Oliver Golden; Lily Golden; Yelena Khanga
Soul to Soul: The Story of a Black Russian American Family 1865-1992; blogspot.com; Wikimedia Commons

In 1932, the poet Langston Hughes spent Christmas in the “dusty, coloured, cotton-growing South” of Uzbekistan, then one of the Soviet Union’s Asian republics. Hughes had been in Moscow, working on a film critical of American race relations, but the project was abandoned, in part because the Soviets were then seeking official diplomatic recognition and improved economic ties with the United States. After an exhausting 2,000-mile journey on frozen, ramshackle Russian trains, he arrived on Christmas Eve in Yangiyul, near Tashkent, “in the middle of a mudcake oasis frosted with snow,” and visited “a neat, white painted cottage,” where “it was jolly and warm.”

His hosts were Oliver Golden, a black Mississippian, and Bertha Bialek, the white New York-born daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants, who had prepared a traditional American meal capped off with pumpkin pie to celebrate the season—washed down, of course, with copious amounts of local cognac and vodka. Most of his fellow guests were black men and women. As he looked out his window on Christmas morning, Hughes saw some tall, brown-skinned Uzbeks on horseback, padding across the snowy fields, and was reminded of images he had seen in Sunday school when he was a boy in Kansas: “In their robes, these Uzbeks looked just like Bible characters, and I imagined in their stable a manger and a child.”

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Oliver Golden was the driving force behind the presence of a group of black scientists in Tashkent to assist in the cultivation of cotton, which had prompted Hughes’ visit. Born in Yazoo County in the Mississippi Delta in 1887, Golden was the son of former slaves who had prospered during Reconstruction. By the time he reached his 20s, however, his family home had been burned down twice as part of the broad, violent and successful campaign to restore white supremacy. He was drawn to the Soviet experiment in the 1920s and 1930s by its promises of racial equality, much as his grandfather had been inspired by the promise of Reconstruction.

Golden, after all, was a World War I veteran who had studied agronomy with George Washington Carver at Tuskegee. He had been radicalized by his experience of virulent racism while serving in the U.S. Army in France, ostensibly in a war to save democracy. Back home, he could not vote in Alabama or his native Mississippi, and he could aspire no higher than work as a chef on a railroad dining car in the relative promised land of Chicago, where he had moved by 1917. Golden worked in the Chicago labor movement in the early 1920s and joined the Communist Party around 1925. Golden later remarked, “I would have done anything to get off those dining cars.”

Along with his wife, Jane, and several other black Americans intrigued by the Soviet promise of equality, Golden arrived in Moscow in 1925 to study at the University for Oriental Workers, known by its Russian acronym, KUTV. Golden was amazed to experience first-class citizenship for the first time in his life. “Russia is the only country in the world today,” he wrote, “that gives equal chances to black and white alike.”

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Golden’s first trip to the Soviet Union confirmed his belief that communism could overcome the class and racial barriers that had limited his ambitions in America. But it was also a time of heartbreak and tragedy. His wife, Jane, fell ill and died. While the entire KUTV campus rallied to provide support, Golden fell into a deep depression. He was nursed back to health by a Soviet Asian woman from Siberia named Anya, with whom he fell in love, and who gave birth to his son, Ollava, shortly before Golden returned to the United States in 1927.

Back in the U.S., Golden threw himself into work for the American Communist Party, opened a cooperatively run restaurant on the Soviet model, and, as family lore had it, met his second wife, Bertha Bialek, after both had been arrested at a political demonstration. Although her family disapproved of the interracial relationship, the couple married and began working on Golden’s plan to send African-American scientists to Uzbekistan’s Cotton Belt.

He chose that region because he wanted black Americans to play a central role in the economic and political development of Soviet “national minorities,” like the Uzbeks, who had historically faced discrimination because of their skin color. In 1930 he persuaded his former mentor at Tuskegee, George Washington Carver, to recommend a team of skilled African-American agronomists trained in the production of cotton to travel to the USSR. The following year, Golden and 14 experts from Hampton Institute, as well as Wilberforce and Howard universities, some accompanied by spouses, arrived in Yangiyul, two hours south of Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.

The scientists largely succeeded in their three-year goal of developing a new hybrid cotton that could withstand the blistering heat of an Uzbek summer. But for Golden and his wife, the development of a hybrid Soviet society blending Uzbeks, African Americans and white Europeans was even more exciting. So when the scientists’ contract ended in 1934 and most of their group returned to America, Golden and Bialek remained behind, believing that, as an interracial couple whose first child, Lily, had just been born, they would have far greater freedom in the USSR than in the USA.

The Goldens became Soviet citizens. Golden found work as a scientific researcher at Tashkent’s Irrigation Institute and was elected to local political office, opportunities he would have been denied in the U.S. He was very active in Soviet efforts to promote the cause of the Scottsboro Boys, nine Alabama teenagers falsely accused and convicted of raping two white women.

When Golden died in 1940 of heart failure and a long-standing kidney ailment inflicted by a police nightstick in New York, Bialek raised Lily on her own, making ends meet by continuing her job as a teacher and finding extra work as a translator.

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Lily excelled at school, notably in music, and was a nationally ranked tennis player by the time she entered Moscow State University, the nation’s most prestigious, in 1952. The first person of African descent known to have studied there, she was almost excluded because of her mother’s Jewish heritage but was allowed to remain after lobbying by a small but politically powerful group of African-American Communists who took up her cause.

In Moscow, Lily Golden met with prominent African-American visitors to the Soviet Union, like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois, who had known her father. She also traveled to Leningrad, where she met her half-brother, Ollava, and his mother, Anya. Oliver Golden had tried to contact them upon his return to the USSR in 1931 but was told that they had died. Anya, a decorated hero of the Soviet resistance to the Nazis, became a surrogate grandmother to Lily, who graduated from Moscow State in 1957. She was probably the first woman of African descent to earn a Russian university degree and was only the second black Russian to do so. The great Russian writer Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) was the first.

Her thesis on radical Republican opposition to slavery in the U.S. Congress was initially rejected because of its lack of any references to the recently deceased Soviet leader, Stalin, but was later accepted, again thanks to her African-American friends in high places in Moscow. Lily Golden’s connections also smoothed her path to a position at the African Department of Moscow’s Oriental Institute of the Academy of Sciences, which Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, had established in 1958 at the urging of Du Bois.  

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In 1960 Lily Golden met Abdullah Kassim Hanga, a Zanzibarian student, who, like many other Africans in Moscow, was seeking an end to colonial rule on his continent. Their marriage in 1961 prompted debates in the British parliament, concerned by Hanga’s ties to the Soviet Union, and caused the KGB to investigate Golden’s links to a foreign national. The marriage broke down, however, as a result of Hanga’s conservative views on women’s roles and his decision to return to Zanzibar following the birth of their daughter, Yelena Khanga, in 1962. Golden later discovered that Hanga, who served briefly as prime minister in an independent Zanzibar in 1964, was assassinated by political opponents after Zanzibar was incorporated into Tanzania. 

Yelena Khanga was raised by her mother and grandmother, Bialek, in Moscow, where she enjoyed a relatively privileged upbringing as the child of a leading Soviet academic. Like her mother, she was a talented tennis player and attended Moscow State. She graduated in 1984 with a degree in journalism and worked for three years with the Moscow World News. In 1987, in the wake of glasnost, President Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization of the Soviet system, Khanga was selected to take part in an exchange program between American and Soviet newspapers. She moved to Boston to work for the Christian Science Monitor.  

While in the U.S., she began to research her black and Jewish ancestry and traveled to Yazoo, Miss., to visit the land once owned by her great-grandfather. She also met many of her African-American relatives at a family reunion in Mississippi, and in 1992 she published a memoir, Soul to Soul: The Story of a Black Russian American Family 1865-1992. In that book, Khanga admitted that racism existed in Russia during the Soviet era and had worsened since communism’s collapse, but she was also clear that her own family had experienced more discrimination for being Jewish and American than for being black. Around this time, her mother also began visiting the United States and taught at Chicago State University in the 1990s before returning to Moscow to help raise her daughter’s children. Lily Golden died in Russia in 2010.

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Since the 1990s, Khanga, now 53, has divided her time between the U.S., where she was a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Russia, where she gained popularity as host of a local talk show.

Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008; a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center. This article was adapted from the AANB entries about Oliver Golden, Lily Golden and Yelena Khanga.

Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.