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Of the many images that define the cultural Cold War between the East and the West, Duke Ellington's 1971 tour of the Soviet Union summarized, for many, central differences between the two systems: a freewheeling African American jazz performer from a diverse country that celebrated artistic freedom and a monolithic totalitarian state that was culturally and racially uniform. This trope performed repeatedly throughout my own cultural education in the US, from Rocky IV's mechanical Ivan Drago pummeling the vibrant and garrulous Apollo Creed (with James Brown as Creed's fight anthem) to more literary invocations of a stodgy, backward-looking Communist Party in E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel and the humorless, unsexed KGB agent in Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Steven S. Lee's The Ethnic Avant-Garde shatters much of this cultural common sense by offering a window into the early years of the Soviet Union's radical avant-garde culture. Not only does Lee suggest the Soviet avant-garde celebrated and perhaps even created the first global multicultural movement but he also articulates a far more unsettling premise: that the Soviet "ethnic avant-garde" had a significant impact on the development of radical multiethnic culture in the United States.
Lee opens the book with a reading of Vladimir Tatlin's 1920 Monument to the Third International. Nicknamed "Tatlin's Tower," this never-built monument to "world revolution and global modernism"—with its spiraling, interlocking curves and constructivist iron spikes—was to be a vision of the Comintern, a machine for making global revolution (6). Each region of the world was represented by a spinning globe tied to a rotating cylinder, suggesting a diverse yet coordinated movement of the world's peoples. Although they never quite coalesced into a single shape, they nonetheless spun along a common axis, suggesting both difference and unity in much the same way that its two constituent spirals chased each other but never touched, creating—rather than perfect symmetry—an asymmetrical, dialectical motion. Most compelling for Lee, however, is way the monument suggests a constructivist, revolutionary future even as it evokes "the Great Mosque of Samarra" in present-day Iraq and a "reworking of ancient Assyria's Sargon Pyramid" (9). These two visions—at once futuristic and ancient, modernist and primitivist—form a unique matrix of the revolutionary avant-garde in the pre-Stalinist Soviet Union. The tower thus evokes the Soviet Union's own dialectic vision of itself: a new society that is at once economically backward and at the forefront of world revolution, European and Asian, unified [End Page 575] by a new socialist state and yet a multicultural conglomerate of semiautonomous republics.
Lee narrates this vision by focusing primarily on the twin transnational travels of Vladimir Mayakovsky to Latin America and Langston Hughes to Soviet Central Asia. Mayakovsky celebrates the postrevolutionary mestizo Mexican culture and romantically imagines the Aztecs as revolutionaries who would have joined the Soviets in their collective anti-imperialist struggle. Lee correctly points out that Mayakovsky's readings of Mexican culture drip with a kind of modernist primitivism, but Lee is also careful to distinguish Mayakovsky's writings from Orientalism, noting their commitment to antiracist and anti-imperialist politics. In addition to excoriating racist US tourists in Mexico, there are surprising moments of ironic self-awareness in Mayakovsky's Mexico poems in which the speaker greets his indigenous brother-in-arms only to be flatly informed that the "gringos" killed all the indigenous inhabitants of the area (58).
Hughes, like Mayakovsky, perceives Central Asia as both in the vanguard of the global revolution and as an artifact of the exotic pre-modern past, teeming with mysterious religious and ethnic cultural practices. While one could read this as simply a variation of Stalin's famous dictum, "national in form, socialist in content," this dialectic of racialized, romantic anti-imperialism is a far richer contradictory project than simply printing Soviet decrees in local and indigenous languages. It is a vision of revolutionary racial politics that places W...