Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

John Carlos Rowe reviews American Girls in Red Russia

Julia L. Mickenberg. American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 432 pp.

Review by John Carlos Rowe

Julia Mickenberg’s extensive research in US and Russian archives fills a significant gap in our knowledge of the roles played by US women in the Russian revolution and the Bolshevik and Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union. This book is also an invaluable contribution to transnational American studies, because it treats US–Soviet political and cultural relations between 1905 and 1945. Long considered the purview of international relations and political scientists, the transnational connection of Americans and Russians in this period is actually a fascinating story of mutual influences. Mickenberg treats these relations in an appropriately dialectical manner, tracing the activist visits of Russian women to the US as well as the travel of US women in Russia to participate in the utopian promise of its revolution.  The book covers the work of women revolutionaries, social reformers, immigrants to Russia, journalists, and performers in dance, theater, and film. Combining political, social, and cultural history, Mickenberg has developed an original method that is indebted to the transnational American studies approach.

She organizes this complex history in terms of exemplary biographies of key women activists from Russia and the US. Few of these women are familiar to scholars other than specialists, and their stories are especially compelling as told by Mickenberg. From the early Russian revolutionary Ekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya, known familiarly in the US as “Babushka,” to US activists in Russia such as Anna Louise Strong, Ruth Epperson Kennell, and Milly Bennett, Mickenberg narrates the promise of the Russian Revolution for women’s and children’s rights in the context of Communist promises of economic and social equality for all. Mickenberg skillfully reveals how these forgotten figures influenced better known social reformers and cultural leaders. “Babushka” had positive impacts on William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, Emma Goldman, Jane Addams, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ruth Kennell served as Theodore Dreiser’s Russian translator during his celebrated tour of Russia in the 1920s.

In her chapters on US women’s contributions to Soviet dance, theater, and film, she turns to more familiar figures, such as Isadora Duncan, whose performances and dance school for girls in Russia were widely celebrated, and Langston Hughes and Dorothy West, among the several Harlem Renaissance artists who traveled to Moscow in the early 1930s to make the film Black and White, intended to expose hostile race relations in the US. Although the English-language film was never made, work on the film by African Americans in Russia offers fascinating insights into the ways 1930s Soviet communism both misunderstood race relations in the U.S. and also provided crucial support for US civil rights.

Representing both the utopian promise of the Russian revolution and the disillusionment its realities occasioned in many women activists, Mickenberg has produced a major contribution to modern women’s rights, feminism in the Soviet Union, and transnational relations between the US Left and Soviet Communism. Her book should encourage American studies scholars to pay more attention to US–Soviet relations.