Two recent books expose a dramatic Soviet-American exchange of ideas, especially in the largely forgotten pre-Iron Curtain years. Importantly, both spotlight the central participation of Jews, especially Jewish women, in this idealistic struggle.
The Communist and the Communist Daughter (Duke University Press, $27.95) is written by Jane Lazarre, a seasoned memoirist who presents the compelling tale of her father William Lazarre (alias Bill Lawrence, or Itzrael Lazarovitz), a Russian-Jewish immigrant who became an American Communist Party organizer. Lazarre generally works more from her (admittedly imperfect) memories than from interviews or factual documents. The book occupies a liminal space between fact and fiction, in which half-remembered dialogue merges with imagined diary entries and real-life court transcriptions.
William Lazarre was a larger-than-life figure, a Jewish man who emigrated from pogrom-stricken Kishinev, Russia (now Moldova) to Philadelphia and then New York. Between marriages divorces, remarriages, and the death of his beloved wife, William organized for the Communist Party in the 1920s, was imprisoned under to the Sedition Act of 1918, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and was then brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee for refusing to become a “stool pigeon.”
Jane Lazarre paints a portrait of a fiery idealistic life nonetheless wrought with sorrow and disappointment. Jane’s own memoir, however, is less vivid. One cannot fault a memoirist for including so much of her own musings, but here Jane’s own life seems a distraction. She constantly describes being the mother of two black sons, as if procreation were her only means of political activity. The personal might be political, but in the context of her father’s extraordinary life, her personal dramas skew narcissistic. Released in a year in which the Democratic Socialists of America have quadrupled their membership, for example, the book’s strangely apolitical tone appears woefully outdated.
The book itself, though at times fascinating, is often disorganized. Events constantly overlap, and a timeline would have done wonders to orient the reader. The book works best where its factuality or fictionality are made explicit: them (albeit brief) inclusions of FBI transcriptions shock and baffle, and Jane’s languid prose shines when she imagines her father’s solitary musings.
A more organized and carefully researched text is American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream by Julia L. Mickenberg (University of Chicago Press, $35.00), a study of American women who travelled to the U.S.S.R. in hopes of love, adventure, and the promise of a more fulfilling life. As Mickenberg notes, many of these women were Jewish; after all, at least in name only, the U.S.S.R. had solved both the woman and race questions. It is no accident that Jewish women—existing in two subaltern categories—were attracted to the freedom exuded by the Soviet 1920s. It also explains why the Soviet Union held such an appeal for black women, who wrote of the lack of racism in these early Soviet years; the only racism they claimed to encounter was a “healthy curiosity.”
Tracking experience through journal entries, letters, and published texts, Mickenberg describes the American woman’s “romance with Russia,” full of both aspirations and foibles. She is especially interested in those instances where the official, published document departs from private thought: for instance, where journalists such as Ruth Kennell, Milly Bennett, and Anna Louise Strong straddle the line between firm conviction and party-line propaganda.
Mickenberg’s text is one of the most readable academic works in recent memory, and includes no shortage of juicy gossip. Her research spans the chaotic lives of fearless writers, activists, dancers, playwrights, and photographers who were drawn to a country in the midst of its own creation. As Josephine Herbst wrote: “Who of us had not dreamed of freedom, limpid affections, intensity above all, passionate friendships…” Their idealism echoes the strivings of millennials, the modern-day precariat.
Combined, these two books become an essential window into a past repressed by McCarthyism. Until recently, whatever strides the U.S.S.R. made in engineering, feminism, and anti-racism were overshadowed by its Stalinist past. By breaking the taboo, books such as these, which describe the U.S.S.R. with more care and ambiguity, can help orient our own fraught moment towards a more courageous future.
JULIA ALEKSEYEVA is the author-illustrator of the graphic novel Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution. She teaches Cinema Studies in Brooklyn, where she lives.