Books

When American Women's Dreams of Equality Carried Them to Russia

By uncovering lost stories of women living abroad, Julia Mickenberg revives rich histories of adventure.


American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream

Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Price: $35.00
Author: Julia L. Mickenberg
Length: 432 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-04
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The story of the women’s movement in the United States tends to be reduced to a neatly packaged narrative: the first wave of feminism was Women’s Suffrage, and once women earned the right to vote, not much happened until The Feminine Mystique inspired second wave feminism. Sure, there were world wars and the Great Depression in between, so not much time for feminism. Yet historians and feminist scholars are bringing previously untold stories into popular discourse. Rosie the Riveter, for example, became a feminist icon decades after women stepped up to work in the munitions industry during WWII. Similarly, American Girls in Red Russia offers a cadre of women whose cultural contributions are worthy of rediscovering.

Ostensibly about American women living in Bolshevik Russia and later in the Soviet Union, Mickenberg’s book is also a broad-reaching history of political and social relations between the two nation states. A reader with some background in that history will be better prepared for these stories; knowing the context makes the individual biographical profiles more complete. The book is arranged chronologically, beginning with the 1904-05 American speaking tour by Ekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya, also known as the “Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution”. Babushka, as she was affectionately called, inspired women to travel to Russia and take part in the cultural changes underway.

Many American men and women felt called to help Russian children, especially during the 1921 famine, and to participate in a socialist society that held the promise of equality, regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic upbringing. The women whose stories are told here faced a difficult dichotomy: while they had faith in communal life as being superior to the competitive capitalism that many rejected, the realities of life in Soviet Russia did not always align with their ideals. Often there were real life difficulties, as the environment and lifestyle of the American workers communes was harsh. Equality, many found, was difficult to translate from concept to practice. Ruth Kennell, for example, who committed to a two-year contract to work and live at the Kuzbas colony, wrote about her experiences of seeing men given preferential treatment over women, as well as the difficulties of navigating differences in work contributions to the collective whole. She noted that despite their commitment to communal life, many American men brought their ideas of established gender roles with them to Kuzbas and did not even consider dismantling them.

The circumstances of many married American women who lived in Soviet Russia are not unlike those faced by women in the '50s and '60s who were left with housekeeping and childrearing as their primary occupation. Anna Louise Strong, who in 1930 served as the first editor of the English-language Moscow News, exuberantly describes the differences between married women in the United States and “Soviet wives”, which she counts herself among. In Strong’s telling, Soviet men go off on exciting adventures, and their wives accompany them, or find expeditions of their own (193). Many American women in the '20s and '30s sought the same promise of an adventurous life in Soviet Russia, since such freedoms were not available to them at home.

Along with histories of commune workers, writers, and activists, Mickenberg includes the important interplay between the two cultures focused on dance. American dancer Isadora Duncan offers an example of how ideological attachments get entwined with art: first popular for articulating a physical presence aligned with revolutionary freedom, her “Duncanism” was eventually scorned in the Soviet Union (223). A solid, strong body was preferred as the ideal Soviet body, rather than one capable of Duncan’s flowing, lilting style. For readers who, like Mickenberg grew up during the Cold War, the muscular female Soviet athletes competing in the Olympic games come to mind as matching that ideal.

As the book moves through its chronology, the status of women becomes an exemplar for the transformations in Russian/Soviet life. Where many American women were enticed by the sexual freedom and gender equality available in Russia, those promises were not sustained as Stalinism took hold. Mickenberg notes that Anna Louise Strong was still writing for American audiences about the vast professional opportunities available to Soviet women in 1936, yet she failed to address the changes to Soviet family law that made abortion illegal and divorce difficult. The changes portended the Great Purges the following year, when thousands upon thousands of people were arrested, imprisoned, and executed under Stalin’s regime. The number of Americans visiting the Soviet Union tapered off dramatically, and those already living in the Soviet Union were told to either become citizens or leave the country.

The book closes with World War II and the alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union that led to the portrayal of Soviet women involved in the war effort as heroines in American popular culture. Mickenberg focuses on Lillian Hellmann and Margaret Bourke-White for their efforts in visiting the Soviet Union and creating photographs, film, and narratives that promoted friendship between the two nations. In her epilogue, Mickenberg considers the fates of several women featured in early chapters of the book, some of whom were subject to investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Mickenberg writes with the advantage of perspective: in a post-Soviet, post-Cold War era, it is easier to trace the threads of the socialist project’s failure. Yet as she writes in closing, we still “try to distinguish refugees from terrorists and legitimate dissent from security threats” while “women continue to struggle with the same things they struggled with in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s” (334-335). The passage of time does not ensure a clear understanding of the past or how historical events will be used to make sense of the world in the present.

Mickenberg positions herself as a child of the Cold War, among the members of Generation X in the United States who had a romantic and ambivalent relationship with the Soviet Union. Her research begins to fill a gap in the literature that not only brings to light the social and cultural contributions of American women in Russia and the Soviet Union but also considers the impact of socialism on the US Left. The current cultural moment can only benefit from the insights of Mickenberg’s work.

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