominant political discourses on the region and its Soviet past. 

WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT?

Lee defines the “Ethnic Avant-Garde” as referring to the diverse artists and writers who engaged with the Soviet Union from beyond its borders, but his central contention is that the phrase defines a  “largely unrealized utopian aspiration […] the dream of advancing simultaneously ethnic particularism, political radicalism, and artistic experimentation, debunking the notion that particularism yields provincialism.”  The Ethnic Avant-Garde, he adds, “foregrounds a distinct way of seeing – a ‘transnational optic’ that, for the contemporary reader, makes it possible to discern unexpected connections among radical artists and writers from many different countries.” The book does not idealize the Soviet system or its minority policy, but rather argues that foregrounding the Ethnic Avant-Garde facilitates a “minority and Soviet-centered remapping of global modernism” and “provides for new scholarly and creative communities in the present day.”

Chapter 1 analyzes the cultural exchange between Vladimir Mayakovsky and Langston Hughes by looking at the way in which the latter translated and adapted the poetry of the former. Chapter 2 considers Sergei Tretyakov’s play Roar, China and its reception in the United States. Chapter 3 looks at Hughes’ famous dismissal of the planned Soviet movie about African American struggles, and Chapter 4 addresses the complex attitude of American Jews towards socialist internationalism.  Overall, the book covers the inter-war period from 1918 to 1939.

REVIEW OF THE BOOK 

The strongest suit of The Ethnic Avant-Garde is the multitude of significant, but little known, examples of cultural interaction between Western ethnic minorities and the Soviet Union. Perhaps the most emblematic of these is Lee’s analysis of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “Black & White” (1925) – a poem in which Willie, a black sweeper at an American cigar company in Havana, slowly gains awareness of racial inequity – and its subsequent translation into English by Langston Hughes in the 1930s. Through analysis of word choice, form, and rhythm, Lee reveals the cultural collaboration that took place between these seemingly disparate authors (even though Mayakovsky was no longer alive by the time of Hughes’ translation), and highlights the way in which Hughes not only translated Russian into English, but also represented Afro-Cuban culture in a way that was comprehensible to an American audience.  Another strength of The Ethnic Avant-Garde is that its content – the book covers multiple ethnicities, including African American, Asian, Afro-Cuban, and Jewish – reflects Lee’s mission to “delineate an avant-garde grouping that cuts across racial, ethnic, and national boundaries.”

This ambitious motivation is, in part, responsible for the book’s shortcomings.  The concept of the Avant-Garde is inherently abstract (think of Kazimir Malevich’s paintings), so it is not surprising that Lee’s writing style is heavily theoretical – his use of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919 – 1920) as a visual metaphor for the Ethnic Avant-Garde is a prime example of this tendency.  The plethora of abstract concepts with which Lee grapples frequently leads to dense and obtuse paragraphs that would make little sense to a reader who was not well-versed in the theoretical underpinnings of modernism. Terms such as “Freudian melancholia” and “Now-Time,” for example, receive little explanation. This trend carries through to the final chapter which, instead of bringing the book’s narrative to a close, offers yet more theorization – this time, focusing on how Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel (2010) negotiates the “eternal idea” of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and its reality.  While the discussion of Yamashita’s work is rigorous, it does feel like something of a non sequitur in a book that primarily discusses the Soviet Union.

WHY IS IT SIGNIFICANT?

Let’s turn to methodologies. Russia studies, like every field of area studies, is an umbrella term that houses multiple disciplines – namely, international relations, political and social science, history, literature, art, and language.  Yet, while Russia studies is a broad church, there is a strange lack of interdisciplinary dialogue, particularly when it comes to the international relations and political science strands.  For scholars of literature and art, it is natural to draw on the research in these fields in order to understand the backdrop of, and worldview encoded in, the work. However, there is little in the way of reciprocal influence due to the unfortunate tendency among IR and political science scholars to see their disciplines as detached from the “softer” realm of cultural studies. The Ethnic Avant-Garde embodies the fruitful results of this kind of interdisciplinarity work.  Lee himself is an Associate Professor of English Literature at Berkeley, but he uses the techniques of literary analysis in order to draw wider conclusions about the social and political nature of the relationship between the Soviet Union and ethnic minorities abroad.  

Interdisciplinary methodologies, in turn, prompt a rethinking of Western political discourse on the Soviet Union. Understanding the cultural ties and, indeed, the cultural attraction that it exerted for Western ethnic minorities invites a critical reassessment of the traditionally antagonistic Cold War rhetoric. The dominant U.S. rhetoric of the Cold War period posited the Soviet Union as the antithesis to American ideals of democracy and capitalism.  Encoded in this rhetoric, however, was the pervasive inequity in racial relations, especially regarding the African American community. Thus, anti-Soviet discourses erased the experiences of those ethnic/racial groups who were not included within these “patriotic” ideals. Granted, The Ethnic Avant-Garde does not technically cover the Cold War (i.e. post-World War II) period.  However, its final chapter does suggest that the People’s Republic of China – founded in 1949 – offered a beacon of hope for Western ethnic minorities. The nuancing called for by Lee’s work, in turn, spotlights the ever growing need for greater diversity among the practitioners and scholars who study the region.

THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL 

The iconic slogan of the 1960s and 70s women’s movement has been repeated to the point of banality over the last six decades, but this does not mean that it is any less relevant today. Academic book reviews rarely mention the author’s personal biography, but in this discussion of racial and ethnic diversity in Russia studies it is salient to point out that Lee himself – as he writes in the Acknowledgements – is the child of Korean immigrants to the United States.  He is among the few ethnically East Asian scholars in Russia studies (other examples being Notre Dame’s Emily Wang and UPenn’s Brian Kim). Lee’s personal background makes The Ethnic Avant-Garde political: beyond its specific content, the very fact that a seminal contribution to the field has been made by a person of color is, in itself, worthy of celebration. Most significantly, however, is that The Ethnic Avant-Garde points to the way diversity in the profession can facilitate a dramatic reinterpretation of the Soviet Union’s place in the global cultural space by foregrounding the inter-ethnic and inter-racial connections that the present Eurocentric scholarship has overlooked.

Emily Couch is a Staff Intern at the Kennan Institute.  She recently completed a double Master’s degree in Russian & East European Studies at University College London and the Higher School of Economics (Moscow). She has just returned from a year living in Russia where, in addition to her degree, she interned with the independent Russian pollster, The Levada Center.  Earlier this year, she defended her thesis entitled The Inter-regional Diffusion of Russian Protest Repertoires in a Trans-National Context, 2008 – Present.  Her articles have been published by news outlets including The Moscow Times and The Calvert Journal.
Twitter: @EmilyCouchUK

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