History Professor Publishes Article in Journal of Russian-American Studies

Meredith Roman in the Department of History published a peer-reviewed article titled “Soul to Soul: Americans’ Discovery of Yelena Khanga and the Promise of Russian-American Relations” in the May 2022 edition of the Journal of Russian-American Studies.

In this article, Roman explores how in November 1987, Yelena Khanga, a Black Russian descendant of the interwar African American migration to the Soviet Union, first arrived in the United States as part of a three-month journalist exchange program between the Moscow News and the Christian Science Monitor. On this and subsequent visits to the United States, Khanga garnered significant attention among American audiences who were excited to discover her existence as a Black Russian with U.S. ancestry. After receiving a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in 1990 to research her family’s history, Khanga wrote Soul to Soul with U.S. journalist Susan Jacoby about her family, life growing up in the Soviet Union, and her experiences navigating U.S. society as a Black Russian woman.

Roman’s essay marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Khanga’s 1992 memoir by exploring how her life story challenged Americans to complicate their perceptions of life in the U.S.S.R. and confront an important history of African Americans’ engagement with the Soviet experiment. Analysis of U.S. press coverage of Khanga in conjunction with Soul to Soul reveals that discussions of racism remained central to the late Cold War competition for moral superiority and the nascent Russian-U.S. rivalry that replaced it. Khanga used Soul to Soul to reclaim ownership of the representations of her life from the U.S. press and challenge hegemonic U.S. (mis)understandings of the Soviet Union that inhibited closer relations between the two countries that her own existence proved possible. The world that Khanga envisioned through her writing recognized the “connected differences” between Russia and the United States as the basis for greater cooperation, solidarity, and respect.

[1] Khanga is the granddaughter of Bertha Bialek, a Polish-born, Jewish-American labor activist and Oliver Golden, an African American communist who led a team of Black agricultural specialists to the U.S.S.R. in 1931 to help develop the cotton industry in Uzbekistan. Khanga’s mother, Lily Golden (b. 1934) married Abdullah Khanga, a revolutionary leader from Zanzibar who was studying in Moscow in the early 1960s.

[2] Yelena Khanga with Susan Jacoby, Soul to Soul: A Black Russian American Family 1865-1992 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992). Jacoby worked as a freelance writer in the Soviet Union between 1969 and 1971. She authored two books Moscow Conversations (Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, 1972) and Inside Soviet Schools (Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1974) based on her experiences there.

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Meredith Roman: mroman@brockport.edu

Posted: May 09, 2022