Steven S. Lee: <i>The Ethnic Avant-Garde. Minority Culture and World Revolution</i>.

Steven S. Lee: The Ethnic Avant-Garde. Minority Culture and World Revolution.

New York: Columbia University Press, 2015, ISBN 9780231173520, Hardcover, 225 pp.

Hanin Hanouch
Vladimir Tatlin; Vladimir Maiakovskii; Sergei Tret’iakov; Walter Benjamin; Langston Hughes; Herbert Biberman; Jean-Paul Sartre; Soviet Union; avant-garde; communism; minority culture; authenticity; Bolshevik Revolution.

The very title The Ethnic Avant-Garde. Minority Culture and World Revolution confronts us with a presupposition according to which “ethnicity” is aligned with a nostalgic return to the past, while the avant-garde is oriented toward the future and progress. Transcending this binary opposition, Steven S. Lee considers what the Soviet Union meant for those who were not born into it and for those who translated or transmitted its culture abroad. Lee highlights the Soviet Union's double function as both a space of avant-garde cultural innovation and a as promoter of equality. He provides the reader with a fresh insight into the attraction that Moscow exerted over many minorities, non-Western artists, and writers, inspiring them to put forth their contribution to Soviet modernist experimentation. In examining minorities’ visits to Moscow and their preconceptions of the city, Lee’s aim is not “to gauge the extent to which such visions corresponded with reality but to pursue the imaginative possibilities that they opened” (Lee 2015: 20). He succeeds in outlining the disillusionment that followed and the survival of this disillusionment in films and texts. Furthermore, Lee defines his understanding of the avant-garde as the letting go of empirical history and linear chronology in favour of an avant-garde oriented simultaneously toward future and past, and toward an understanding of cultural difference wherein Asiatic Russians and Tibetan lamas could be integrated (ibid.: 27).

Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third international is used as a recurrent motif throughout the book “to rethink notions of both revolution and avant-gardism – to impart to them a variegated temporality that encompasses past as well as future.” (ibid.: 6) Moreover, by highlighting Tatlin’s visit to the Middle-East and his visit to the Great Mosque of Samarra in present-day Iraq, Lee interprets the tower as evocative of a single world civilization that draws from every culture in the world. This role of the monument is congruent with the Revolution’s orientation towards Asia and Africa in order to broaden its reach both politically and artistically. The recurring metaphor of the tower becomes a tool through which the avant-garde reworks ancient cultures for the sake of socialist unity and joins “romantic millenarianism to Marxist evolutionism” (ibid.: 41). Furthermore, just as Tatlin's monument was never realised, the aspirations of avant-garde artistic experimentation likewise fell into political disfavour after the revolution.

In the first chapter, Tatlin's tower is treated as a tower of Babel through which the ethnic avant-garde aims to integrate the languages of minorities into a broader Soviet language. Representative of this attempt is, according to Lee, Maiakovskii's poetry, in particular his “Afro-Cuban” poems with their irregular rhythms and staircase lines. Maiakovskii wrote these poems during his 1925 trip to the United States via Cuba and Mexico when he spoke of preserving marginalised cultures in the name of the Revolution under the umbrella of anti-imperialism. The category of “Afro-Cuban” poems includes “Mexico” (1925) and “To Our Youth” (1927).

The Soviet poet’s search for a language of the future with which to speak for the Other without omitting the particularities of this Other finds its difficulties displayed by Langston Hughes's translation (ibid.: 69). Lee rightfully regards translation as both a tool of articulating cultural differences and an opportunity to overcome them. Besides, while Hughes's English rendition of Maiakovskii indeed “tests Mayakovsky’s ability to transcend racial, ethnic, and national divides” (ibid.: 49), Lee avoids asserting a strict opposition between the original text and the translation attempts, referencing Walter Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator, which argues that every version of a text contributes to its overall meaning (Benjamin 1996: 259).

The second chapter delves into Sergei Tret’iakov’s play Rychi, Kitai / Roar China, written in 1924 during the author's travels in the East. It examines the Moscow-centered ethnic avant-garde as well as the forgotten contributions of Asian-Americans to the Soviet legacy during the interwar period. Grounded in literary factography, this play was part of the Soviet outreach to China. Tret’iakov “explicitly eschewed exoticism in favor of ethnographic precision” (Lee 2015: 84), and represented China as it really was: a country facing Western imperialism. He attempted to turn spectators into collaborators by using montage techniques inspired by Eizenshtein’s montage of attractions, written in 1924. A further examination of this influence might have been pertinent considering the recurrent mentions of Eizenshtein, but its absence in no way diminishes the quality of the analysis of the play.

Following its debut at the Meyerhold Theater in Moscow in 1926, Rychi, Kitai appeared around the world. Lee studies how factography was transmitted abroad by comparing Tret’iakov's version with the 1930 New York production directed by Herbert Biberman. Biberman’s version was “the first major Broadway production to feature a predominantly Asian-American cast” (ibid.: 83) and, in contrast to earlier productions featuring Asian-American actors, Biberman’s piece did not relegate the performers to portraying racial stereotypes (ibid.: 101). In his rendition, the American director nonetheless downplayed some aspects of factography such as the use of contrasting acting styles, in order to deflect charges of the play being a propaganda (ibid.: 104). However, in a somewhat unexpected turn, Lee finds factography to be present, albeit mildly, in Biberman's film Salt of the Earth (1954, United States), which was released during the communist witch-hunt in his home country.

Chapter three traces Langston Hughes's visit to the Soviet Union in 1932 through a reading of his autobiography I Wonder as I Wander (1956). In his personal writings, Hughes discusses the unrealised Soviet film Black and White, whose script was written by Georgii Grebner. The early 1930s had emerged as a time when “the boundaries of race, ethnicity, and nation were proving insuperable” (ibid.: 120), and Lee presents the real political reasons behind the cancellation of the film while also examining the diverging definitions of “authenticity” in representing African-Americans, which, in addition to the political factors, played a role in the film’s failure to materialise as well. Just like Tatlin’s tower that was never realised, the aborted film aimed to open new grounds for the depiction of African-Americans and African-American communism (ibid.: 121), as seen in its ambitious integration of African American music into the script in an attempt to join different cultures. In Hughes’ opinion, Grebener’s script had failed to grasp the realities of the African-American experience. But authenticity had differing definitions: For the Soviets, it was rooted in the rejection of capitalism, while in the United States, the ideal of authentic representation required the creative gaze to be grounded within the same group being represented. This attitude was shaped in significant part by the thoughts of W.E.B. Du Bois, according to which outsiders like Grebner had no authority to depict the African-American experience. The consequences of these diverging approaches meant that Hughes, who rejected his previous communist ties in the 1950s, had to concede to Du Bois's concept of authenticity to prevent charges of communism from being brought up against him again (ibid.: 131).

The fourth chapter traces the transition of the Soviet Union from a place of hope for Jews worldwide to combine their culture with revolutionary aspirations, to the shattering of such hopes, illustrated by Stalin’s Doctors’ Plot. This chapter also provides insight into what being “authentically” or “inauthentically” Jewish meant in both the Soviet Union and the United States. Lee highlights Irving Howe’s “third way” in The Lost Young Intellectual: A Marginal; Man, Twice Alienated, pointing to Howe’s will to combine modernism, socialism, and Jewishness as indicative of the ethnic avant-garde’s survival despite widespread disillusionment. Lee refers to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Reflections on the Jewish Question. A Lecture in which the French author assumes that the root of anti-Semitism lies in the class system. Although the mention of Sartre is compelling insofar as it prompted American responses, it remains unnecessary, since, by Lee's own account, Sartre was not a spokesperson for the Soviet Union.

Furthermore, Lee departs from Yuri Slezkine’s idea that Jewish Bolsheviks forsook their Jewishness in order to embrace the Revolution (ibid.: 155) and from Alan Wald’s assumption that Jewish communism wanted to break away from its own Jewishness. The author contends that a “devotion to leftism did not necessarily entail a rejection of Jewishness” (ibid.: 157), citing El Lissitzky, who aimed to reconcile revolutionary ideals with ethnic identity. In fact, this devotion to leftism served to harness “Jewish messianism to advance universal equality” (ibid.: 159). But seeking universal equality was brought to a halt by Stalin’s anti-cosmopolitanism, the antithesis of the ethnic avant-garde. In particular, the foundation of Israel in 1948 and its recognition by the Soviet Union, gave Stalin the necessary leverage to claim that Jewish loyalty was now divided between the two countries and thus to target Jews, exemplified by the Doctors’ Plot and the wave of Anti-Semitism from 1952 to 53. That same year, with Stalin’s declaration that national identities were more important than social class or ideology, cosmopolitanism and the hopes of the ethnic avant-garde were rejected as manifestations of disloyalty or foreign contamination.

In the afterword, the author problematises Slavoj Žižek’s understanding of multiculturalism and his assertion that the global elite tolerate the Other only if this Other is a part of a closed, “authentic” community. Lee maintains that there is another side to multiculturalism; one that is less centralised and more local. The focus upon Moscow and its multiculturalism throughout the book thus emerges as a decentralisation of the understanding of minorities beyond the categories of African-American, Jewish-American etc. (ibid.: 183). Lee concludes by proposing the novel I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita as a key work that succeeds in combining both local narratives and radical legacies beyond the limits of race, gender, and geopolitics.

The Ethnic Avant-Garde. Minority Culture and World Revolution is an innovative and imaginative work which succeeds in approaching the link between revolution and art in an engaging and convincing manner.

Hanin Hannouch

IMT Lucca, School For Advanced Studies


Benjamin, Walter. 1996. “The Task of the Translator.”, In Selected Writings: 1913-1926 Volume 1, edited by Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, 253-263. Cambridge.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1997. The Souls of Black Folk. Boston.

Hughes, Langston. 1956. I Wonder as I Wander. New York.

Howe, Nina. 2014. A Voice Still Heard: Selected Essays of Irving Howe.Yale.

Kolchevska, Natasha. 1987. “From Agitation to Factography: The Plays of Sergej Tret'jakov”. Slavic and East European Journal 31, 3: 388-403.

Maiakovskii, Vladimir. 2005. My Discovery of America. Translated by Neil Cornwell. London.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1948. Anti-Semite and Jew. Translated by George J.Becker. New York.

Tret’iakov, Sergei. 1931. Roar China. Translated by F. Polianovska and Barbara Nixon. New York.

Yamashita, Karen Tei. 2010. I Hotel. Minneapolis.


Biberman, Herbert 1954. Salt of the Earth. Paul Jarrico.

Suggested Citation

Hannouch, Hanin 2017. Review: “Steven S. Lee: The Ethnic Avant-Garde. Minority Culture and World Revolution.Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 4. DOI:


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