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Cold War, 1950s-1970s

Matutis, Anzel’mas. Negritenok Dzhon [Negro Boy John]. Vilnius: Gosudarstvennoe izdatelstvo khudozhestvennoi literatury litovskoi SSR, 1951.

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Matutis, Anzel’mas. Negritenok Dzhon [Negro Boy John], 1951, front cover

This children’s book by Anzel’mas Matutis is a translation from Lithuanian and serves as a poignant example of Soviet propaganda, specifically addressing racial equality and promoting communist ideals. It tells the story of an African American boy named John York. The poems, all imbued with anti-capitalist and communist rhetoric, depict his challenging life in the USA, marked by poverty, racial discrimination, and tragedy. The narrative takes a turn as John finds refuge in the USSR, highlighting the Soviet Union’s supposed utopia, where everyone is equal and treated as a friend.

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"John lives in the USSR, – In this country, where everyone is equal,

In this country, where everyone is friends."

The book encapsulates the broader theme prevalent in many Soviet children’s books, aiming to instill anti-capitalist sentiments and showcase the USSR as a utopian alternative. Additionally, the historical context is touched upon, noting the influx of African Americans to the USSR during the 1930s industrialization, driven by a desire for a better life and escape from social inequality in the United States. While initially treated with suspicion during Stalin’s era, attitudes shifted in the 1960s, particularly with the arrival of African students.

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Matutis, Anzel’mas. Negritenok Dzhon [Negro Boy John], 1951. 

"John's a model student. Look at his report card! [...]

He loves to read books He wants to know everything in the world!"

Langston Hughes (1902-1967). Negritianskie rasskazy [Stories about Negroes]. Commentary by S. A. Kreines and S. S. Tolstoi. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo literatury na inostrannykh iazykakh, 1951.


Negritianskie rasskazy [Stories about Negroes], 1951, pedagogical material, front cover

This book, intended for Russian speakers learning English, contains five stories from Hughes’ books Not without Laughter and The Ways of White Folk. The commentators highlight the influence of Soviet writers like Maksim Gorky and Vladimir Mayakovsky on Hughes and provide a brief overview of the themes in Hughes’ work, but most of the commentary focuses on English grammar, especially the use of different verbal tenses. A vocabulary list with translations for selected words from the stories completes the volume.

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"Dictionary" for translated words from English to Russian

Anna Kardashova (1908
–2004). Mal’chik Rob [Boy Rob]. Moscow: Detgiz, 1952.

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Mal’chik Rob [Boy Rob], 1952, front cover

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Mal’chik Rob [Boy Rob], 1952, back cover

Anna Kardashova was a Russian author of more than forty children’s books.

This children’s book on Black people's hardships in the United States was reprinted several times in different languages of the Soviet Union. It tells the story of Little Rob who lives with his family in a tiny shack in the middle of a big American city. In an environment of hardship, stern police officers oversee the workers. Rob and his mother experience various kinds of discrimination such as being forced by a rich white couple to leave their seats at the back of the bus and to ride on the open-top upper deck during a rainstorm.

Published in Stalin’s time, the book represents a period when the Soviet Union was actively engaged in propaganda on how life in the Soviet Union was equal for all races and nationalities. Mal’chik Rob continues a range of topical books on the matter. In 1951, Lithuanian author Anzel’mas Matutis published a translation of ‘Negro Boy John’ that also described the hardships of African Americans in the U.S. in stark contrast to the equal life they could lead in the Soviet Union.

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"In the bus". Rob and his mother are forced by a rich white couple to leave their seats at the back of the bus and to ride on the open-top upper deck during a rainstorm.

Meri Bekker (1920-2010). Progressivnaia negritianskaia literatura SShA [Progressive Negro Literature of the USA]. Leningrad: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1957.

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Progressivnaia negritianskaia literatura SShA [Progressive Negro Literature of the USA], 1957, front cover

Bekker describes her work as outlining the history of Black literature from 18th century onward and its connections to “the fundamental stages of the national liberation struggle” of Black Americans. The book begins with the American Revolution and the founding of the United States, focusing on the contrast between the freedom that independence granted White Americans while enforcing slavery for Black people. Bekker includes several quotes from Lenin, Marx, and Engels that explain how bourgeois interests perpetuated slavery. Throughout the book there are plates with photographs of several Black writers and some of their book covers. 

Boris Kornilov (1907-1938). Moia Afrika [My Africa]. Leningrad: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1963. 

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Moia Afrika [My Africa], 1963, front cover

First published in 1935, My Africa is a narrative poem that tells the story of a Black cavalry officer who fought and died for the Red Army’s revolutionary cause during the Russian Civil War. Recognizing the officer’s heroism in dying for Russia, the narrator decides to join the Red Army too, declaring that he will “die for my Africa.” In 1938, Kornilov was charged with participating in Trotskyist organizations and executed. This edition of My Africa was published after Kornilov’s rehabilitation in 1957. It is illustrated with red and black drawings by Sergei Spitsyn, an artist who illustrated over one hundred books.

James Patterson (b. 1933). Rossia. Afrika. Stikhi i poema [Russia. Africa. Verses and a Poem]. Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 1963.

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Rossia. Afrika. Stikhi i poema [Russia. Africa. Verses and a Poem], 1933, front cover

James Patterson was born in Moscow in 1933 to a Russian mother and a Black American father, who had gone to Russia in 1932 to participate in a film that was seeking Black actors. As a child, Patterson also appeared in cinema, in Grigorii Aleksandrov’s Circus. He then became a naval officer and poet. Russia. Africa was his first book of poetry, which he wrote as his diploma project at the Gorky Literature Institute. The book explores Patterson’s identity as Russian, African, and American. In one short poem, his grandmothers, personifications of Russia and Africa, sing over his crib. This copy of the book is inscribed by the author.

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Rossia. Afrika. Stikhi i poema [Russia. Africa. Verses and a Poem]. Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 1963.

Signed title page by the author.

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Translation “Bunt” [Riot]

Rossia. Afrika. Stikhi i poema [Russia. Africa. Verses and a Poem], 1963, pp. 66-67

Fury whipped out outside,

Like fire-breathing lava,

And, gradually narrowing pincers,

The roundup increased with the soulful flow.

Acute, burning smelly air

Whipped, Like a razor

Hey! Get ready!

Until it’s too late,

We’ll take the onset

We saw who seemed close,

Tribune, shot down, on the spot,

And how the auctioneer’s hammer

In the hands of the slave migrated

The whole evolution of the renewal

Accomplished in one jump,

beating the wrong way

The auction hammer.

James Patterson. Khronika levoi ruki [Chronicle of the Left Hand]. Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 1964.

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Khronika levoi ruki [Chronicle of the Left Hand], 1964, front cover

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Khronika levoi ruki [Chronicle of the Left Hand], 1964, title page

Chronicle of the Left Hand
is a memoir of the Patterson family told primarily from the perspective of James’ grandmother, Margaret Glascoe, whose reminiscences were initially translated into Russian and published in 1937. She recounts her family’s experiences with slavery, racism, and her son’s decision to move to Russia. Patterson also adds commentary between sections of his grandmother’s memoir, and he is the only author listed on the cover and title page, although a photograph of Glascoe with her young grandson on her lap is at the front of the book. The memoir comes to an end with Patterson strolling down Prospekt Mira (Avenue of Peace) in Moscow, contemplating what his life might have been like had he been born in the United States. The conclusion also presents a utopian vision wherein he envisions meeting civil rights leaders and left-wing activists.

Hayes, Raphael, and Orville Hampton. Raz kartoshka, dva kartoshka… Kinostsenarii [One potato, two potatoes... Screenplay]. Moscow, 1966.

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This book is the translated script of Larry Pierce’s film, “One Potato, Two Potato.” Set against a backdrop of racial tension in the United States, it portrays the challenges faced by a white divorced woman and an African-American man in navigating their love amidst societal prejudices. The woman’s former husband takes her to court, arguing against raising a child in a mixed-race family. As her new partner strives to defend his parental rights, he grapples with an antiquated justice system that clings to outdated practices.

Negritiianskaia poeziia SShA. 20 vek
[Negro Poetry of the USA. 20th Century]. Moscow: Khudozhestvenaia literatura, 1971.

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Negritiianskaia poeziia SShA. 20 vek [Negro Poetry of the USA. 20th Century], 1971, front cover

This collection includes poems by 28 Black American authors translated into Russian by a handful of translators. The book is arranged into two sections: interwar poetry and poetry “of our time.” Though focused on the 20th century, the book begins with a foreword by translator and bibliographer Inna Levidova that outlines the history of Black American literature and introduces the themes and styles of several of the poets featured in the volume. Langston Hughes, whose works span both sections of the book, has the most poems included, followed by Gwendolyn Brooks.

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Negritiianskaia poeziia SShA. 20 vek [Negro Poetry of the USA. 20th Century], 1971, 180-181

Democracy never sees us,

Not tomorrow, not in a couple of years,

if by humiliation

we want to achieve freedom [...]

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"Silent Voices of Harlem"

Negritiianskaia poeziia SShA. 20 vek [Negro Poetry of the USA. 20th Century], 1971, 145

James Baldwin. Vyidi iz pustyni: rasskazy i publitsistika [Come out of the Wilderness: Stories and Essays]. Moscow: Molodaia gvardiia, 1974.

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Vyidi iz pustyni: rasskazy i publitsistika [Come out of the Wilderness: Stories and Essays] by James Baldwin, 1974, front cover 

Rostislav Rybkin compiled this collection, which includes his translation of “Sonny’s Blues” along with stories and essays translated by five other translators. The volume begins with an introduction to Baldwin’s life and work by V. Bolshakov. The publisher, Molodaia gvardiia, was founded in 1922 and is now one of the oldest publishers in Russia. 

James Baldwin (1924-1987). Bliuz Sonni: rasskazy [Sonny’s Blues: Stories]. Translated by Rostislav Rybkin. Moscow: Pravda, 1977.

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Bliuz Sonni: rasskazy [Sonny’s Blues: Stories] by James Baldwin, 1977, front cover

This volume contains two short stories from the collection Going to Meet the Man, “Previous Condition” and “Sonny’s Blues.” They are translated by Rostislav Rybkin, a polyglot who translated works from over twenty countries into Russian.