The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Light Summer Reading

July 21, 2021

Ah, those days when you did not feel guilty for reading something that does not contain the term “poststructuralism” and/or footnotes. Back in my teenage years, I used to devour all the books I could get during the summer. I had some favorites: Alexandre Duma’s The Count of Monte-Christo (1844-1846) and The Valley of the Moon (1913) by Jack London. If the Monte Christo long-drawn out revenge plot is a great motivational read for staying in academia, The Valley of the Moon was a type of a comfort read with its slow-paced love story/farming manual features. 

Following Paul Musgrave’s maxim of not enjoying anything without analyzing it to death, I recently thought about my childhood favorites. I am not going to delve too much into Monte-Christo – some PTSD, a bit of Orientalism, a touch of slavery, but in all enough adventure, romance and historical tidbits to captivate a young mind. However, after remembering some passages from the Valley of the Moon, I was much less amused. Here is one, right from the first chapter, where the main heroine named Saxon (yeah, kind of a red flag right there) explains the origin of her name to her future husband (spoiler alert):

The Saxons were such a people – she told me everything about them when I was little. They were wild, like the Indians, only white. They had blue eyes and blond hair and were terribly warlike […] They lived in England. These were the first Englishmen, and you know that the Americans descended from the British. We are all Saxons – you, me, Mary, Bert. In a word, everyone, if only he is a real American, and not some Dago [sic] or Japanese.

Yep, one of my favorite childhood heroines turned out to be a white supremacist. It’s possible that Jack London was unaware of the racist origins behind the term “Anglo-Saxon” but the quote above from the heroine lovingly modelled on the author’s second wife, is not exactly a rejection Kantian hierarchies. 

You might wonder why this book was published during the Soviet era, but the preface explains it rather well: before Saxon and Bill went back to their farming roots in search for their Moon Valley, they were both embroiled in the economic crisis and worker strikes that was deemed socialist-friendly enough to be translated for the Russian audience. The editor’s note did criticise Jack London for not following through with exposing the capitalist evils throughout the entire book but was totally cool with the racist stuff – the “d***” slur was explained in the footnote as “This is what the Italians, Spaniards, and Portuguese are called in America”. 

After that I started thinking what other writers about America have made it into the Soviet cannon and how they have shaped the understanding of inter-racial relations in the US for the Russian-speaking audience. Captain Mayne Reid was one of them: along with Finnimore Cooper, he delighted the Soviet audience with the tales about the supposedly primitive American indigenous population. While some critics pointed out that he described several of the everyday aspects of American native population somewhat faithfully, Mayne Reid did not shy away from describing the Navajo nation (whom he never actually met during his travels) as bloodthirsty savages in The Scalp Hunters: A Romance of the Plain (1851) – no plot connection to the 1968 movie, by the way. 

Who else? Theodore Dreiser, who visited the Soviet Union and joined the Communist Party in 1945, was a big name in Soviet American cannon and one of his quotes (from the Financier, 1912) was circulating on the Russian Internet during the Black Lives Matter protests last year:

Blacks, of course, are not worth all this excitement, but the agitation in their favor will continue.

This was not Dreiser’s opinion, of course, but taken out of context of the novel it offered the veneer of respectability and intellectualism for those in Russia worrying about the integrity of Louis Vuitton boutiques last year instead of policy brutality. For crying out loud, Tatyana Tolstaya, a celebrated Russian writer who spent quite a bit of time in the US herself, expressed her indignation at casting Black actors in “Bridgerton” “as though they were all Othello’s descendants” and blamed BLM for this as well. Too bad she only watched the first 15 minutes of it and Othello seems her only black literary reference.

Incidentally, Jack London’s Saxon seemed to be sort of ok with Black people, collectively being proud of her ancestors “liberating” them and occasionally singing spirituals, but Russian translations did not convey the difference between American English and AAVE so it’s hard to say for me whether she even had any Black friends (chances are very slim though…). This translation omission was extremely common across the board, so that’s why up until recently I had no idea that Uncle Remus was a Black enslaved person, for instance. 

All these scattered reflections above are just my attempt at understanding why there is so much animosity towards the BLM movement within Russia and the Russian diaspora. A lot of us read those books and stories that created a certain image of the United States and the people who live there. While many distrusted the Soviet propaganda which was remarkably faithful in its description of Jim Crow and McCarthyism, there was no reason to doubt the literary giants who have made it to your hard-fought library. It’s especially hard to reconcile all of that Soviet anti-colonial rhetoric and “Freedom for Angela Davis” demonstrations with the current very much colonial attitudes. 

In the meantime, I will go back to Edmond Dantès and try to forget that Josée Dayan had the nerve to cast Gérard Depardieu as the title character in the TV adaption of The Count of Monte Christo. Here’s an idea! They should re-do it with Rege-Jean Page! Just to assuage possible Tatyana Tolstaya’s concerns: it’s ok, Alexandre Dumas was part black.

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Elizaveta Gaufman is Assistant Professor of Russian Discourse and Politics at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. She is the author of "Security Threats and Public Perception: Digital Russia and the Ukraine Crisis"