American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream, by Julia Mickenberg

Book of the week: Modern feminism can learn much from the women who visited revolutionary Russia, says Lara Douds

May 11, 2017
Source: University of Chicago Press

In the 1920s and 1930s, where might an independent, liberated American woman travel in order to escape the stifling constraints of bourgeois society? It wasn’t always, as one might assume, Paris’ Left Bank. In this lively and accessible study, Julia Mickenberg focuses on Soviet Russia as a destination of choice for inter-war feminists in search of inspiration and example.

For a significant number of Westerners who questioned the human costs of an exploitative social system structured around industrial capitalism, “the mere existence of a society ostensibly dedicated to the public good rather than individual profit was a source of tremendous hope”. Mickenberg follows the experiences of a group of pioneering women who chased this “Soviet dream”, the emancipatory promise of the Russian Revolution. Although these pages contain some famous names – Louise Bryant, Emma Goldman, Margaret Bourke-White and Isadora Duncan among them – there are also many others that will be less familiar. Meticulously researched, the volume draws on a wealth of diaries, correspondence and memoir alongside published sources to construct a collective biography exploring these women’s motives and experiences and the lessons they drew from “Red Jerusalem”.

Beginning with late-Imperial Russia’s female revolutionaries and ending with the Soviet heroines of the Second World War, Mickenberg’s main focus is on the dynamic inter-war decades, when female travellers arrived in Russia to participate in humanitarian famine relief campaigns, work on rural communes in Siberia, write for Moscow or New York newspapers and perform in Soviet theatres. Revolutionary ideology attracted many women. Some were committed radicals, fiery orators or advocates of free love, and others were simply curious about the Soviet experiment. What united them was the hope, Mickenberg says, for “a new era of female possibility in which women would not merely be politically empowered and economically independent, but also equal partners in love”. Some found fulfilment, but more often only disappointment awaited them as they confronted the mundane realities, the gap between ideal and practice, or the violence and repression of the Stalin era.

The Bolsheviks rejected feminism as a distraction from the class struggle that they argued was the only route to genuine emancipation, for both men and women, from the economic tyranny of capitalism. Nonetheless, much legislation passed in the revolution’s early years aimed to “neutralize gender differences”. During the first decade after 1917, progressive laws granted equal political and economic rights, made abortions free and legal, provided state recognition of de facto marriages and simplified divorce. Women gained property rights, barriers to education and professional advancement were officially lifted, and maternity leave and equal pay for equal work was promised. Practical steps towards women’s emancipation, including plans to “socialize” housework in the form of public laundries, kitchens and childcare so that women could participate fully in the wider workforce, were trialled. Much of this radical legislation was difficult to implement, however, and by the early 1930s Stalin’s conservative, pro-natalist family policy turned back the radical tide. Nonetheless, American feminists followed these earlier developments avidly during a period of retrenchment for women’s rights in the US. The Soviet climate of openness on sexual matters was especially attractive in an age when even providing information about birth control was illegal in the US.

Mickenberg steers an even-handed, judicious course throughout, neither romanticising nor condemning her subjects. Her characters are spared the customary condescension as naive or morally bankrupt fellow travellers, and instead appear in three dimensions and in all their human complexity. Her approach allows a nuanced exploration of the complex motives and behaviours of her protagonists, recognising their idealism, but also their mistakes and the terrible aspects of the Soviet system that some of them never (or only belatedly) acknowledged. While the Soviet “techniques of hospitality” designed to steer foreigners to the sites those in power wanted them to see have been offered as proof of the regime’s attempt to dupe political pilgrims, for Mickenberg this perspective minimises genuine Soviet efforts towards social transformation and flattens out understanding of the people drawn there by their own interests.

She also allows due credit to these visitors’ critical faculties, noting that even those who approved of what they saw “usually recognized that the Soviets wanted them to take certain impressions away with them”. Visitors who stayed for extended periods were often exposed to the “dark sides to the revolution” that could be difficult to overlook. Most interesting are the cases where “desire held sway over belief…rather than having faith that the revolution’s promises were being realized, they experienced desire that they might be”, which made it possible for people to rationalise things they would not otherwise tolerate. As one American visitor explained, “The thing that you have to do about Russia is what you do about any other ‘faith’. You set your heart to know they are right…then, when you see things that shudder your bones, you close your eyes and say…‘facts are not important’.”

 American Girls in Red Russia is a welcome addition to the scholarship of revolutionary Russia and American feminism, and its publication is well timed in two regards. The centenary of the Russian Revolution is an apt moment to reconsider this cataclysmic event in its long-term perspective, and Mickenberg’s work contributes to a balanced reassessment of the wider significance of 1917. The dark side of the Russian Revolution has been more easily remembered by historians and public alike as the later horrors of Stalinism served to obscure the earlier idealism and aspiration to end the exploitation of working people and create a more free and equal society. As Mickenberg laments, “We have forgotten both the daring spirit of the new woman and the widespread interest in the Soviet experiment.”

By the late 1940s, most Americans saw the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”, and those who had once expressed enthusiasm for the Soviet experiment recanted, kept quiet or were tainted by association. Yet as Mickenberg explains, “this narrative of disenchantment clouds our ability to understand the enchantment itself: the real depth of interest, hope and fascination that the Soviet Union represented for many people, even when those feelings were mixed with a sense of the gap between Soviet realities and ideals”.

A century on, and decades after the Soviet experiment in communism collapsed and Marxism has been largely discredited, arguably one enduring and significant legacy of the Russian Revolution is the dialogue that the early Soviet Union’s radical, progressive legislation on gender stimulated. Achievements fell short of ideals and by the 1930s much progressive legislation was reversed, yet for all its flaws, that revolutionary moment acted as a symbol and barometer for subsequent women’s emancipation movements across the world. As today’s US politics herald challenging times for American feminism and concerns about the resurgence of misogyny and sexism have banished complacency, the lessons Mickenberg draws are insightful contributions to the ongoing conversation. As women continue to pursue objectives of balancing career and motherhood and achieving equality in the political, economic, domestic and sexual spheres, she observes, “there is much to be learned – about desire, faith, human fallibility and lost possibility – from the hopes and failures of yesteryear’s new women”. In particular, the attraction of American feminists to revolutionary Russia highlighted by this study serves as a warning against embracing new forms of what Mickenberg calls “cruel optimism”, such as “‘leaning in’ to careers, finding a ‘third metric’ for success, becoming ‘tiger mothers’, insisting that motherhood is indeed a profession or even proclaiming that patriarchy is dead and women should just get over it”.

Lara Douds is lecturer in modern history, University of York, and author of Inside Lenin’s Government: Power, Ideology 
and Practice in the Early Soviet State (in press).

American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet DreamBy Julia Mickenberg
University of Chicago Press, 432pp, £26.50
ISBN 9780226256122 and 6269 (e-book)
Published 22 May 2017

The author

Julia Mickenberg

Julia Mickenberg, associate professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, was born in Bethesda, Maryland, “where my father was working as a researcher at the National Institute of Health, which made it possible for him to avoid fighting in Vietnam. As my sister explained to me in one of my earliest memories, ‘The government told Daddy that he could fight in a war, go to jail, or kill rabbits.’ He chose the latter, but I remember thinking to myself at the time that this must have been a very difficult decision.

“Having been born in Maryland doesn’t tell much about my upbringing, but the reason we were living there (so that my father could avoid Vietnam) does. And in fact, we only lived in Maryland for a short time: I spent most of my childhood in what at the time was the small town of Southbury, Connecticut. My sister and I were among a handful of Jewish kids in our school: everyone else we knew went to church on Sunday and seemed somehow related to each other. I suppose that the split I experienced between my Jewish family in New York – from whom I felt a strong geographic distance, despite the fact that we were less than two hours away – and the people in the WASP-y town that I grew up in may have something to do with a feeling of being an outsider…and my ability to see more than one side of an issue.

“There was a cultural divide in my own family: although both my parents were Jewish, on my father’s side were the atheistic, left-wing grandparents who read books and talked about politics, and on my mother’s side were my conservative grandparents who kept their television on all the time, covered their furniture with plastic (I’ve since learned that this is typical of Jews born in a certain time and place), and took us to resorts in the Catskills that served large portions of bad food.

“I’ve definitely been more influenced intellectually and politically by my father’s side of the family (more below on Grandpa Eddie), but I have a real intolerance for political dogmatism, right or left, perhaps thanks not just to growing up in a pretty conservative environment but also because of my politically and culturally mixed extended family.”

Mickenberg was, she says, “an extremely studious child, a trait I attribute primarily to my parents’ failed marriage, as I found that studying was a good way to get away from real life. I also realised that I could get good grades if I worked hard, and I began thriving on the sense of approval I got from my parents and also from teachers. On a less superficial level, my love for research became clear to me quite early on, and in fact I remember just about every research paper I’ve ever written, starting from one in fifth grade on George Washington Carver, which involved making peanut butter and bringing it to school to share with the class (Carver was famous for promoting the many uses of peanuts).

“In terms of adults who encouraged me to embrace a life of the mind, the most significant was certainly my Grandpa Eddie, who began sending me great books when I was about 12. He himself was an autodidact, who read constantly and somewhat indiscriminately: he sent me books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anton Chekhov, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Djuna Barnes, and many, many others. He also wrote long, funny letters, and also told us stories about characters he made up (Sam Wolf, Harry the Hawk, Mr Grey Cat and others who he knew from his days working in a shipyard). My grandfather also encouraged me to write, and to care about writing.

“I had many good teachers, in high school and in college, but one comment stands out to me. Struggling over a paper I was writing for a literature class that I was taking in college, when I visited her during her office hours, Professor Patricia Caldwell smiled at me and said, ‘I can see that you’re a truth seeker.’ That comment stuck with me. It might explain what I can now only describe as an addiction to archival research.”

What kind of undergraduate was Mickenberg in her years at Brown University – ambitious, ambivalent, dreamy, determined, gregarious, solitary?

“I laughed when I read this question because I probably was all of these things, sometimes simultaneously. For me, the hardest thing about college was all the choices it offered, and this was an even bigger problem at Brown, where there are no set requirements, except in your ‘concentration’ (ie, major). The latter I chose on the very last day possible by trying to figure out how I could cobble together all the classes that looked good, including ones I’d already taken, and call that a major. Hence American Civilization, which is a fancy name for American studies (the department’s name at UT Austin).  Interestingly enough, I did think about majoring in Russian studies, but Russian did not come easily to me and I gave it up after two years; I began auditing undergraduate Russian classes as a tenured professor in order to write American Girls in Red Russia.”

Academically, she says, she spent her first couple of years at university “feeling intimidated by how smart everyone else seemed to be – this after having graduated near the top of my class in high school. But at a certain point I realised that other people weren’t necessarily smarter than me, they were just more confident: many of them had gone to elite private schools and had every privilege possible, while I was merely upper middle class. Although I had been grade-conscious in high school, I was more ambivalent than ambitious in college, as I was very much trying to figure out who and what I wanted to be. I worked hard, but mainly as a challenge to myself.

“Besides that English class with Pat Caldwell, I especially remember creative writing classes, and particularly an autobiographical fiction writing class taught by Nancy Donegan, who fit my ideal of a writer: she was often late and usually looked slightly disheveled, but had a beautiful dreaminess about her, and she was one of the first people who really encouraged my writing. She made us keep a journal, and write in it at least four times a day: not about our thoughts or feelings, but about scenes that we encountered in daily life. This, and a photography class I took at the Rhode Island School of Design (for which I literally camped out overnight to get a place), made me start wandering around the city of Providence for hours at a time, noticing things, imagining how to frame them or write about them. I also remember a paper that I wrote for a history class on the Federal Writers’ Project, which received such a nice comment from the teaching assistant who graded it that I still can recall it word for word. This was probably the first thing I wrote that made me think of myself as a potential scholar.

The women in this book dreamed of a better world, and looked for it in the USSR. Does Mickenberg see their modern-day equivalents among her students? And where do the dreamers of a new day, as Sheila Rowbotham put it, travel to in 2017?

“I recently worked with a student who very much reminded me of the women in my book: she’s from a secular, Jewish family that sounds a lot like mine, and she grew up idealistic and yearning for answers. Her father was and is an abortion provider, and the stream of protesters she grew up seeing outside her house eventually helped convince her to become a Christian. After a few years, she lost her faith but retained the commitment to social justice that Christianity inspired in her. For a period of time she left school to work with a Palestine solidarity organisation on the West Bank. She’s still figuring out what she wants to do with her life, but I find her hunger for truth and justice refreshing and inspiring. And her travels to Palestine make me wonder if this may be a spot for dreamers of a new day; surely there is work for justice to be done there, although I don’t know if it’s particularly drawing women.

“I do think that people in their twenties today are less optimistic about the possibility for human perfection, more cynical about the fact that, as artist Jenny Holzer has wisely declared, ‘Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise’. And many of them have fewer resources, economic or otherwise, to travel or take time off from life because so many of them are hampered by student debt.

Are her students surprised to discover the extent to which America had a broad and strong left-wing movement in the 20th century?

“I’d say that especially in the general cultural history surveys I teach students are surprised to learn about the range of radical and progressive movements in the US, and even just about the cultural expressions of women and people of colour. I’ve had students tell me that this is the first they’ve heard of things such as the powerful socialist movement of the early 20th century, the sexually liberated New Women of the 1910s, the Harlem Renaissance, the Popular Front and the American Indian Movement. Students are often not just surprised but also angry that this history has been hidden from them.”

Asked if Mickenberg ever feels that the University of Texas at Austin is a comfortable refuge for an anomalous group of middle-class left-leaning folk in a sea of people, rich and poor, who think (emphatically) otherwise?

“Actually, no. However, Austin is itself something of an island in the sea of right-wing Texans. A lot of the most politically progressive and active people I’ve come to know have no connection to the university at all. It’s true that professors tend to be more liberal than folks in some other professions, but I think that this is inseparable from the fact that our work requires us to be constantly learning and interrogating the past and the present, which is an attitude of mind that makes for questioning the status quo. There is certainly hostility towards the university and Austin in general coming from the Texas legislature, but most Texans, including very conservative ones, are very proud of the university and support the work that we do.”

And if she could change one thing about the university, what would it be?

“I would get rid of the law that allows students to bring guns into classrooms.”

Mickenberg’s research interests include higher education, its history and future. Are her students angry or pessimistic about the current state of the academy?

“When I teach a first-year honors seminar on College and Controversy, those bright and intellectually curious students are often surprised and disheartened to learn about all the pressures on higher education these days. Even though these are folks who actually love learning for its own sake, most of them are very career conscious and worried about debt.

“A course that I co-taught on the history and future of higher education included graduate students in higher education administration; a number of these students seemed to actually embrace the neoliberal turn in higher education: some of them don’t see why colleges and universities should not be run like businesses, or why tenure needs to exist. I suppose it’s because they’d stand to gain by what Benjamin Ginsberg refers to as ‘the fall of the faculty’ and the growing power of administration.

“I’d like to think that we changed some of these students’ point of view by the end of the course, but I don’t know – it was certainly eye-opening to work with them. I do know that graduate students in American studies are very aware of what is happening in higher education, which is another way of saying that most of them will not get tenure-track jobs. However, there’s a way in which this knowledge lends a purity to their endeavours: most of them are aware that they will need to acquire other marketable skills beyond becoming scholars if they want to find jobs after getting their PhDs, but they’re driven by a passion for research and discovery (some are also excellent and committed teachers, who will probably not wind up at research universities, but will still be glad to teach at community colleges or even high schools). If they can finish their PhDs without taking on significant debt I think that this is a worthwhile path: I made pretty much the same gamble myself when I went to graduate school and had several other career possibilities in mind other than becoming a professor. But I think the academic job situation has gotten far worse since I received my PhD nearly 17 years ago.”

What gives Mickenberg hope?

“My students give me hope: most of them are idealistic, thoughtful, and want to do good in the world,” she responds.

“And lately, the thing that gives me hope is, ironically, inseparable from the thing that fills me with anxiety: Donald Trump’s presidency. I’ve never in my lifetime seen so many people civically engaged and galvanised by wanting to challenge everything that Trump and the Republican congress are trying to do.

 “As someone who has spent years studying political activists from earlier eras without being especially involved myself, now I feel like I have no choice but to get involved,” Mickenberg says. “Whether it’s visiting my senator’s office over the lunch hour with 100 other demonstrators, showing up at the airport to protest the immigrant/refugee ban, or getting trained to become a deputy voter registrar, taking action helps me avoid despair. That so many other people clearly feel the same way gives me hope, as does the fact that I keep meeting more and more like-minded people in my community because of all the national and local organisations that have blossomed in reaction to the new administration.”

Karen Shook

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