Audre Lorde’s name and work is familiar to many of us who have studied feminist movements in high school and college. Some of her seminal essays, including “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” and “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” are commonly included in syllabuses of literature classes and used as entry points into the conversation about the politics of literature and how combinations of race, gender, and sexuality affect one’s construction of self and point of view on the world.
Less well known is Lorde’s essay “Notes from a Trip to Russia” that opens her book Sister Outsider. A footnote to this essay explains that Lorde spent two weeks in the Soviet Union in 1976 as an American observer to the African-Asian Writers Conference sponsored by the Union of Soviet Writers. Having returned from that trip, she finds herself haunted by it in her dreams, including a particular image of “making love to a woman behind a stack of clothing in Gumm’s Department Store in Moscow.” In Lorde’s dream, the woman falls ill and Lorde needs to seek medical help for her, and is floored by the realization that in Soviet Russia, medical treatment is free and available to all.
I read this essay just a few years ago and at first struggled with how to react to it. To me, everything starting from that opening image seemed both familiar and bizarre. It took me a moment, for instance, to recognize that Lorde is talking about GUM–an acronym for Gosudarstvennuiy Universalniy Magazin, a State Department Store–which in her version acquires an almost poetic personal quality, related to somebody named Gumm. I was born in 1979, three years after Lorde took this trip, and I had a personal mythology of GUM. As a child growing up in Leningrad, I had read about it in books and newspapers–as far as State Department Stores went, this one was well written about. I imagined it as a toy palace–I had an idea that that’s where most of the world’s toys were hidden from us kids. The keepers of the toys were, in my mind, not unlike the angry guards at the museums of the world or the tired, worn-out women working behind the counters of Leningrad’s stores: their job was to keep desirable items away from unworthy hands. To imagine a Soviet prodavshchitsa take part in a sex dream seemed unthinkable.
But then, I thought, why not? This is what it’s like to see the world I grew up in from a stranger’s eyes–it’s an opportunity to examine my premises. There must’ve been lesbians in the Soviet Union, even if I didn’t know anything about that until I was seventeen and living in the United States. So, my first approach to Lorde’s book took me into a completely unexpected direction: it sent me rethinking my relationships to all the women I had known growing up, imagining them as heroines of sexually charged international lesbian love stories. (I even started plotting a novel along these lines, thank you very much, Audre.)
During her trip to the Soviet Union, Lorde visited Moscow and from there traveled to Uzbekistan, the location of the Conference–she went to two towns there, Tashkent and Samarkand. The essay is very much a travelogue, the best of the genre, in which the writer is keenly aware of being a stranger to the places she’s moving through and as she’s documenting her experiences, she’s writing about her own thoughts and feelings and provides a window into her assumptions and biases. Reading the piece all of these years later, it feels like a gift of a guide into the study of Russian and Soviet literature and the field’s lingering struggle to include people of color and women into the conversation.
This essay champions the kind of work that we hope to do with Punctured Lines: bringing together unexpected voices and stories from and about the (post) Soviet space. Unfortunately, for rights reasons, we are unable to reprint the essay online, so to encourage a cross-cultural dialogue, we asked our Twitter followers to submit personal responses to this essay. We also reached out to a few scholars and writers who we expected might have unique insights into the issues that Lorde addresses. Below are responses we received from Emily Couch, Shelley Fairweather-Vega, Elena Gapova, and Maggie Levantovskaya. If you want to join this conversation, please comment below or reach out to puncturedlines [at] gmail.com.
We have been planning this post for several months, and are finishing it under conditions of quarantine. As I’m writing this, the world is struggling with the mounting numbers of COVID-19 cases and many of us have had to severely curb our activities–so the very nature of a travelogue feels radical at the moment. Universal medical care that, in Lorde’s notes of her trip to the Soviet Union, appeared too good to be true, today remains our most urgent need. Yet, as Levantovskaya mentions in her piece, the Soviet Union is a poor guide for a functional medical system–the conditions of care there were often inhumane and bribes were exchanged as a matter of course. We also want to acknowledge and honor the invisible, unpaid and low-paid women’s labor that goes into allowing each family and each hospital and each business and each state to keep going. We urgently need to change this situation so that the burden of this invisible labor does not disproportionately fall to women.