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Blacks in European Russia 1700-2000

Kathleen M. Ahern

There is a long tradition of a visible Black population in European Russia which has gone largely unexplored. A study of the genesis and development of the interaction between Blacks and Russians has equally important connotations for the history of Black Europeans as for U.S. Diaspora Studies and draws potentially important conclusions about Russia’s own evolving identification with Europe.

Literary explorations of Blacks in Russia often begin with Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet, who had African lineage. From the time of Peter the Great, however, we have a three hundred year tradition of cultural interaction between Blacks and Russians, resulting in numerous literary artifacts.

In its broadest scope, my research seeks to chart the evolving representations of [self-] identity in literature across this tradition of Black-Russian interaction. A meaningful theoretical framework for this type of cross-disciplinary investigation of a complex tradition is lacking. The Black diasporic experience in Russia is greatly impacted by the overarching Russian struggle with self-identification as either “European” or “other”. My current project investigates contact between Blacks and Russian literature, culture, and intellectual thought, and the impact of those contacts on the formation of national, cultural and racial identity. I begin with the implicit dialogue between Prince D. S. Mirsky and Cyril Briggs, two twentieth century authors who almost simultaneously selected the poet Alexander Pushkin as a revolutionary role model. Mirsky was a 20th century Russian scholar who lived in exile in London between 1920-1931 and wrote one of the earliest critical biographies of Pushkin, published in English in 1926 and widely reviewed in the black press.

Briggs was a Caribbean black militant who founded the black-Marxist group the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) in 1918 in New

York and edited the leftist newspaper The Harlem Liberator. Briggs’ response to Soviet Russia, through Pushkin, mirrors the response of many Black intellectuals during the early Soviet period and draws from a long-standing and significant history of Black contact with Russia in the search for racial tolerance. The strikingly similar response of Briggs and Mirsky to working in exile/diaspora offers a window to understanding how individuals and groups respond to the demands of assimilation and formation of cultural identity under duress both challenges and expands the fields of literary criticism and cultural studies. In the contemporary world, exile and the diaspora continue to impact the intellectual experience. Interpretations of racial, cultural and national identity inform our contemporary understanding of the world from literature to politics.

Literature and literary criticism play a significant role throughout this process, reflecting our collective search and shaping contemporary dialogue.


I am interested in the Workshops: Representing Black European History and Black European Studies curricula. The questions of self-identification of Black Europeans and their perceived status as members of a national/international community are significant to my pursuit of an understanding of Black Russian identity.

  • How is the Black Russian experience influenced by Russia’s own struggle to identify itself as European or other?
  • Does the Black Russian experience have significant commonalities with other Black European experiences?

  • Should the Black Russian experience be considered as part of Black European Studies curricula?

  • What is the relationship between categories of nation and race and political movements of the twentieth century?

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