When I first encountered the writings of African Americans on the Soviet Union–most notably those of Langston Hughes and Margaret Glasgow (credit here must go to my friend and colleague, Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon)–it was as if a fresh breeze had burst into a dusty room. Like a good Russia Studies student, I had read John Steinbeck’s 1948 Russian Journal with real and dutiful interest. As a ‘Westerner,’ I was able to identify with many of Steinbeck’s observations but, as a woman of color, there was a metaphorical wall when it came to relating to the experiences of a white man. Audre Lorde’s “Notes from a Trip to Russia,” of course, takes down this wall.
On a personal, and perhaps mundane, level, it is at once amusing and comforting to see that Lorde’s first response to the appearance of Russia was the same as mine: “The road and the trees and the people and drivers could have been from North Westchester in late winter,” she writes, but “the golden onion steeples that shock me back from the feeling that this is Manhattan.” When I first touched down in Sheremetyevo back in 2016, I recall exactly the same observation as I peered hungrily out of the plane windows. The tree-covered land below could have been Connecticut–where I spend most of my summers–but, as our car sped from the airport to the center of Moscow, the technicolor cupolas were an exhilarating reminder that we were in fact a world away from New England.
Her diary entries chip away at the geopolitical narratives on the Soviet Union and the Cold War prevalent in the West. She does not dress the differences that she notices between the United States and the Soviet Union in ideology or geopolitical cloth. Instead, she notices the children’s cartoons are “without the kind of violence that we have come to associate with cartoons,” that “you carry your own bags in airports and hotels.” She comments on the Soviet value system–“the labor of one’s hands is measured by how much food you produce”–but does so with curiosity rather than judgement. In many ways, her approach felt more open than my own. When I moved to Russia in 2018, it was with a siege-like mentality. Since 2012, the Western press had made much of Russia’s social conservatism and racism–I arrived wrapped in figurative armor, ready to be attacked.
Lorde and I may both be women of color, but it would be vastly over-simplistic to suggest that this means that every one of our experiences chime as one. Lorde was a black woman from a country where relations between African Americans and the White majority were highly regulated and historically charged. I am an ethnically Chinese dual citizen of two countries (The United Kingdom and The United States) that have, at best, a hazy understanding of mixed East Asian/Western identities and a dim grasp of their historical relations with people with my heritage. Before moving to Moscow I had lived in London for five years, a place where I felt entirely comfortable as a Brit with an East Asian face. Lorde came from the racially oppressive United States to the nominally egalitarian Soviet Union; I came from a city that largely embraces diverse identities to a post-Soviet Russia rife with resurgent ethnic nationalism. There is a degree of orientalism in Lorde–“They are an Asian people in Tashkent […] they looked like the descendants of Genghis Khan,” she writes, “They think and speak and consider themselves Russian […] and I really wonder how they manage that”–that, as someone “of the Orient” I find a little alienating.
Overall, however, the experience of reading Lorde’s “Notes from a Trip to Russia” was a comforting one, it reassured me that a woman of color had trod the same ground as me many years before and made me feel a little more grounded in the Russia Studies field which continues to be dominated by white men. It should be required reading for everyone, and not only people of color, in the field.
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. In 2019, 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.