Finding herself dreaming of free medical care after returning from a 1976 trip to the Soviet Union, Audre Lorde diagnosed her obsession: “Russia became a mythic representation of that socialism which does not yet exist anywhere I have been.” There is hope behind the letdown in that statement. Maybe the socialism in question does exist somewhere, or will exist sometime. In the Soviet Union, Lorde seems to concede, it was more myth than reality.
Still, she found plenty to haunt her dreams, mostly in pleasant ways. Her hosts were surely striving to make sure that would be the case. What an honor for a black, queer, female poet, triply marginalized at home, to be officially invited to a place like that, at a time like that! She must have seemed the perfect prize to her hosts (though let’s be honest: they may not have acknowledged the queer part, or known what to make of it if they had). Not only could the Union of Soviet Writers graciously organize a conference for the neglected Asian and African writers of the world when no other superpower would do it; they would invite a member of that other superpower’s most subjugated race to observe! And they would show Lorde not just Moscow, but exotic Tashkent, to where conferences like that were habitually relegated. Lorde would be both evidence for and witness to the idea that the Soviets (or the Russians, as she can’t help calling them) were broadminded and generous to the minorities of the world. A public relations coup.
Lorde only partly cooperated in her appointed PR mission. She is willing to admire the architecture and the friendliness of Moscow, but she finds few black people. She notices how her Russian contacts label things “civilized” and she suspects they haven’t thought the term through. And rather than appreciating the Asianness of Tashkent, the USSR’s Orientalist jewel, Lorde immediately associates it with Accra. With Africa! The comparison surprised me on my first read. But then, why not, in a country that can slot African and Asian writers together in their own separate conference, no comment needed? Lorde finds the people in Asian-African Tashkent warmer and more engaging than Muscovites, and we can see her letting her guard down there and in Samarkand. She reports Uzbekistan’s cotton miracle with no suspicion at all. She mixes up her translations of words like flower and desert. She makes interpreter-mediated love with a Chukchi woman–or does she? But she also senses, somewhere underneath, a national and racial tension people pretend to ignore thanks to a “presumption of equality.”
That presumption is a good start for a socialist paradise. So is free health care and cheap bread. But the spell of Uzbekistan aside, I don’t get the impression Audre Lorde was convinced those things were enough.
Shelley Fairweather-Vega is a professional translator from Russian and Uzbek and has translated fiction from all over the former Soviet Union. She holds degrees in international relations from Johns Hopkins University and in Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington. She is currently the president of the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society and runs FairVega Russian Library Services.