Constructions of Race and Slavery in 19th and 20th Century Russian Literature

Raquel Greene, Grinnell College

This paper presents a general overview of Russian-African historical and cultural connections and examines the literary significance of depictions of race and slavery in some 19th and 20th century Russian texts. The writers Vasilii Popugaev, Andrei Kozlianinov, Konstantin Staniukovich and Al. Altaev each offer insightful examples of the various ways Russians viewed race and African slavery. In general, their writings illustrate that Russia's lack of participation in the African slave trade did not preclude the appearance of varied racial images of Africa in Russian literature. Each writer constructs race and slavery in a unique way, and collectively, the works show the complexity, and in some instances, the ambiguity that marks 19th and 20th century Russian texts on race and African slavery.

Vasilii Popugaev is among the first Russian belletristic writers to confront the reality of African slavery in his works. His short story “Negr” (1804), first published in the anthology Periodical Publication of the Free Society of Lovers of Letters, Science and the Arts, tells the story of a young African, just captured and waiting to be shipped to the Americas. While Popugaev denounces the Europeans who have enslaved Africans, the Africans themselves, even those who have actively participated in the trade, assume no responsibility for their actions. They are little more than victims in the hands of intellectually superior whites, and are not seen as accountable agents within the context of their own actions.

Andrei Kozlianinov's “Aliko and Maila, or the Kidnapping of Slaves”(1820), is one of the earliest Russian poemas to have African slavery as its main theme. Kozlianinov offers a work that not only represents Africans' lives, but also reinforces his belief that, on some levels, Africans were similar to their enslavers, especially with regard to their capacity to feel human emotion. The work is paradoxical in that it expresses the author's pride in Russia's lack of participation in the African slave trade, yet also includes physical descriptions of Africa and its inhabitants that reflect common 19th century racial and cultural stereotypes.

Konstantin Staniukovich's “Maksimka” (1875) is the first major Russian children's work to reflect the type of "ambivalent abolitionism" that was commonly seen in American children's writing of the same period. Although Staniukovich expresses serious concern for the plight of African slaves, there is an underlying paternalism that assumes the racial and cultural superiority of Russians over Africans.

Finally, Al. Altaev's “The Great Day of Black Slaves” (1911) represents the most progressive image of Africans. As Altaev's tale illustrates, African slaves were often intelligent, upstanding, god-fearing and entirely capable of determining a productive course for their future.

The overall image of Africans that one receives from a collective examination of 19th and 20th century Russian texts is ambivalent at best. Only in the work of Altaev do we see a strong African character. The examination of these works offers insights into an aspect of Russian social and cultural discourse that has been little examined, but certainly deserves further consideration.