The Poetry Project

On The Wayland Rudd Collection: Exploring Racial Imaginaries in Soviet Visual Culture

Marie Buck

Ugly Duckling Presse’s 2021 book The Wayland Rudd Collection: Exploring Racial Imaginaries in Soviet Visual Culture is an admirably capacious and messy book. Assembled by Soviet-born US artist and collector Yevgeniy Fiks, the collection at the book’s heart gathers Soviet art depicting African Americans and Black Africans—a large and diverse set of works, many reproduced in color within the book, spanning from the 1920s to the 1980s.

Fiks named the collection for Wayland Rudd, a Black American actor who went on a trip to Moscow in 1932 along with Langston Hughes and a number of other Black US performers working on a film. Rudd stayed on a while longer, then later returned to the USSR and had a lengthy and successful acting career there. While a few of the works in the collection do depict Rudd, a public figure and prominent member of the Black US expat community, the naming of the book after Rudd specifically seems somewhat arbitrary; Fiks’s collection is not specifically about Rudd but about Black representation in Soviet visual culture, and UDP’s book is about Fiks’s collection and related scholarship.

The particularity of naming someone, though, feels fitting: this book is interested in the disjuncts and overlaps between the projections of national imaginaries and the specifics of individual experience. The opening section, “Lives,” includes several essays on Rudd, another on Paul Robeson, and an interview with MaryLouise Patterson. Patterson’s parents were notable Black American Communists. Patterson attended Patrice Lumumba People’s Friendship University in Moscow and was involved in the Afro-Soviet community there for six years in the 1960s. In the interview, Patterson recounts arguing about the faults of the Soviet Union with her father—but yet also joining the CPUSA on her return to the US. Patterson also reflects on the current need for a party structure: “There are new formations, you certainly know about: there’s DSA—I don’t belong to it. I’ve gone to a couple meetings, but I feel the need for that kind of place, space where you battle out the ideas, and you come up with some analysis, based on a mutual understanding of how society is structured and works, and some plan as to how to move forward, again, based on a mutual acceptance of what is needed, how it should be organized and structured[.]” Patterson’s stories and observations put us immediately in the complexities of a full political life, oriented not around abstract positions but around a messy hashing out, around an assumption that people will try and try again, through partial successes and failures, to get history to square up with the cultural production that imagines a better life.

Throughout, the book’s privileging of individual experience, personal and historical anecdote, and political difference has a significant advantage over conventional academic work; we’re not forced into conclusions or theories, or to attempt a sort of theorization that would account for everything. While the book moves on to scholarly essays later, it foregrounds anecdote and the messy specificities of individual lives from the jump. I point this out because this is a formally unusual book, and UDP has done something unusual and admirable in putting together visual art, scholarly cultural studies-type essays, oral history, brief biographical essays, and poetry all in one place. In reading it, I was often reminded of Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, the collection of oral histories of CPUSA members that Gornick collected in the 1970s and that Verso republished in 2020. Political fantasies themselves become political actors, and even when people ultimately become disillusioned, the fantasy has still provided the shape for decades of political activity.

The images in The Wayland Rudd Collection operate in a variety of registers. Early images from before 1928, particularly from commercial culture, tended toward racial stereotype. In 1928, as Christina Kiaer notes, the Sixth Congress of the Comintern adopted “The Resolution on the Negro Question in the United States” and there was a concerted state effort to produce anti-racist imagery, and imagery that critiqued the US’s racism. Images from the decades that followed usually centered white Soviet workers while emphasizing internationalism through depictions of Black and East Asian workers all working together. The book includes a poem by Douglas Kearney mid-way through, a critique of the instrumentalization of images of Black Americans in the collection. Essays by scholars of the USSR and of literature and culture close-read many of these images, digging into the complexity of propaganda. While the images have a fairly straightforward message, the formal means of creating a sense of hope, or attempting to cement a prospective anti-racist proletarian agenda, is ultimately quite complex. The book blows up the art and politics question in a way that might be particularly useful in UDP’s, and our, small-press poetry context. Many of us in this context value the parallelism and community around which small-press poetry is oriented. We write to a community of people we know, and the people they know, and maybe the people they know; we find our communities through our writing. But if our political commitments mean that in other contexts we orient toward mass audiences, are there ways of importing the aesthetic and formal care we’ve developed in our niche experimental poetry communities to other ends? In my own provincial US context, Socialist Realist work produced in the 30s often feels shocking—the idea of a large audience is so heavily associated with a sort of mid-twentieth-century mainstream commercialism and consumer culture. This book reminds me how specific and contingent this association is.

Meredith Roman, in her essay “Anti-Racist Aspirations and Artifacts,” writes that many of the images here “attest to the oft-forgotten fact that the Soviet Union constituted the world’s first country whose leaders pursued state-sponsored anti-racism and made America’s racial democracy a major focus of their attacks” and that “regardless of the motivations of Soviet authorities—whether they were sincere, opportunistic, or most likely some combination of both,” Soviet anti-racism challenged white supremacist ideas around the world. And in the same section of the book, Marina Temkina describes, through personal narrative and anecdote, having been surprised, upon moving from the USSR to the US, to realize that anti-Black racism was still prevalent after the Civil Rights Movement, despite her experience of growing up Jewish in the USSR: “I had not believed anything that the Soviet media disseminated, and I brought to America my wishful thinking that racial tensions had ended with the Civil Rights Movement. Hadn’t I experienced antisemitism in the Soviet Union on both private and public levels all the time, in the country that proclaimed equality and friendship among nations? Why then did I delude myself about the United States?”

This is all to say that UDP’s book offers a lot of questions, and it reframes how we think of aesthetics and politics within experimental poetry communities, where we often take small, counter-cultural audiences for granted. Christina Kiaer’s essay here points out that the stylistic gestures of Socialist Realism were very much debated as a political question; Jonathan Flatley’s essay close-reads and attends to the ways that specific pieces called forth solidarity. While we’ve become used to reading visual art and texts as political—i.e., a standard aspect of, say, a humanities education, or even just looking at the internet, involves reading politics from work that is not, at surface-level, political—this book places us in the grooves of history, of art as a fraught political actor.

#273 – Summer 2023