by Gesii Bleu
Pushkin is a black man. His great grandfather was an African man, kidnapped from his home on the continent (exactly where is still hotly debated) as a child and ‘gifted’ (read: enslaved and trafficked) across the Ottoman Empire and Balkan region to Peter the Great in Russia. Pushkin is a gifted poet and writer of great regard internationally; his style of Russian writing is incredibly nuanced and heavily impacted the great literature to come after him. Some say he developed Russian literature altogether. When you jaunt across Pushkin’s most well-known poem , ‘I Loved You’ you are stepping into blackness that no Russian can truly deny, yet few non-Russians know how to process his writing and even fewer black people can read his words in his mother language. Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin had black in his blood, which means he is OURS. He’s mine anyway.
To me, Soviet and Russian history is bathed in red and white, somewhat like ice and blood. The white being attributed to the vast Siberian richness of the Russian land, and staunch will to live and thrive of its peoples. But it also signifies the majority of the visible Russian race to people across the globe. When you ask a random person on the street, ‘how would you describe physically a Russian person?’ You would be hard pressed to find someone using a non-white race as the basis of their description. Then there is the red. It’s blood red for the Russian lives lost across the annals of time to produce life and governance that fits the Russian peoples. But its also the red of badged courage for a people who do not submit wholly, to the harshness of land, to political strife, to external pressure, or to meaningless assumptions of their collective souls.
I’ve been an academic and personal scholar of Slavic and Eastern European culture from an enviro-sociological perspective for a little over 10 years now. And yet I still recall most fondly the first time I was able to read (with much difficulty) Eugene Onegin in Russian. His artful narration in the titular characters voice rang true in my own voice, as I recited stanzas out loud and highlighted them eagerly. His exploration of human darkness, in selfishness and fear through self-circular introspection was thrilling to me, as a writer. But mostly I was elated with the feeling of finding a kindred spirit through crossing space, time, and nationality… but not race. For the first time, I found a similar oddball soul that shared my hue of black in their blood.
Slavic studies is not a colorful field. At least not in terms of the scholars who study it. At my lily-white undergraduate university, I was the only person of color in many of my classes, Russian language being one. But at least I could share in the knowledge that Condoleezza Rice came before me in that field and spoke fluently, apparently. A professor of mine quipped to our class, one morning, that I was sitting in the very same seat in that classroom that Condolezza had perched. I didn’t believe him for a moment though, she seems to me a front-of-the class woman, where I’ve always preferred mid-left in a room, leaving me space to decide to pay attention or languish, depending on my mood.
I don’t answer the question honestly anymore, ‘Why Russian? Why Slavic Studies’. It seems to me inane and prejudiced. In my mind, why not—Slavic history is entertaining, and varied, deep and emotional. The Russian language is beautiful and poetic, and acutely descriptive. I identify with that trite collective Russian persona—the firm, tough, survivalist whose culture is filled with beauty and pain in almost equal amounts…but the beauty always wins. I too struggle with the long-storied presence of religion in my life. It’s a no brainer for me really, I didn’t have a choice, Slavic studies chose me.
It’s enough for me to know I existed there, and thrived and grew and learned to read Pushkin’s words written as they were by his black Russian hand.
The air was hot, sticky, and thick in Istanbul when I arrived during my junior year. A study abroad experience was required for students of my college, and the Russian program our college had an agreement with had disbanded. I was left with a choice of any country in western and central Europe, or Australia and New Zealand. My advisor gushed about Madrid, Spain for a full 5 minutes, and I had to interrupt her to ask about Turkey. I honestly hadn’t done much research on the country, but I knew it was a gateway to Eastern Europe. She paused and asked gently if I would be comfortable there? I pretended that she could possibly be concerned about me being a woman in an Islamic country, or that she had an ear in the intelligence community and knew that the south of Turkey was becoming a bit of a danger zone for Americans. But when I asked a white friend who was also going to Turkey, she said the advisor hadn’t asked that question of her.
I found my soul’s loam in Turkey. The language weaves together like a complex colorful quilt and the people’s lackadaisical but warm and welcoming presence felt familiar. I wandered the streets mostly alone for weeks, before classes started, I had no friends to converse or spend time with. I’d wake up early, before the first adhan, pack a book in my bag and head up to Istiklal street. While aimlessly stepping past colorful shops and nibbling on a simit, I’d listen to the array of languages and dialogue around me. I fell in love with everything.
I returned to the states the following year determined to continue my studies beyond undergraduate academia. The only piece missing was my visibility and the visibility of blackness in my chosen academic sphere.
In graduate school I stumbled across my first fellow black Slavic studies academic, Professor Kenneth E. Naylor Jr. I was mesmerized as his colleagues reflected on stories about his linguistic prowess, and how comfortably they recounted the surprise on the faces of Slavic people he happened to drop in casual conversation with in their South Slavic tongues. To myself, I often wondered if the surprise was innocent, at a man with skin color they had never seen up close, speaking their language with such confidence and fluency. Or if their shock was more malicious and attuned to the common ideology among white races that black races aren’t capable of that level of learning. Those thoughts would start me down the rabbit hole and I would have to stop myself from asking the derivative question, ‘What did you do, in that moment?’
Professor Naylor is long since deceased and I never had the chance to speak with him. Probably graciously, as my stumbling Russian, and lilting Turkish would not please him in any way. But I do wonder what his colleagues did to support him in the face of those small microaggressions that challenge our black right to exist in seemingly white spaces. I wonder if he was angry, or embarrassed, or proud, and what he told them in response.
I often felt like a spectator. Sitting on the sidelines of interesting and inspiring research and academic inquiry, but unable to engage. I tacitly learned to stay quiet and ingest, decode, glean, and consume. I was and am to this day grateful for how much I was able to learn in those times. But I regret very much, that I didn’t unleash myself to contribute all that I could.
I acknowledge the burden I took on my own shoulders was real. Seeing no one like me in any of the spaces I existed in as an intellectual gave me constant pause and doubt of myself. Did I know what I knew? Did I conclude the right thing? Did I even. make. sense? The sea of blank stares on white faces sometimes at conferences unnerved me, but then again I wear my emotions on my face and expected to see the same. Around the time I was polishing off my thesis, a book was published. I read the synopsis and cried. I really cried for the weariness and emotional volatility grad school can wreak on the unsuspecting. But I also shed tears of relief that my hypothesis and understanding of how Soviet industrial urbanization had impacted the collective social consciousness around environmental development and underground action movements. Kate Brown’s ‘Plutopia’ was a masterpiece to me and I fervently hoped, and still hope to come across her someday and gush it out to her.
But it took me completing and defending my thesis, graduating with my M.A. and snagging my first job at a local environmental organization to really stop and think. How had I cast so much doubt on myself during my research? Why did I not trust my Russian linguistic skills or my cultural interpretation based on primary resources? How could I hold such high reservations for my own work, only to validate it when a white scholar with similar themes brushed it in her work? It sank in not long after that the unconscious signals I’d been receiving since I started my studies, indicated that I didn’t belong. And if I didn’t belong, then I could never rightfully own my place or work. All the while, I NEVER came across another black Russo-Slavic scholar while I was a student and academic scholar. I never encountered what all of my colleagues had every single day in the office, on the campus, across institutions, at conferences and institutes, as part of programs and all around the larger Slavic community. The visual and vital assurance of their place in every discipline of our field of study.
I was alone and I was invisible.
But I was never alone. Though we are historically, invisible.
In The Bronze Horseman Pushkin opened the epic poem with the couplet ‘Upon the brink of the wild stream, He stood and dreamt a mighty dream.’ I like to think that I know intimately where his mind was at that moment. No matter how beloved or known, Pushkin was an outsider. It’s a feeling you know in your bones before anyone else ever has to tell you. But being black in white spaces gives you a superpower, though it takes much too long to recognize and understand. It’s our untethered dreams. The poem is about Peter the Great and the vitality of St. Petersburg, but I read it as a love song to our kind. The strange ones, the misfits, and the dreamers, the specks of black ink in a sea of blood.
My chosen field of academic and intellectual interest is opening up and diversifying, as we are gaining visibility in every corner. As a part of progress, it’s inevitable, but I’m glad we are pushing forward with it now. I don’t have the ego to believe I paved any sort of way for scholars like me in the Slavic field. I was too passive, patient and reserved to be a change agent for the future. It’s enough for me to know I existed there, and thrived and grew and learned to read Pushkin’s words written as they were by his black Russian hand.
 Narrative Poems by Alexander Pushkin & Mikhail Lermontov, Translated by [Sir] Charles [Hepburn-]Johnston [1912–1986], New York, NY: Random House 1979
Gesii Bleu | @littlebird.bleu |Cirquedelanuit.wordpress.com
Gesii Bleu is a tri-air sign writer/gardener residing in the Pacific Northwest. She’s been published in print with Many Voices, One DU, and online with Genre Urban Arts, For Women Who Roar and Harness Magazine. She has been telling stories since she was old enough to speak, a gift from her ancestors embedded in her soul. Bleu currently spends her spare time listening to music, exploring the wild, and inhaling gothic fiction, Medieval historical nonfiction, Westerns, and musician autobiographies.