Three Very Rare Generations
SOUL TO SOUL A Black Russian American Family 1865-1992. By Yelena Khanga with Susan Jacoby. Illustrated. 318 pp. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. $22.95.
AMONG its other consequences, the demise of the Soviet Union has released an emigration of foreign-born leftists and their descendants. Along with Spanish Loyalists and exiled third-world socialists now returning to their countries of origin, this little-noticed diaspora includes Yelena Khanga, the granddaughter of a black American who had moved to the Soviet Union in 1931, along with his Polish-Jewish-American wife. “Soul to Soul: A Black Russian American Family 1865-1992” tells the remarkable story of Ms. Khanga’s family, shedding light into unfamiliar corners of both the Soviet and American pasts. Its title derives from a Russian expression for close friendship. In an American context, it also suggests encounters among blacks, and the book’s most interesting chapters recount the story of the black side of Ms. Khanga’s family tree.
Her great-grandfather, Hilliard Golden, born a slave, served on the board of supervisors in Yazoo County, Miss., during Reconstruction, and managed to become one of the areas’s largest black landowners (Ms. Khanga is not sure how). The restoration of white supremacy abruptly ended his political career, but Golden clung tenaciously to his property until 1909, when, like many other farmers in the New South, he succumbed to debt and lost his land.
Golden’s son Oliver, the author’s grandfather, studied agronomy at Tuskegee Institute, and served in the Army during World War I. Disillusioned by his experience in the military (like most black soldiers, he was kept far from the front lines, working as a cook), and by the fact that the only job he could find in postwar America was as a railway waiter, he gravitated to the Communist Party. Defying the powerful social stigma attached to interracial relationships, Oliver Golden entered a common-law marriage with Bertha Bialek, a young garment worker who had emigrated from Poland and had become a Communist while working in the sweatshops of New York’s garment center in the 1920’s.
In 1931, with 15 other Americans — black agricultural specialists and their families — Ms. Khanga’s grandparents sailed for the Soviet Union to help develop cotton cultivation in Uzbekistan. The poverty and backwardness of the region, where polygamy still flourished, reinforced the Goldens’ sense of socialist mission. When their daughter, Lily, was born, they decided to remain in the Soviet Union “because they did not want to raise a racially mixed child in America.” The agricultural experiments succeeded, and Stalin then decreed that Uzbekistan should concentrate exclusively on cotton, transforming the area, ironically, into a one-crop economy bearing some resemblance to the South of Golden’s youth.
Oliver Golden died in 1940. Bertha survived to 1985, supporting herself by teaching English, and never abandoning her Communist convictions. Lily Golden, the author’s mother, became a scholar at the African Institute in Moscow, and married Abdullah Khanga, a political leader from Zanzibar studying in the Soviet Union. Their marriage was ill starred, for Khanga expected his wife to behave like an African Muslim woman of the most traditional sort — for example, she was forbidden to speak when other men were present.
Yelena Khanga was born in Moscow in 1962. Her father was bitterly disappointed that she was not a son, and did not even pick up his wife and daughter at the hospital. When he returned to Africa a few months later, Lily declined to follow. Like her own parents, although for different reasons, Lily Khanga did not want her daughter to be raised in a land that could not accord her a semblance of equality. In 1965, Abdullah Khanga was murdered by political opponents.
Thus Ms. Khanga grew up in a three-generation female household, a situation not uncommon, she notes, either in black America or in Russia, where divorce is prevalent and child raising a female duty. She was brought up to take pride in her black heritage and to rely on her own talents. She studied journalism at Moscow State University and worked for a time as a singer at the Cosmos Hotel (where she was billed as “Lolita from America”). In 1984 she landed a job at Moscow News, shortly before glasnost transformed it from a dull party organ into a muckraking journal exposing the underside of Soviet life.
Ms. Khanga is a bit older than the students I encountered in 1990, when I taught American history at Moscow State, but her book reflects many attitudes of the generation that came of age in the 1980’s. Like my students, she was shocked by the revelations about Soviet society that glasnost made possible (as a reporter, she discovered grinding rural poverty on the outskirts of Moscow and found entrenched corruption in institutions like Intourist). Like them, she is fascinated by history, but prone to nostalgia for the prerevolutionary past, as if Stalin had invented Russian poverty, and neither prison camps nor stifling bureaucracy had existed under the czars.
In one respect, however, Ms. Khanga’s outlook differs from that of the young people I encountered, who, along with Moscow News itself during glasnost’s heyday, adopted the United States as a substitute utopia. Her friends, she notes, were unable to understand how anyone could leave the American paradise for the Soviet Union, even during the Depression. Ms. Khanga’s background allowed her to appreciate that the Communist Party was then virtually the only predominantly white organization actively recruiting black members, and to empathize with her grandparents’ exhilaration at living in a land where blacks could order a meal in any restaurant and enter a hotel through the front door.
Unlike many young Russians today, even those who have visited the United States, Ms. Khanga is fully aware of the less attractive features of American life. Seeing firsthand the black poverty in the Mississippi Delta in 1991 while searching for her family on a Rockefeller Foundation grant was, in a way, as disillusioning as her first glimpse of living conditions in rural Russia. She was pained to discover that the Jewish side of her family had rejected her grandmother for marrying a black man. (When Lily was born, Bertha Bialek sent a snapshot to her mother. “Is the child a shvartse? ” Ms. Khanga’s great-grandmother asked. When the answer was positive, she tore up the photo without looking at it.)
Ms. Khanga is careful to distinguish racism from the prejudices she encountered while growing up in the Soviet Union. Although sometimes treated as an exotic, she says she did not suffer overt discrimination. Her family’s problems stemmed from the system’s repressiveness (like many scholars before glasnost, her mother was unable to travel abroad) and from a general suspicion of foreigners, which led many Russians to distrust her family. Indeed, one of Ms. Khanga’s more original observations is that racism, which she rarely encountered as a child, is now growing in Russia not only because of conflicts among the former Soviet Union’s many nationalities, but also as a byproduct of increased contacts with the United States.
Such unexpected reflections, however, are not typical of “Soul to Soul.” Too often, where thoughtful insights are called for, she falls back on familiar cliches (“individual initiative comes hard when it has always been discouraged”) or meaningless bromides (“Africa isn’t Eden, it’s a vast, complicated continent”). Then too, the book’s breezy style (presumably the contribution of the co-author, Susan Jacoby) tends to trivialize the events Ms. Khanga recounts.
IN the end, despite her family’s unusual and fascinating odyssey, “Soul to Soul” somehow adds up to less than the sum of its component parts. Perhaps the problem lies in the genre itself. As in many family histories, the story seems to lose energy when it reaches the present generation. Ms. Khanga has witnessed momentous changes in the past few years, but the lives of her ancestors — slaves seizing freedom, immigrants crossing the Atlantic, men and women moved by injustice and hoping to build a new society — seem to have occupied a larger stage than her own. The problems of finding an understanding hairdresser in Moscow, or dealing with various Soviet lovers, pale before the challenges surmounted by her forebears.
In the course of her research, Ms. Khanga unexpectedly discovered that her mother had already been born when her grandparents renounced their American citizenship during the Stalin purges in 1936. As a result, while reared in the Soviet Union, both Lily Golden Khanga and her daughter Yelena, the author, retained a claim to American citizenship. However Yelena Khanga reconciles the complex strands of her ancestry in the future, she has, in “Soul to Soul,” already made a contribution to retrieving a piece of the Soviet Union’s unknown history.
Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, taught in 1990 at Moscow State University as Fulbright Lecturer in American History.