Module #2

Ira Aldridge 
Ira Aldridge 
(1805?-1867) 
 
Readings 
1) "Black Immigrants/ Black Visitors to Russia" 
2) "Russia and the Slavery Question" 

Assignments

RUS 493
"African-American Literary Ties to
Russian Intellectual Thought"
URL: syllabus.htm
 
"Black Immigrants/ Black Visitors to Russia"

The practice of bringing blacks to work as servants began to wane as the 19th century progressed. This was probably influenced by Russia’s early opposition to the African slave trade and by changes in attitude that came with the emancipation of Russia’s serfs in the 1860s. As this practice waned, blacks continued to come to Russia after the middle of the 19th c. to improve their lot. In some cases they made a start as servants, while there are also reported cases of Russians who brought Africans back to Russia with them and later adopted them. For the most part, black immigrants to Russia came from the Americas. These immigrants worked not only in the major cities, but in more remote areas as well. While information on this immigration pattern is sketchy, two examples show patterns common to this group -- finding success in the entertainment industry and in professional athletics: 

George Thomas, an American black, moved to St. Petersburg in 1890. He later adopted the Russian name Fyodor. He was initially employed as a valet, but managed to amass a small fortune by engaging in various amusement enterprises throughout Russia. By the time of the First World War, he owned a large amusement complex in Moscow called the Aquarium. When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, Thomas fled to Constantinople because his wealth made him a target for the new regime. 
 
The famous jockey Jimmy Winkfield was another successful black immigrant. He had won two Kentucky Derbies before moving to Russia to ride for wealthy noblemen. He married a Russian noblewoman and they had one son. At the height of his career in 1916, he reportedly earned $100,000 a year. He fled Russia in 1919 with the start of the Russian Civil War. Jimmy Winkfield
 
Notable Visitors 

In studying how Russians perceived blacks and how Russian blacks perceived others, it is as useful to look at how black visitors perceived Russian attitudes. Take for example the great Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge (1805?-1867), who was forced by racism to leave America and make his reputation in Europe. He assumed British citizenship in 1863. He first visited Russia in 1858 at the height of his career and won wide acclaim from the Russian critical press. He was made an honorary member of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. At his time, the Russian public was debating the merits of the emancipation of the serfs. Aldridge was cited by some as an example of the level of achievement which the enslaved masses might attain if liberated. Aldridge returned to England in 1858 for two years, then went back to Russia. From 1861 to 1866 he made several tours through the European provinces, often introducing Russian audiences to Shakespeare’s tragedies for the first time. 

During this period, Russian audiences became quite accustomed to black performers. The Fisk Jubilee singers visited Russia toward the end of the century; and in 1902 Olga Burgoyne performed there, remaining in Russia to study acting in St. Petersburg. 

T. Morris Chester was another prominent American who visited Russia. He toured Europe to raise funds for the Garnet League, a freedman’s aid society in which he was a leader. From 1866 to 1868, Chester visited England and France, Holland, Belgium, some of the German states, Denmark, Sweden, and Russia. Among the rulers who showed Chester special hospitality was Tsar Alexander II. During his visits, Chester gave public addresses that were reprinted in major newspapers and made pleas for funds for the newly emerging Negro colleges that were being founded in the United States. It is significant that visitors like Chester were well received even in this climate of conservatism in Russia. 

Blacks in the US shaped their conceptions of Russia precisely through accounts by prominent individuals like Chester. While Nancy Prince had spent a longer time in Russia, her diary was little known. Chester, however, published in the Philadelphia Press and worked with such well-known figures as Frederick Douglas and, later, received high state and federal appointments. 
Jack Johnson In such contexts the notion that Russia was a place of equal opportunity spread especially in the American black community. This is how such immigrants as George Thomas and Jimmy Winkfield came to settle on Russia as a destination. Some moved permanently, others, like the boxing champion Jack Johnson (Arthur John Johnson, 1878-1946)  came for shorter periods.
 
The visitor who left the most detailed analysis of conditions in Russia was another American black intellectual: Richard T. Greener, who served as the American commercial agent at Vladivostok from 1898 to 1905. A Harvard graduate, lawyer and a Republican politician, Greener sent many valuable reports to Washington regarding the economic potential of Siberia. Greener was struck by the diversity of Russian society reflected by the great variety of cultures represented in Vladivostok. 

Not all black visitors to Russia were Americans, as many Africans also traveled there in connection with cultural and economic ties between Russia and certain African countries. The most accessible account comes from one Salim bin Abakari, who traveled as a servant accompanying his German employer. A native of Zanzibar, Abakari recorded their trip through St. Petersburg and Moscow, the middle Volga region and Siberia, then back through Central Asia and the northern Caucasus. His impressions, as relayed back to African communities, also shaped their impressions of Russian responses to blacks. 
 

Russia and Slavery Question

As already mentioned, Russia was largely uninvolved with the African slave trade as compared to her European neighbors. Europe’s slave trade, for one thing, largely served to man the work force in the New World colonies. Russia’s holdings, while vast in the Americas, were largely unexplored and undeveloped and too far north to lend themselves to a plantation economy. Second, there was no demand in Russia for an outside supply of labor. It is worth noting that as late as the 17th c. slaves may have constituted the second largest segment of the population in Russia, a rare but major example in modern times of people enslaving their own. Peter the Great's reforms of Russian society abolished slavery by removing distinctions between it and serfdom. The African slave trade, therefore, was not of great importance to Russia, and its government chose to speak out strongly against slavery. The public, as well, voiced strong opinions about black slavery. One such writing called American slavery barbarous, however, cautioned the Russian nobility to take care in decrying American slavery, for if, it said, "one only changed the names, this same tale would speak of you." Alexander Pushkin was among those who condemned black slavery. This was an attitude that prevailed not only in the most liberal of circles, but among the Conservative Slavophiles as well. In the general population, black slavery was condemned even among those who supported the continuation of serfdom. (Serfs were emancipated in the 1860's.) 

The Russian public also had more comprehensive accounts of American society detailing the role of blacks. In the late 19 th c. Russian scholars showed a special interest in the American black population; information gathered about slavery in the US was often used to draw parallels between black slavery and Russian serfdom. Notably absent in the entire history of Russia’s relationship with Black Africa was any type of racist ideology such as developed in the other major European states as partial justification for enslavement and colonial subjugation of the African people. 

Distinguished Russians who spoke out against black slavery: 

  • Alexander Radishchev,1790, wrote in Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow about the black American slaves: "Should we call this despoiled land blessed just because her fields are not overgrown with thorns ... where a hundred proud citizens roll in luxury, while thousands lack secure substance?" He also cautioned the Russian serf-owning nobility, saying: "Tremble my beloved ones, lest it be said of you: "change the name, and the tales speaks of you."
  • In the early 19 th century, Alexander Pushkin condemned black slavery. In a letter to a friend in 1824 he said, regarding the current Greek independence struggle: "It is permissible to judge the Greek question like that of my Negro brethren, desiring for both the deliverance from an intolerable slavery." He later wrote that in the US "All that is noble, unselfish everything elevating the human spirit is suppressed by implacable egotism and the striving for comfort; the majority, an outrageously repressed society; Negro slavery amidst culture and freedom; genealogical persecutions in a nation without a nobility;"
  • Nikolai Turgenev, an escaped Decembrist thinker who was living abroad, wrote about the comparison of black slavery to Russian serfdom, scoffing at Alexander Is strong stand against slavery: "How can we understand the great men of the world? A Russian autocrat plays the role of advocate of some thousands of Negro slaves before an all-European Congress, while he could by his sovereign word alone decide the same cause in favor of many millions of his own subjects!"
  • In the 1850's, Alexander Herzen, a better-known exile, most pointedly continued the abolitionist argument against the American and Russian institutions: "At the moment when all England was displaying profound active sympathy for the slaves in the Southern states of North America, incited thereto by the great work of Mrs. Beecher Stowe, no one seemed to remember that nearer to England, across the Baltic, is an entire population not of 3,000,000 but of 20,000,000!"
  • In the early 1860's Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the radical publicist who helped ignite the late 19th century revolutionary movement, used the issue of black slavery to make indirect statements about serfdom. In 1858, Sovremennik included sections of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as free appendices to two of its issues.
  • Eduard Tsimmerman, a traveler to the US in 1857-58 and in 1869-70 (before and after the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves) published his observations in serial form, in Russkii Vestnik and Russkaia Letopis, and later in book form [The United States of North America. Moscow: Grachev and Co. 1873] in which he pointed out the similarities between Russian serfdom and American slavery.