Author photo by Bonnie Berry.

Whether you came of age at the tail end of the Cold War or just binge-watched The Americans, the familiar pop cultural stereotype about the USSR is that only a spy would bother trying to get across the border and even then, nobody would say a word to you without their eyes shifting suspiciously over your shoulder every 30 seconds.

But there was a period when thousands of Americans took off for the newborn Soviet Union, many for work in the rapidly industrializing nation but others in hopes of participating in the biggest social experiment of their era. And many of them were women seeking dramatic social changes, looking for new and more equitable ways of living.

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In American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream, Julia L. Mickenberg traces that little-known history. The book follows a generation of women who went looking for a new world, tracing their time in the Soviet Union and exploring the nation’s appeal—why the politically minded “New Woman” of the 1920s would drop everything and spend years in a foreign country that was in utter turmoil.

This revolution went beyond efforts to get women the vote or to make laws more equitable. It meant professional opportunities for women. It meant psychological emancipation from social expectations. It meant romantic relationships based on mutual attraction and shared values and an end to the sexual double standard. It meant the possibility of women being mothers and having careers. It represented, as suffrage activist Carrie Chapman Cott put it, a “world-wide revolt against all artificial barriers which laws and customs interpose between women and human freedom.”

Many of these women were seeking things we’re still seeking in America nearly a century later—say, better support for working mothers.

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Of course, Mickenberg also follows what they found when they got there, which was often disappointment and frustration. The era brought immense privation evident to even the most optimistic and politically committed. Most of those promising freedoms were eventually rolled back under Stalin, anyway, and we now know it was a time of starvation, hardship, and persecution.

“American feminists’ now-forgotten attraction to Russia tells us something about who and where we are now, about embracing other forms of cruel optimism,” Mickenberg writes in her introduction, for instance “leaning in” or the “third metric.” “These formulations may bring even less meaning and sustenance to women’s lives than did the vision of a new society actively working to better the human condition.”

I spoke to Mickenberg about her research and what she found; our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

JEZEBEL: Who were the “American girls in red Russia”? Who are these women who went over to the Soviet Union?

JULIA L. MICKENBERG: Originally I titled the book The New Woman Tries on Red: Russia in the American Feminist Imagination. The “New Woman” was a term traditionally applied to women starting probably in the 1890s who were educated, financially independent, increasingly sexually liberated and socially conscious. The book stretches from 1905 to 1945, but it primarily focuses on the 1920s and 1930s. So, the demographic of women who were going was mostly interested in what was happening for political reasons. They hoped that they would see the model for some kind of dramatic social change. It was the most exciting thing happening—history being made. A number of those women, particularly in the early period, had been involved in suffrage struggles.

The word about the women’s suffrage movement was that all feminists were suffragists, but not all suffragists were feminists. Those women that I’m talking about as “new women” would have been some of the early feminists. Instead of saying, you know, we want the vote and equal rights, they wanted this total social transformation. Many of them had been involved in settlement house movements, some of them had been involved in the socialist party, there was a group that were Harlem Renaissance figures who were interested in efforts to eliminate racism and all traces of race consciousness. A lot were women who felt confined by cultures within the United States, whether that was what they felt were puritan mores about sex or, early on, the lack of equal voting rights.

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It seems like there was definitely a specific group of women—it wasn’t just a grab bag, they had common goals and aspirations and it seems like many of them knew each other.

There were definitely some connections, but it was kind of the place to go. When you hear about Paris in the 1920s—one of the famous books about the lost generation in Paris is called Exile’s Return, written in 1934, and in the back of that book he talks about Moscow as the place to go in the 30s. And many of the people who were going to Paris were also going to Moscow. People who were disgusted or disappointed with what was happening in the United States—Paris was seen as this place to get away, to but if you went to Moscow, it was like you could be part of building something new. In that sense, it was similar to that demographic that a lot of people are familiar with.

And I should make clear, it wasn’t just women going over. There were probably more men going over. Many of the men and some of the women were going just to get jobs in the 1930s. You had whole contingents, people who had been employed in Ford factories, who were out of work. There was just so much need for construction in the five-year plan. Some women went as wives, whether it was of manual workers or engineers, and they were not necessarily even interested in politics. They were just going for the work or the money. But even those people, it was hard to not notice what was going on there and get interested in that.

Coverage in the New York Times, October 16, 1927. Via Times Machine.

But the particular appeal to women is something that nobody had talked about. And the fact that all these things that were happening right after the revolution that put women on equal footing with men were something that American women—particularly American women who were interested in everything from equal rights to better employment job opportunities to more relationships based on women being on equal footing with men in relationships—were interested in. Right after the revolution, within the first few years, not only did women get the vote but abortion was made legal and free. In marriages, men sometimes took their wives’ names or women and men could just keep their own names. Women gained property rights, there were laws passed mandating equal pay, divorce was made easy, they built dining halls, laundries, nurseries, with generous maternity leaves so that you could get nine weeks off before and after childbirth. And all of these are really designed so that more women can enter the workforce. These things we still don’t have in this country.

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Even though looking back at it, you can see all the ways that none of it really worked as they said it was going to, you can imagine it being very appealing at the time, to see what was going on there and how that was happening.

It was really interesting to look at the conversations around children and childcare. A lot of women went as famine relief workers, and there was this set of ideas and talk about, you know, “we need to take care of these Russian children and help these children of the future.” And there’s also this group of women that are very interested in the idea of pioneering these new ways of taking care of children, having daycare centers and nurseries and communal ways of organizing things.

It seems like to some extent this is a lost history—the American women’s movement is often thought of in isolation, as opposed to thinking about this international movement. And I was wondering whether this is where childcare gets that patina of redness. Even now people are really weird about daycare, and I wondered whether partly that’s the ghost of this moment.

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Rebecca Onion, who is a former student of mine who is a journalist who writes for Slate, just published a piece on this and asked me for suggestions for references about where that goes back to, this idea that daycare is socialist or whatever. And certainly, at the most extreme, there was talk about abolishing the family in the Soviet Union. Most people weren’t arguing for that. But I do think that the great interest in nursery schools and cooperative childrearing, what they were doing with children is really quite fascinating and really quite radical. The unschooling movement today—there were experiments like that in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, although interestingly some of them were looking at educational reformers in the United States. They were really interested in John Dewey, who had this idea of project-based learning. It goes back to, if you’re interested in challenging authority, then you have to start at the very base of the arbitrary authority of parents over children.

It’s very complicated to talk about it, because you go from some very exciting utopian experiments in the 1920s to that being totally shut down by the 1930s. And even in the 1920s, there was violence, there were arbitrary arrests, there were major problems from the beginning. And I should make clear that I’m aware of that.

In that chapter that you’re referring to, the people who went as relief workers, I was really trying to explore this tension between this very idealized picture of Soviet children—there were so many depictions of red-cheeked, happy, free, self-reliant, some of them were even pointing to they can’t even afford pencils, they can’t afford books, but look at these amazing educational experiments they’re doing by going out in nature and drawing and deciding themselves! And also raising children cooperatively. And I can see that being threatening to the discourse of right-wing family values, if we’re going to raise children to be thinking communally and at a very young age taking them out of the family—you can see how the conservative reaction to that kind of thing, which became really quite vocal in the 1970s. But you see people as early as the 1920s and 1930s becoming anxious about it. And childcare and nursery schools have been controversial. I don’t know if it’s specifically because that’s what they were doing in the Soviet Union, but I think that might be argued.

The other side of that was the fact that traditionally one of the only socially acceptable ways for women to be taking this role in public life or traveling abroad on their own, would be to go as either missionaries or what’s called child savers, going out and saving these starving famine children. So I got interested in the fact that already radicalized women were in some sense taking advantage of the fact that there were starving children in Russia and using that to sign up with relief agencies, primarily the American Friends Service Committee, the main Quaker relief organization, and go and save the Russian children.

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But part of the reason you would want to go and save the Russian children is so that then they could become these happy red-cheeked children of socialism. And you have the same people writing about, well, they have barely anything to eat, they have no supplies—but oh, look at what they’re doing in the children’s village, they’re going from nothing and building this wonderful thing. It was like the children representing the hope and the horror at the same time. The possibility thwarted with these children who are starving, or the hope for what the Soviets called the new person, the new man or the new woman—the person who was raised only since the revolution.

That chapter to me was one of the places where you mostly keenly see that central tension in the book—a lot of these women went over with these very high hopes and a great deal of excitement for these ideas to be realized, and they got there and in a lot of cases it was a disaster and, in the end, a lot of the policies were rolled back eventually, anyway. How did these women negotiate that tension—were they just determined to not see it?

I don’t know if you got to the chapter that was the women on the Moscow News, which was the English-language newspaper which was started by Anna Louise Strong, who’s a figure who keeps coming up through the book. I started thinking about journalists, and what does journalistic integrity mean in the context of writing about the Soviet Union. A lot of the people who went over as journalists, they went because they were excited and they wanted to sort of share all the cool stuff they were finding.

A dispatch in the New York Times, March 20, 1927, by Anna Louise Strong. Via the Times Machine.

Anna Louise Strong was this really interesting example, because she’s mostly been seen as as a hack, a propagandist, as writing these bullshit stories about how wonderful everything was in the Soviet Union when she knew perfectly well how many problems there were. She rationalizes that in her autobiography saying, well, plenty of people are talking about what’s bad, I don’t need to talk about what’s bad, because that’s not going to help spread the word about all the good things that are happening and it’s not going to help bring the good about.

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But I was really interested in women like Milly Bennett, who was one of the people she hired, who had this kind of hilarious attitude about it. Especially the letters she wrote to her friends, where she was just making fun of everything—she was quite cynical about what was happening. But then at the same time, she was still staying there and writing pieces that were often not super political, but some of the pieces were certainly pro Soviet. She was writing pieces in the New York Times about the Soviet family and when abortion was made illegal, rationalizing why it was made illegal. There’s one line where she said, it was like any other faith, you see certain things that horrify you and you just tell yourself that you know deep in your heart that they’re right and you say the facts don’t matter. And she’s kind of joking but she’s kind of not joking, because on some deep level, she believes in socialism or what it could be. So it’s like she has to, in private, tell her friends or even tell herself all the crap that’s going on as a way of getting it out of her system so she frees herself up to celebrate the things that she thinks are wonderful. And so it’s not exactly lying. It’s just these partial truths as a way of almost helping to bring them about.

It’s a really interesting position that it puts these writers in. Because I don’t think they’re exactly blind. I made a conscious choice to write primarily about people who went there for extended periods. There was a real phenomenon of people going to the Soviet Union for like two weeks and writing a book about it and really not knowing what was going on. There was a book published in the 80s called Political Pilgrims, which was making fun of all these people who just went over for two weeks and wrote about how great it was. But there were also people who were there for long periods of time who wrote mostly positive portraits.

“Farmers’ wives from the rural districts of the Soviet Union in a class where they are taught to read and write in Russia around March 1931,” according to the AP Images caption.

People definitely were playing mental games with themselves at a certain point to, I think, highlight the positive. Another example: Ruth Epperson Kennell and Milly Bennett wrote these pieces in the American Mercury that were sort of trying to poke fun at all the people who were coming over to the Soviet Union and wanting everything to be amazing and then finding that there were bedbugs and all these discomfort and everything. And then they were shamed in the left-wing press and forced to apologize in the Moscow News, the newspaper that they were working for.

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But your question was, were they determined not to see it. I think they were, in a weird way, struggling to figure out how to be in that system. Because no one was claiming that it was all perfect or utopian there. But I think they had this hope that it would become so later.

That if they kept the faith they would get over the hump and realize these ideas.

Yeah. Anna Louise Strong I found particularly difficult in that sense—she just kept not giving up and it was just so tragic that finally in 1949 she’s arrested as a spy. Which she wasn’t, and she had given her life to trying to promote the Soviet Union and also she repeatedly tried to join the Communist Party both in the Soviet Union and in the US and neither one wanted her.

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Your book covers 1905 to 1945. At some point the door slams shut. What happens that this moment reaches its end?

New York Times coverage, February 25, 1929. Via Times Machine.

Well it arguably reaches its end in 1935, and then the war is a kind of momentary revival.

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Stalin fully assumes power by 1928 and the five-year plan is initiated and things start getting already quite tough at that point because there’s this emphasis on massive industrialization very fast. Suddenly you have food shortages, people are working extremely hard. But there’s still a lot of excitement in the United States about the Soviet Union, and many, many, many people from the United States are going in the late ’20s and early ’30s, particularly as the Depression heats up.

But starting around 1932, you have a combination of things. There’s basically a man-made famine in Ukraine. Millions of people are starving and people are becoming aware of that, although there’s a certain amount of denial over that. The biggest thing is the growing paranoia of the Stalinist regime. Late in 1934, Sergei Kirov, an important figure in the government, is killed, and what’s known as the great terror begins ostensibly with a search for who killed him. It spreads throughout the whole Soviet government, and almost all of the original Bolsheviks who are loyal to the regime are implicated, and you have these show trials, and at the same time, there’s a crackdown on a lot of the freedoms, including the sexual freedoms. Abortion becomes illegal, divorce becomes more difficult, and you also have an extreme fear of foreigners. Soviet citizens are afraid to even talk to foreigners because they could get in trouble and be seen as subversive for associating with them. The visits to the Soviet Union really start dropping off after 1936.

And starting in the late 1930s, you get particularly Americans who give up their citizenship. Sometimes they do it accidentally. I gave the story of that woman whose passport was lost in the mail and then in order to get a job, she took Soviet citizenship, and then she couldn’t get out. She was lucky, in that she was never imprisoned. But people were sent to gulags, they were killed.

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There was a real debate in the United States on the left of whether these were show trials. We know today they were; those people were pretty much all innocent. But some people were trying to rationalize, saying they must have been guilty. So, in a sense, everything ends in the late ’30s. The interesting thing is this is the same period in the United States of what’s known as the Popular Front, so communism is actually becoming increasingly popular in the United States, apart from admiration of the Soviet Union. The Nazi-Soviet pact in the late ’30s challenges the antifascist alliance in the United States, but it gets a revival in the early ’40s, when the United States and the Soviet Union become allies in World War II. And I wanted to include that moment, because it reminded me of the kind of admiration that you see well before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 of these revolutionary Russian women who are so brave that they are planting bombs and assassinating people because they’re so appalled by injustice. That’s in the 1890s, the 1910s.

Then, in the 1940s, you have Soviet women going into combat. And there was so much in the American media looking at the bravery of Russian women, also Russian children—there was this kind of wave of pro-Soviet children’s literature. But I was interested in how that and how the war becomes the occasion for this revival of that much older discourse, how much of it focuses on women again.

“Soviet girls, collective farmers of a village somewhere in Russia, who joined Guerillas, are pictured on Sept. 19, 1941,” according to the AP Images caption.

What can we learn from this group of women and this moment in history? Is there something in particular you’d like for people to take away from the book?

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One of the things that drew me to it was my own fascination with the Soviet Union as, growing up at the end of the Cold War, we were always learning how bad the Soviet Union was, which made it this land of mystery and interest. What interests me now is the complicated nature of that history, because all the bad stuff that we know looking through the lens of the Cold War clouds our ability to understand the genuine appeal that so many people felt. What’s most striking to me now is that if you look at all the things that were attracting women then, pretty much beyond women getting the vote, are still unresolved. Women are still looking for reliable childcare. They still are earning less money than men. They still don’t have guaranteed maternity leave. They’re still feeling like they’re playing second fiddle in relationships a lot of the time. I think that both their desires and their hopes for seeing another kind of possibility in this other place are instructive.

The other instructive thing is that there isn’t an easy, simple answer. Most civilized societies have put things into place, like Scandinavian countries. So it’s not that putting those things into place means that you have to wind up with a brutal dictatorship. In that sense it’s kind of ironic that that’s the place that they were looking, because then the suggestion seems to be, well, look what you get.

To me it’s kind of a lesson about the complexity of history and desire. I’m interested in the fact that this was really such a major phenomenon that gets forgotten because of this other story that gets told. Many historians have not wanted to look at not just the Communist left but a really broad spectrum of the left’s interest in the Soviet Union because, knowing what we know now about Stalin and all of the terrible things that happened in the Soviet Union, it’s sort of an embarrassment to the left. But I think the palpable hope that people placed is instructive if only in the sense that we still haven’t resolved most of these issues.

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Another really interesting dimension to this is the particular appeal to Jews and African Americans, for different reasons. Many Jews had immigrated to the United States from Russia because of pogroms that were targeting Jews, and then there was this real hope that in this new Soviet Union, Jews would have a prominent role. In the new government you had many figures, Trotsky most visibly, although he’s on the outs by the mid 1920s. You had figures like Pauline Koner, first she visits Palestine and then she visits the Soviet Union, and it’s like you can be proudly Jewish in Palestine and then in the Soviet Union you shed your Jewishness, arguably. The irony of this is that there’s very strong consciousness of Jews as outsiders, in fact, in the Soviet Union.

Women from Central Asia who “came to Moscow after the spring to study Communist principals and women’s emancipation” with Lenin’s widow. Photo via AP Images.

Then similarly with African Americans, there was this idea that racism had been made illegal and lots of interest in how Soviet national minorities are being treated. And the actual story is quite complicated, where people were being forced to shed their national identities, with these forced unveilings of Muslim women which could be from the outside taken as this wonderful thing of women being freed. The African Americans who went were often treated as hero figures in the Soviet Union, particularly in the context of the Scottsboro case, where these 13 young black men had been accused of raping two white women. It became a cause célèbre all over the world but especially in the Soviet Union. Right after that, you get this group of African Americans coming to make a movie about race relations in the United States. The movie wasn’t made for political reasons, but the Soviet government paid for them to travel around and Dorothy West said late in life that was like the best year of her life. Several of them stayed on in the Soviet Union.

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There are a lot of atrocities in the Soviet Union, but the Jim Crow South certainly wasn’t heaven.

They went from being segregated and fourth-class citizens to being wined and dined. They were seen in communist ideology as the most oppressed and therefore having these special insights. But then there was stuff happening in the Soviet Union where African Americans, if they were training to be communist leaders, they didn’t go the Lenin School with other Americans. They went to the Communist University of the Toilers of the East with the Africans and the Middle Easterners. The way they were perceived in the Soviet Union was quite complicated and not seen as fully complex and developed as they were. But it was also such a great relief to be appreciated and celebrated for the people who were there, and there certainly were more opportunities. Like Francis E. Williams, who couldn’t get into an acting school in the United States and then trained with the best theater professionals there were when she was in the Soviet Union.

Correction: This article originally contained two typos, “these discomfort” and “in a communist ideology” instead of “in communist ideology.” These have been corrected. “Pogroms” was originally misspelled as “pograms,” and this has been corrected, as well.