A historian of the Soviet Union locates a rich and complicated Black experience
In 2014, when Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon earned a master’s degree in Russian studies from Harvard, she could count the number of Black Americans studying Russia and Eastern Europe on one hand. She felt isolated, and unsafe when she did field research.
But St. Julian-Varnon says history told from only one perspective is no history at all. So when she returned to Slavic studies in 2020 to start a PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania, just as protests over the murder of George Floyd were sweeping across the country, she also committed to making the field a place where more people “look like” her.
I spoke to her about her research on Black Americans in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, and about what systemic racism has to do with Russia today.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you first become interested in Slavic studies?
I’m from rural Southeast Texas and I grew up on a farm. I always had perfect attendance, but one year I got sick and I couldn’t go to school. So I had to stay in the house and I watched this eight hour mini-series called “Russia Land of the Tsars” on the History Channel and I was obsessed. I think in sixth grade, I was the only student who did a book report project that wasn’t on an American. I did Josef Stalin.
What does it mean to be a Black academic in Slavic Studies in the United States, and also doing field research?
I think it’s the isolation. I was doing my master’s at Harvard when I attended the The Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies conference in New Orleans. Someone came up to me to ask me to clean up a spill. Essentially, I was thought of as part of the janitorial staff until I put my nametag on.
Another part is you don’t have a community that understands the specific challenges of working in the field, including the dangers of doing research in Eastern Europe. You have the Friday night historians group in Moscow, for instance. Everyone goes out on Fridays to decompress late at night. And I just can’t participate in that because it’s not necessarily safe for me to go all across Moscow at night or Kyiv at night, especially by myself. But when you have a community of scholars of color who know the anxieties and the fears, who can help you prepare to go to the region, it’s really important.
What gets lost in the academic coverage of the former Soviet Union or other academic topics by not having more diversity in the field?
There are so many brilliant people of color who have PhDs in Slavic studies, Russian history, who aren’t participating in academic work anymore and it’s to everyone’s detriment. It’s also because of the research, the questions that I ask and that I’m interested in. When I was in downtown Kyiv and I saw this Black girl, she saw me and we just hugged each other. And my research is to some extent trying to explain how that happened.
During the Cold War, the civil rights struggles of Black Americans were used as sort of a cudgel by the Soviet Union, and it was quite effective, at least in part because the outrages around civil rights in the United States were very real. But the discussion frequently focuses on African Americans being used as propaganda tools. Your research, though, looks at the actual African American experience in the Soviet Union. Should what you’ve found change the focus of the conversation?
I love that you point out that people portray African Americans in the Soviet Union like they’re dupes of the Soviet Union. And when I’ve given talks about this, people have said, “Well, weren’t they all Communists?” And it’s so annoying because I specifically work on African American visitors to the Soviet Union in the twenties and thirties and largely they were not communists. They had no interest in communism. They were responding to the joint catastrophes of Jim Crow and the Great Depression. At the same time you have the Soviet Union, which is going through the first five year plan under Stalin, and they have this incredible need for skilled labor — they are sending recruiters to the United States.
When you look at a lot of these visitors and these workers who go to the Soviet Union, one, it’s about economic opportunities when there are none in the United States, but two, it’s also the fact that you’re going to a country which positions itself as anti-racist and to be able to exist as a Black person without the constant fear of physical and emotional violence against your person. The majority of the African Americans who aren’t artists, who aren’t part of the Harlem Renaissance, who aren’t academics, are there to make money and they’re there to build a nest egg to send back home, and most of them don’t stay permanently in the Soviet Union.
Why do they leave?
I think a big reason is by 1937, Stalin’s Great Terror is ravaging the Soviet Union and foreigners are given a choice: You can either become a Soviet citizen or you have to go home. By the late 1930s, the Soviets were not really interested in anti-racism. It’s anti-Nazism. And then when Stalin dies, we have Khrushchev, who’s more focused on decolonization and the Third World.
So how does the so-called “anti-racism” policy of the Soviet Union become the racism one might find in Russia or in other former Soviet states today?
One of the key things, I would argue, is the way Africans and Black people are presented in Soviet popular culture and in Soviet ideology. Africa is always shown as this developing continent. They need to be taught communism. It’s very much like the white man’s burden narratives — in the case of Africa it’s just more like the Soviet comrade’s burden.
I just finished an article manuscript looking at Soviet children’s books from the twenties and thirties. Here, blackness is shown as something that’s dangerous, something that’s foreign, something that’s backwards and something that can change, but it can only be changed through contact with the Soviet Union or through communism.
What’s interesting is the use of language in some of these books. They actually call them “piccaninnies.” And then, you get to the 70s and in the 80s, you have Chunga-Chonga, this incredibly racist, very popular cartoon where these African kids are literal depictions of pickaninnies. So you have this long standing thread from the 20s through the 80s: This depiction of blackness as other, as dangerous, non-civilized.
And I think that’s one of the important aspects of understanding what we see now – this collapse of the facade of anti-racism. In many ways, Russia is replicating a lot of the racist mythos that we saw from the United States.
You’ve written that systemic racism presents a national security problem for the United States. What do you mean by that?
It comes from my study of Soviet history. Look at the 1960s and into the 1970s, when the United States and Soviet Union are vying for support in the developing world. All the Soviet Union has to do is show the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, to Africans and say, “Do you want to be aligned with this country? Look at how they look at you, look at how they think of you.”
And I think if we look at it now, it’s Putin’s reaction to BLM and what he’s pretty much saying is, oh, that kind of chaos happens in America, we won’t stand for it here. Racism and white supremacy is a global ideology, and is destabilizing democracies across the United States, Western Europe, and Eastern Europe.
The reaction of some Russian liberals to the BLM protests in 2020 seemed to catch people off guard. Given the violence of police towards protesters in Russia, you might have expected some sort of solidarity with BLM, but many in the opposition dismissed them as dangerous rioters.
Being anti-Putin and being pro-democracy in Russia does not mean you are not racist. It doesn’t mean you don’t hate immigrants. These are conversations some of the black specialists in the field have talked about — what liberal means in the United States does not translate into Russia, and we still need to be able to talk about these issues.
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