American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream

American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream

by Julia L. Mickenberg


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If you were an independent, adventurous, liberated American woman in the 1920s or 1930s where might you have sought escape from the constraints and compromises of bourgeois living? Paris and the Left Bank quickly come to mind. But would you have ever thought of Russia and the wilds of Siberia? This choice was not as unusual as it seems now. As Julia L. Mickenberg uncovers in American Girls in Red Russia, there is a forgotten counterpoint to the story of the Lost Generation: beginning in the late nineteenth century, Russian revolutionary ideology attracted many women, including suffragists, reformers, educators, journalists, and artists, as well as curious travelers. Some were famous, like Isadora Duncan or Lillian Hellman; some were committed radicals, though more were just intrigued by the “Soviet experiment.” But all came to Russia in search of social arrangements that would be more equitable, just, and satisfying. And most in the end were disillusioned, some by the mundane realities, others by horrifying truths.

Mickenberg reveals the complex motives that drew American women to Russia as they sought models for a revolutionary new era in which women would be not merely independent of men, but also equal builders of a new society. Soviet women, after all, earned the right to vote in 1917, and they also had abortion rights, property rights, the right to divorce, maternity benefits, and state-supported childcare. Even women from Soviet national minorities—many recently unveiled—became public figures, as African American and Jewish women noted. Yet as Mickenberg’s collective biography shows, Russia turned out to be as much a grim commune as a utopia of freedom, replete with economic, social, and sexual inequities.

American Girls in Red Russia recounts the experiences of women who saved starving children from the Russian famine, worked on rural communes in Siberia, wrote for Moscow or New York newspapers, or performed on Soviet stages. Mickenberg finally tells these forgotten stories, full of hope and grave disappointments.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226256122
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/25/2017
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Julia L. Mickenberg is associate professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is author of Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States and coeditor of Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature.

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American Girls in Red Russia

Chasing the Soviet Dream

By Julia L. Mickenberg

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 Julia L. Mickenberg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-25626-9


Dreaming in Red

Reformers, Rebels, and a Revolutionary Babushka

Writing in the summer of 1905, Anna Strunsky, the "girl socialist of San Francisco" (and an immigrant from Russia), neatly summarized the appeal of Russia's female revolutionaries to young women like herself: "So it was that woman who was without honor resolved on becoming glorious; she who was a chattel vowed in her heart that she would be free; she who had been ignorant and helpless, hardly a mother and wife, hardly a sister and help-meet, insisted on the right to learn, to take on culture, to seek happiness in the happiness of others, to grow in the stature of a human being. ... She stood in the gray dawn of freedom, a self-conscious individuality, a woman at once warrior and priestess."

By writing and speaking on "Russian freedom," American new women fed popular expectations in the United States about what a new Russia would look like — what form it would take, what place women would have in its governance and public life, and also how Russia's political transformation would affect work, education, motherhood, love, and sexual relations — in ways that predicted a longer-term feminist investment in Russia and the Soviet Union. Moreover, the fact that Russian terrorists and assassins, especially women, were hailed as heroes in the United States in the decades leading up to 1917 predicted a willingness on the part of many Americans to accept violence as a necessary part of Russian justice.

Tender Revolutionaries

Before 1917 Russian revolutionaries were often portrayed in the United States in romantic and heroic terms. Beginning in the 1880s, popular translations of works by Russian novelists such Alexander Herzen, Leo Tolstoy, and Ivan Turgenev, memoirs by revolutionaries (some of whom had immigrated to the United States or England), and novels by American and British writers helped foster an image of Russian revolutionaries as "selfless and highly cultured individuals who turned reluctantly to violence, and then only to assuage the oppression of the masses."

Films and plays continued this pattern while also linking the United States to Russian struggles for freedom. Israel Zangwill's play The Melting Pot (1909) concerns a daughter of Russian nobility who becomes a revolutionary and then, in exile in the United States, turns settlement house worker. She marries a Russian Jewish immigrant whose parents had been killed in the Kishinev pogrom. The United States thus becomes the place where a Christian and a Jew from the Old World, joined in a quest for freedom, can find happiness. In Beneath the Czar (1914), one of several films made prior to 1917 that showed sympathy for the Russian revolutionary struggle, Anna Pavlowa agrees to spy on suspected revolutionary Prince Rubetskoi to save her nihilist father from torture at the hands of the police. However, she falls in love with the prince and becomes a revolutionary herself, fleeing to the United States with her lover and father.

Within both fictional and documentary accounts, the Russian revolutionary woman elicited unending commentary for her bravery, selflessness, and devotion. In January 1906, after Socialist Revolutionary Maria Spiridonova shot a provincial councilor known for his brutal suppression of peasant unrest, Spiridonova's suffering at the hands of Russian authorities made her a martyr in both Russia and the United States. The New York Times printed the full text of Spiridonova's court testimony, in which she declared: "I undertook the execution ... because my heart was breaking with sorrow and it was no longer possible to live with the tales of the horror ... ringing in my ears." American journalist Kellogg Durland described her as "a delicate girl ... with soft, blue eyes" whose "wavy brown hair" was "draped over her temples in order to hide hideous scars left by the kicks of the Cossacks." Beyond highlighting her suffering and bravery, Durland asserted what would become a refrain: women's role in the Russian struggle was "unique among the revolutionary movements in history."

"The Russian woman has shared like and like with men: in leadership, in the dangerous clandestine education of the masses, in throwing the terrorist's bomb, in prison, in Siberian mines, on the scaffold. So willing have they been to die for the sake of progress that with many death has become an ambition," Leroy Scott wrote in 1908. Emphasizing revolutionary women's nobility and "tenderness," Scott insisted these traits did not stand opposed to the women's violent deeds but, in fact, provided their rationale: "It is this very tenderness, this intense feeling for the victims of tyranny, that has impelled so many gentle-souled women to tyrannicide."

The "Little Grandmother" and the Friends of Russian Freedom

For many Americans, Ekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya, known in the United States as Catherine Breshkovsky, Babushka, or the Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution, came to personify the Russian revolutionary cause. Breshkovsky combined unflagging commitment to justice at great cost to her own comfort with remarkable charisma. Her 1904–1905 tour of the United States, during which she made a personal connection with dozens if not hundreds of women and men and inspired thousands of others, revitalized an American movement for "Russian freedom" that had begun in the 1880s. It also helped convince significant numbers of women, young and old, that the battle against tyranny in Russia was their concern as well.

Born in 1844, Breshkovsky (née Verigo) was a daughter of Russian nobility who renounced her own privilege. As a teenager, Katia Verigo started a school for her family's serfs, and throughout her life she remained committed to educating the masses. As a young woman, she found herself in a train compartment with Prince Peter Kropotkin, a leading revolutionary thinker. Their long conversation made a strong impression. On a visit to Saint Petersburg, she fell in with a group of revolutionaries and yearned to join their activities. Following the practice of many ambitious Russian women who chafed under their parents' control, Katia used marriage as a route to freedom, and at twenty-five she married a liberal student from a nearby landholding family. Although fond of her husband, Catherine made clear to him from the beginning that justice for the Russian people would always be her priority. The couple worked together for several years, educating peasants and advocating for their rights. But when Catherine chose to adopt illegal tactics, she and her husband amicably parted ways. Breshkovsky joined a revolutionary commune in Kiev in 1873. There she gave birth to a son, whom her sister-in-law agreed to raise. Breshkovsky insisted, "I knew I could not be a mother and still be a revolutionist." Later she claimed to be mother and grandmother to thousands.

A year after her son was born, Breshkovsky, like hundreds of others, went "to the people" in order to educate peasants and foment revolution. This led to her arrest and imprisonment, including four years in solitary confinement. When finally brought to trial, Breshkovsky offered no defense and openly declared herself a revolutionist. She was rewarded with five years of hard labor in the Kara mines (the first woman to receive this sentence) followed by Siberian exile.

During one of her Siberian exiles — this time after an attempted escape from prison — Breshkovsky met George Kennan, an American Russia expert who was to dramatically change her fortunes, as well as those of the Russian revolutionary struggle in general. Employed by the Russian American Telegraph Company to survey a proposed telegraph route, Kennan had first ventured to Siberia in 1864. He wound up spending several years in remote areas of Russia. Back in the United States, he lectured extensively and published ethnographic descriptions and travelogues, becoming one of America's most respected authorities on Russia. In 1884, as a staunch defender of the czarist regime, Kennan proposed to study the Siberian exile system in order to answer Russia's critics. Because of his outspoken sympathy for the czarist government, he gained full cooperation and access.

A preliminary expedition did little to change Kennan's views, but on a longer trip, from May 1885 to August 1886, exiles showing almost unfathomable "courage fortitude self-sacrifice and devotion to an ideal" changed Kennan's outlook completely. He wrote to a friend shortly after returning to the United States: "I went to Siberia regarding the political exiles as a lot of mentally unbalanced fanatics bomb throwers and assassins and ... when I came away from Siberia I kissed these same men good bye with my arms around them and my eyes full of tears."

Kennan encountered Breshkovsky in a remote area of the Transbaikal in 1885. He described her as having "a strong, intelligent, but not handsome face, a frank, unreserved manner, and sympathies that appeared to be warm, impulsive, and generous." Though Kennan noted "traces of ... suffering" on Breshkovsky's face, he insisted "neither hardship, nor exile, nor penal servitude had been able to break her brave, finely tempered spirit, or to shake her convictions of honor and duty." Leaving their meeting, Kennan could imagine only a grim future for Breshkovsky. However, her last words to him were hopeful: "'Yes, Mr. Kennan,' she said to me just before I bade her goodbye. 'We may die in exile, and our grand-children may die in exile, but something will come of it at last.'"

Indeed, something did. Kennan's articles in the Century, his lecture tours (which reached close to a million people), and, finally, his 1893 book Siberia and the Exile System, the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the Russian penal system, caused a sensation. During Kennan's over eight hundred lectures around the United States, he often appeared in the rags and shackles of a Siberian prisoner, and he left audiences spellbound. After Kennan's address at the Washington Literary Society, Mark Twain rose to his feet, tears in his eyes, and proclaimed, "If dynamite is the only remedy for such conditions, then thank God for dynamite!"

On the way home from his transformative 1885–1886 Siberian trip, Kennan had met Sergei Kravchinsky (a.k.a. Stepniak), a Russian revolutionary and assassin living in exile in London. Stepniak's 1882 book Underground Russia had done much for the cause, but Kennan inspired him to do even more. Building on Kennan's connections, Stepniak undertook a tour of the United States. In 1891 he started the Society of American Friends of Russian Freedom (SAFRF) in Boston with the help of authors William Dean Howells and Mark Twain, along with Boston Brahmins including Unitarian minister and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, Julia Ward Howe (composer of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"), and several children of abolitionists, among them William Lloyd Garrison's two sons and Alice Stone Blackwell, the daughter of abolitionist Henry Blackwell and feminist Lucy Stone.

It is not simply coincidence that former abolitionists and their children launched the "Free Russia" movement in the United States. Like white women who had sympathized with the predicament of enslaved African Americans, new women in the United States came to identify with revolutionary women in Russia, admiring their principled devotion to social justice, their willingness to sacrifice everything for a noble cause, and their commitment not just to equal rights but also to an egalitarian ideal in private life.

In 1903 widespread outrage over the Kishinev pogrom (in which 49 Jews were killed and more than 500 injured, and 1,300 Jewish homes and businesses were looted or destroyed) brought renewed attention among Americans to czarist cruelty. Inspired by Leo Tolstoy's novel Resurrection (1899), in which a Russian official refrains from assaulting a group of political prisoners because he fears attention from foreign newspapers, Alice Stone Blackwell decided to revive the dormant SAFRF, believing "it might be useful to spread news about the misdeeds of the Russian government through the American press." The newly reconstituted organization wound up sponsoring Catherine Breshkovsky's visit to the United States in 1904.

Aware of growing public opposition to the czarist regime in the United States, the Socialist Revolutionaries decided to send one of their most articulate and sympathetic members on an American tour to raise money and build support for the revolution. Breshkovsky had personally experienced some of the most harrowing of the government's punishments, from prison to exile. She was also still remembered in the United States from Kennan's sketches. Finally, she was decidedly grandmotherly in her appearance. She thus offered a kinder, gentler image of the Russian revolutionary.

Upon her release from exile in 1896, Breshkovsky had immediately resumed her activities, joining a neo-Populist group organized by chemist Gregori Gershuni, who used his scientific expertise to plan and execute attacks on government officials. In 1901 Breshkovsky and Gershuni helped found the Socialist Revolutionary Party (Partia sotsialistov-revoliutsionerov, sometimes abbreviated as PSR), or Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs). Although the "terrorist" label has uniformly negative connotations today, in the context of the Russian revolutionary cause, the term resonated quite differently. SRs and most of the other Russian terrorist groups did not set out to kill innocents but rather to attack and strike fear in those who had been personally responsible for persecuting opponents of the regime. Their rationale was that because no legal means of protest existed, violence was an unfortunate necessity. Terrorism was seen as an expression of intense sympathy for good people who suffered unjustly. It served as a warning to other potential oppressors. And it brought a kind of awed admiration for those willing to stand up to those in power. As Gershuni was said to have declared at his trial, "History may forgive you all the blood you have shed and all the crimes you have committed ... but it will not forgive you for forcing the apostles of love and freedom to take up arms." Although Gershuni was arrested for his SR work, Breshkovsky escaped to Romania and from there undertook her US tour.

Two non-English-speaking SRs in New York asked anarchist and orator Emma Goldman to arrange a meeting with the SAFRF to solicit support for Breshkovsky's visit. Goldman was eager to help. Indeed, her very approach to life had been shaped by a desire to embody the Russian revolutionary ideal. Born in 1869 in the Russian province of Kovno, Goldman was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family. When Emma was thirteen, her family moved to Saint Petersburg, where Czar Alexander II had recently been assassinated by members of the People's Will, a Populist group. Goldman became caught up in the maelstrom of new ideas that flooded Russia during this period: the nihilists, among whom women and men fought "shoulder to shoulder," "became to [Goldman] heroes and martyrs, henceforth [her] guiding stars."

By the 1880s "nihilist" was practically synonymous in conservative circles with "bomb-thrower," but for rebellious types it signaled commitment to the "radical remaking of Russian society" and the creation of a "new people," themes at the center of Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done? (1863), a book that Emma Goldman devoured as a young woman in Saint Petersburg, just as Anna Strunsky would devour it as a young immigrant in the United States. That book's female heroine, Vera Pavlovna, seeks and finds both sexual emancipation and socially useful labor through her involvement in a revolutionary milieu. She initially enters into a platonic marriage to escape a stifling and oppressive family life; later, living her personal life on terms that suit her, Vera organizes a sewing cooperative that produces beautiful, useful things while simultaneously offering other women a road to independence. Vera then studies to become a doctor. Marked by her "black woolen dress of the plainest description," short hair, education, and independent spirit, the female nihilist, or nigilistka, was the most striking representative of the new ethos of a generation of activists who rejected convention, adopted characteristic "manners, dress, [and] friendship patterns," and embraced a radical materialism, choosing faith in science over faith in God.

Although many Russian men cited as inspiration a minor character in Chernyshevsky's book, Rakhmetov — a revolutionary who sleeps on wooden planks, subsists on black bread and steak, studies intensively, and performs gymnastics daily — women consistently cited Vera as a role model. Emma Goldman, not long after immigrating to Rochester, New York, left a loveless marriage, embraced anarchism and free love, and moved to Manhattan, where she "hoped to realize [her] dream of a co-operative shop ... something like Vera's venture in What's [sic] to be Done?" She even set up her living arrangements to echo Chernyshevsky's novel, moving into an apartment with two men who shared her commitment to free love. Events in Russia were never far from Goldman's mind, and more than once she contemplated returning to aid the fight.

So it was that Goldman came to act as the liaison between the Russian exile community in the United States and Breshkovsky. Goldman joined a local branch of the Socialist Revolutionaries, believing that organization offered the best means of supporting a cause that had captivated her since childhood. Suspecting the respectable SAFRF would not want to associate with a known firebrand, Goldman, in secret collusion with Alice Stone Blackwell, invited the SAFRF president William Dudley Foulke, a distinguished lawyer, civic reformer, and art patron, to the home of "Miss E. G. Smith." Under this guise, the notorious anarchist Emma Goldman drank tea with Foulke and Stone Blackwell in her apartment and obtained Foulke's pledge to sponsor and publicize Breshkovsky's visit.


Excerpted from American Girls in Red Russia by Julia L. Mickenberg. Copyright © 2017 Julia L. Mickenberg. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: “American Girls in Red Russia”
Part I          Tender Revolutionaries and Child Savers
1           Dreaming in Red: Reformers, Rebels, and a Revolutionary Babushka
2           Child Savers and Child Saviors
Part II         Living and Working in the New Russia: From Kuzbas to Moscow
3           “A New Pennsylvania”: Seeking Home in Siberia
4           “Eyes on Russia”: Gal Reporters on the Moscow News
Part III        Performing Revolution
5           Dancing Revolution
6           Black and White—and Yellow—in Red: Performing Race in Russia
Part IV        Trials, Tribulations, and Battles
7           Heroines and Heretics on the Russian Front
Epilogue: Red Spy Queens?

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