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Representation of Africans and African-Russians in Russian literature and culture over the last four centuries

Raquel Greene

My research project is a two volume edited anthology entitled Africa Through Russian Eyes: Readings on the History of African-Russian Intellectual, Cultural and Literary Contact From the Eighteenth Century to the Present. The anthology examines the history of Russian intellectual contact with the African Diaspora and the impact of this contact on the construction of race in pre-revolutionary and Soviet Literatures. As such, my project combines an examination of Russian social and cultural history with literary studies. The anthology includes a comprehensive introduction, critical literary analysis, and English translations of all included texts. Among the topics I cover are Russia and the question of American slavery, constructions of race in nineteenth century Russian poetry and prose, images of Africa in twentieth century Russian poetry and prose and constructions of race in nineteenth and twentieth century Russian children’s literature.

Once completed, the anthology will constitute a significant contribution to both Africana studies and Russian literary studies for two primary reasons: first, there currently is no work published in English or Russian that examines the history of African-Russian contact from a literary perspective or assembles the range of materials that I present. Second, most of the works that I include have never appeared in English translation. Although the anthology should be of interest to both Slavists and Africanists, I believe it will also appeal to the general scholar.

My research on this anthology is closely related to my overall program of teaching and scholarship. Since joining the faculty of Grinnell College, much of my teaching has centered on the intellectual and literary connections between Africa and Russia. Although I mainly teach Russian language and literature, I do teach courses within the Africana Studies Concentration. My course, "The Theme of the African in Russian Literature and Culture," examines the history of Russian intellectual and literary contact with the African Diaspora, and the impact of this contact on the development of the "African" as a literary theme in Russian and Soviet literatures. I also teach "African-American Literary Connections to Russian Intellectual Thought," which examines the development of African-American and Russian cultural nationalism. Finally, I have taught the Africana Studies Senior Seminar "Teaching the African Diaspora: A Slavic and Romance Approach," which offers a comparative look at the construction of race in Slavic, Francophone, and Hispanic literatures.

My overall research focuses on Russian intellectual and literary contact with the African Diaspora as an under-examined aspect of both Africana studies and Russian literary studies. Russia’s lack of participation in the African slave trade, and the relatively small number of people of African origin located in Russia, resulted in the relative historical and cultural invisibility of Africans in the Russian Empire. I would argue however, that the image of Africa captured the creative minds of many Russian writers over the last four centuries.

I am also interested in the impact of Russia’s lack of participation in the African slave trade on Russian constructions of race. In the nineteenth century, Russian writers focused on American slavery and used their critiques as an oblique means of condemning what they saw to be an equally oppressive institution, Russian serfdom. Other writers who traveled to America recalled their experiences and perceptions of racial issues. In the twentieth century, the image of Africa assumed greater symbolic significance. The oppression of racism and the experience of Africans and African-Americans often became equated with the oppression of creative artists under the Soviet regime. Forced to adopt the communist idea that literature should serve the purpose of the state, creative artists became increasingly alienated, and began to express the belief that there was no true place for them in the new order. In the words of Andrei Voznesensky, a major Russian poet of the last half-century, “every poet is a Negro.” Interconnections between Africa and Russia have primarily been examined from an historical point of view. To date, little research has examined how this contact translated into Russian perceptions and constructions of race and African-Russians’ perceptions of themselves. My work on the anthology will offer insight into this field of study that has been largely overlooked.

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