In January of 2023, I received an Award for Faculty from the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete my monograph, America’s Russia: The Bolshevik Revolution, Eurasianism, and the Race of Radicalism, 1886-1924. This book project is a study of the durable cultural effects that cohered in the US through its relationship with the nascent Soviet Union at the intersections of racial formation and radical politics. Specifically, this project examines the linkages between, among, and within entangled aspects of difference, such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, through the prism of the Bolshevik Revolution as represented within the periodical press.

During the US presidential election of 2016, the recurring “Russia question” blunderbussed its way back to the center of American political debate, inaugurating the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution with rumors of influence profound enough to make former KGB agents blush with pride. Five years later, the Biden Administration announced that Russia and China were the greatest threats facing the American-led world order and outlined a policy of “strategic competition” with which to challenge and contain them. All of this, of course, occurred well before Russian President Vladmir Putin launched an unprovoked assault on Ukraine, with China his most formidable and vocal ally. Ever since, pundits as disparate as conservative NYTimes commentator Ross Douthat and the editorial board of socialist magazine Jacobin have been dusting off Samuel Huntington’s famous “Clash of Civilizations” thesis and wondering aloud if a new and potentially even more volatile Cold War once again descends upon the world.

While China has long been represented as a relatively fixed sociopolitical antipode to the West, Russia’s distinctive “otherness” from both Europe and the US has been an enduring, reciprocal, and mutable conundrum for presidents, palaces, and parliaments well before the Cold War hardened such long-running ideological convictions into the familiar model of “Three Worlds.” Yet, while a vast archive of incisive scholarship about Russia’s relations via-a-vis the West already exists, most histories and analyses of this relationship tend to avoid more than a cursory discussion of the racializing logics underpinning this certainty of difference (if they engage the topic at all). My book project, America’s Russia: The Bolshevik Revolution, Eurasianism, and the Race of Radicalism, argues that these mercurial links between Russia, the West, and Asia underscore a largely hidden cultural history of the twentieth century at the intersections of racial formations and radical political programs. I hope to illuminate at least part of this critical absence by centering the emergence and subsequent discursive mobilization of Eurasianist ideologies within Russian-American cultural and political relations from the late-nineteenth century to the early Bolshevik period. I will outline the prehistories of Eurasian philosophy, its ideological uses within Russia, and, just as importantly, explain how this set of ideas was reworked and repurposed in the US in ways that contoured not only its relations with Moscow but also had vast consequences for American movements concerned with economic justice and racial equality. Obscured in part by the disciplinary demands of Cold War historiography following World War II, wherein an academic “red taboo” often created profound challenges for American historians attempting to study the intricate nuances of US and European radical history, I argue that this earlier cultural relationship between the nascent Soviet Union and the United States offers explanatory power for our current global conjuncture, wherein nativism, anti-immigrant sentiment, more confrontational movements for racial and social justice, and fears of Russian influence (some, of course, well-founded) have again returned to the fore.

At the center of this ideological history between Russia and the US is the usefully malleable philosophy of Eurasianism. Emerging in the early 1920s and primarily conceived by non-radical Russians who fled their homelands in the wake of the Bolshevik ascent to power, Eurasianism is most of all an attempt to explain what its adherents saw as Russia’s singular place in the world due to its social, cultural, and racial position at the interstices between Europe and Asia. As French scholar Marlène Laruelle explains, the movement was “born in the context of a crisis” that “continued the Russian intelligentsia’s long tradition of thinking about Russian otherness and its relationship to Europe.” Combining nineteenth-century Slavophilia—a Russian intellectual program that believed the country should develop according to its own culture and history rather than simply try to mimic the modernizing West—with the fundamental rupture provided by the Bolshevik Revolution (which most Eurasianists admired for its ambition and millenarianism, if not exactly its political program), Eurasianism emerged as a usefully fluid “theory of nation and ethnos” conjoined with “an assertion of the cultural unity and common historical destiny of Russians and non-Russian peoples of Russia… and parts of Asia” that resulted in “a set of expansionist geopolitical principles for Russia, and much else.”  

However, a sense of the “Eurasianness” of Russia existed well before Eurasianism—and was often foisted upon Russia externally by other Western actors. Consequently, one central focus of America’s Russia is the significant but largely forgotten history of the racialization of Russians themselves. Perhaps surprising for contemporary readers, for much of modern European history the precise “race” of Russians provided a profound challenge to emerging Western racial codes, and not only for Russophobes. As Trotsky himself argued, “Russia stood not only geographically, but also socially and historically, between Europe and Asia. She was marked off by the European West, but also from the Asiatic East, approaching at different periods and in different features now one, now the other.” If Russia during the nineteenth century was a country slowly en route to Western racial and political inclusion, managing to be seen, in the words of George Lichtheim, as an “East European country which happened to extend into Asia,” after Red October it was again “an Asiatic country which extended ominously into Europe.” This liminal racial space “between Europe and Asia”—what historian Larry Wolff has called the region’s “demi-Orientalism”—allowed the variability of Russia’s “race” to be deployed in the service of both antiradicalism and racial nativism at once. America’s Russia is particularly focused on the ways in which the circulation of Eurasianism was received and repurposed in the US by artists, writers, and activists from all over the political spectrum—centrists, radicals, conservatives—to putatively strengthen their own agenda by combining political analyses with racial protocols, whether in the service of promoting progressive causes or circumscribing them altogether. 

The primary method for this book is best understood through the phrase “print culture,” a historicist approach located across cultural and literary studies. Through this methodology, scholars consider the production, reception, circulation, and other material conditions of a text alongside its constituent features, such as plot, genre, form, and character. Print culture studies is a hybrid methodology and field of analysis, one that often draws upon periodical studies, history of the book, literary studies, American studies, history, economics, sociology, material culture, et al. Interdisciplinary by design, most scholars working in print culture have displaced the traditional privileging of single-author works for more sociological and materialist accounts of aesthetics and textuality, which will be further demonstrated in the chapter breakdown below.

The broad historical and transnational scope of this project will be organized within three sections, each divided into two chapters. The first section synthesizes secondary materials from a variety of disciplines to provide an outline of Russia’s place and race vis-à-vis Europe before the Russian Revolution, which will be mapped more granularly at various national and historical levels. Chapter one details the intellectual prehistories and emergence of Eurasianism within Russia but also places this philosophy within the European intellectual tradition and details how this movement was, in part, developed “under Western eyes,” a reappropriation of racial formations already assigned to Russia by various interlocutors within Europe. Chapter two examines the arc of Russian-American relations primarily during the nineteenth century wherein both nations were linked by an aligned sense of remove from what they saw as stultified land-poor European nations that would soon be no match for the behemoths rising to their Easts and Wests. To outline this relationship, I analyze some of the travel writing from a vast and nationally disparate set of authors that found striking similarities between the two countries. To use one representative example, in 1832, Alexis de Toqueville ended the first volume of Democracy in America with a comparison that eerily predicted the contours of the Cold War more than a century before the end of World War II: “There are today two great peoples on earth, who, though they started from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans….Their points of departure are different, their ways diverse. Yet each seems called by a secret design of Providence someday to sway the destinies of half the globe.”

The second section takes leave almost entirely from non-Russian Europe to focus on the transformation of official relations between Russia and the US in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. Chapter three engages vast amounts of print materials—articles, editorials, serialized fiction, and even advertisements—published in the Saturday Evening Post, the most popular magazine in US history, between 1915 and 1924. I catalog the symbolic transformation of the radical immigrant from a hodgepodge of mostly German, Jewish, and Italian radicals, union members, and sympathetic members of the bourgeoisie into a violent and uncompromisingly “Oriental” Bolshevik movement manipulating vast swathes of the US working classes. As Lisa Lowe argues, the American imaginary of “Asia” has “always been a complex site on which the manifold anxieties of the U.S. nation-state has been figured.” An Orientalized Bolshevik Russia provided a rich locus for these anxieties to manifest as an unbridgeable oppositional distinction. Or as one particularly reactionary Post editorial from 1920 argued: the “average American” can “…see the negro problem; but they cannot grasp the Russian problem” though “sooner or later everyone must line up on one side or the other and take an active part in deciding whether this country shall remain America or become Russia.”

Chapter four examines two popular socialist American writers to show how their own politics, even if in firm contradistinction to the center-right middlebrow positions of the Post, were nonetheless infused with a racism that couldn’t help but tarnish the supposed internationalism of their programs. I begin by comparing Jack London’s ethnographic reportage alongside the only story he ever willfully left unfinished: His 1916 novel about a violent Russian revolutionary, The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. As one of the most popular and outspoken socialists of his time, this chapter first argues that London’s abandonment of the text arose from his contradictory vision of socialism as both liberatory and a white racial project—therefore incompatible with both the “exotic” Asian societies he encountered in his travels and his novel’s “Orientalized” Russian protagonist. Next, I examine at John Reed’s shockingly antisemitic and Orientalizing portrayals of the “Asiatic” Jews he came across while covering World War I in Eastern Europe. I then read this work against his famous treatment of the Russian Revolution to show how the fingerprints of his antisemitism persisted in Petrograd. And finally, I survey his wife Louise Bryant’s concomitant revolutionary reportage for the International News Service, which interrogates and condemns many of the masculinist aspects of various radical movements (including that of her husband). Section three begins more optimistically: I examine the myriad ways that American and US-based writers of various races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and creeds recognized, critiqued, and reworked this conflation between race and politics in the service of liberation, decolonization, women’s rights, and economic justice under the lodestar of an avowedly egalitarian Soviet Russia. Regardless (and sometimes willfully naïve) of the realities of life in Soviet Russia, Moscow’s stated anticapitalism, antiracism, and antisexism provided a trinity of imbricated inspiration for writers and activists all over the US. Chapter five examines the works of immigrant Jewish and Asian writers in the US to outline the “Orientalized” links between antisemitism and Asian exclusion. By comparatively examining the various ways in which writers such as Abraham Cahan, Rose Pastor Stokes, Sen Katayama, and M. N. Roy understood their various marginalizations in the US, we can better apprehend how their differential experiences influenced their respective politics as well as their relationships with Russia. Finally, chapter six maps and analyzes the transnational circuits of Black activists in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Through magazines like the Messenger, the Crisis, and the Crusader, I trace the ways writers such as queer Black radical Claude McKay used the periodical form to rework, refute, and circulate political concepts after the Bolshevik ascent to power. This chapter also details how Black women activists in particular, such as Grace Campbell, Louise Thompson Patterson, and Claudia Jones, were inspired by Red Russia while also recognizing some of its programmatic limits at the confluence between race and gender, leading them to demand instead an intersectional approach (well before the coining of the term) in the service of equal freedoms for all.

In 2018, a Wall Street Journal editorial tried to explain Vladimir Putin’s latest machinations with the headline “Russia’s Turn to Its Asian Past,” complete with an illustration of the Russian president on horseback and clad in Mongol battle attire. While this project is not at all an attempt to exculpate Putin’s blood-soaked and cynical kleptocracy nor excuse Bolshevik crimes, it is an attempt at increasing the understanding of a much longer and recondite ideological relationship between Russia and the West. While the first hot war for decades rages across European soil and Russia’s nuclear arsenal is once again on high alert as if the Berlin Wall was still standing, America’s Russia will help elucidate why Russia continues to “color” America’s political imagination at the intersections of race and radical politics today.