Stephen S. Lee’s The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution maps the intersection between ethnic American artists and the Soviet vanguard during the 1920s and 1930s. During these years, Lee argues, a variety of ethnic American artists made a “magic pilgrimage” to the USSR, seeing in the Soviet revolution an ally in the struggle against racial discrimination at home. On the other side of the Atlantic, in the early years of the revolutionary period, the Comintern began to reconsider the temporality of world revolution, often through recourse to a seemingly premodern ethnic “other” in Asia and Africa. As Lee shows, this turn to Asia and Africa was not merely a variant of primitivism, but an attempt, well before the Stalinist purges of the Cold War era, to theorize what we now know as “cultural pluralism” and to put it into practice through Soviet nationalist policy. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, Lee’s work is notable for the author’s fluency in both Slavic and Anglophone literatures. This range is particularly stunning in the use of previously unknown archival materials, translated by Lee, that will shift our understanding of both fields in the years to come.
Citing recent calls for transnational scholarship, The Ethnic Avant-Garde charts the material collaboration between Americans and Soviets, moving from familiar figures (Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Vladimir Mayakovsky) to lesser-known artists, including Herbert Biberman, Nikolai Marr, and Sergei Tret’iakov. As Lee notes, the book adds to a growing field of scholarship on the “black-red thread” and comparative racialization more generally, including Kate Baldwin’s Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain (2002), Bill V. Mullen’s Afro-Orientalism (2004), and Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist (2015), amongst others. However, The Ethnic Avant-Garde is not really a study of the influence of X on Y, or even an archival history of transatlantic collaboration. Rather, Lee builds on and extends this earlier, foundational scholarship to locate an anti-stagist formulation of world revolution and the avant-garde. Through readings of Walter Benjamin, Peter Osborne, [End Page 193] Vladimir Lenin, and others, Lee pushes back against more traditional understandings of Hegelian or Marxist historical development, reframing both “world revolution” and the “avant-garde” as part of “a variegated temporality that encompasses past as well as future” (6). In its most utopian strands, this perspective opens up space to imagine other histories, thus bypassing more well-trod “rise and fall” retrospectives of the Bolshevik revolution.
In Lee’s introduction, the relationship between avant-garde artists and the political vanguard emerges in an analogy to Vladimir Tatlin’s spiral tower, the Monument to the Third International, a sketch of which also adorns the book’s cover. According to Tatlin’s drafts, the tower’s spirals represent the intertwined arcs of world revolution and avant-garde art, made from the “primitive materials” of steel and glass, but signaling a future socialist utopia (9). In Lee’s reading, Tatlin’s Tower serves as a figure for the conceptual organization of the book as a whole in that each strand, art and revolution, past and future, will become “related but not bound, encircling but not touching” (12).
This architectural structure unfolds across four chapters, the first of which begins with Tatlin’s tower as both a Tower of Babel and a pathway between numerous cross-cultural encounters: Mayakovsky’s Afro-Futurist poems from his Cuban period; Hughes’s translations of Mayakovsky; Hughes’s travels through Uzbekistan; and Sergei Eisenstein’s unfinished Mexican film. Weaving these threads together with recent theories of translation, Lee argues that Mayakovsky creates a model of minority writing as another sort of Tower of Babel, transcending linguistic distinctions, while Hughes’s translations reveal the shortcomings of this universalizing model.
The next two chapters locate a different way of accounting for cultural difference through the futurist concept of “factography.” Widespread in certain Soviet artistic circles in the late 1920s, factography offered a way of bringing life into art through documentary...