Back in the USA : Sixty years after her parents left to seek a socialist utopia in the Soviet Union, Lily Golden samples American culture.
Lily Golden, a 57-year-old Soviet citizen, said she often wondered what her life would have been like had she grown up in the United States. “I think maybe I be a blues singer or gospel singer,” said Golden in a thick Russian accent.
If not for the racism in the United States, she may well have done just that.
Golden, who grew up in the city of Tashkent near the Afghanistan border, is the daughter of a black man from the Mississippi Delta and a white woman who preached socialism in New York City. The couple moved to the Soviet Union 60 years ago in search of a better life.
Her parents, John and Bertha Golden, moved there in 1931, in part to escape the kind of legal and physical harassment that many interracial marriages experienced in the United States.
“They were romantic, idealists,” Golden said. “Racism was very strong in the United States during the ‘20s and ‘30s and they thought the Soviet Union would be a country that would show a new way for mankind.”
For Golden, there were few opportunities to meet with relatives or hear traditional African-American music growing up in Tashkent, which is in the republic of Uzbekistan.
“There were things that I didn’t have in my life--that part of black life is what I missed. Things like gospel music, blues and spirituals.”
A recent stop in Los Angeles gave Golden the opportunity to experience some of those things and to meet some of her relatives for the first time. She has been on an extended stay in the United States since January, traveling about and lecturing on life in the Soviet Union under glasnost and perestroika.
In Los Angeles, she stayed with an 80-year-old cousin in the Crenshaw District who said he was a young child when her father visited his home in Arkansas and gave the children money--a practice that earned him a nickname.
“She looks just like Uncle Buck, but she talks like one of those Russians,” said John W. Jackson, using the family nickname for his long-lost uncle. “He was a big man with broad shoulders just like you, Lily.”
“Such a way to describe a woman,” Golden shot back with a laugh.
A few miles away in the Fairfax District, Golden met another cousin, one of her mother’s few relatives who remained in contact with the family.
Pearl Steinhardt showed a collection of postcards from Golden’s mother that were preserved under glass on a tabletop and recalled her relationship with Golden’s parents.
“Her mother was a friend of mine before I got married (to her cousin) so the relation was there,” Steinhardt said.
"(John) Golden was also my friend,” she said. “But the family couldn’t accept a black person. My husband and I were not like that, we were not bigoted people . . . especially having witnessed so much discrimination in Poland.”
Golden’s parents were among thousands of Americans who moved to the Soviet Union before and after the Depression to help build a socialist society.
Golden’s father, an active member of the American Communist Party, brought a group of 16 black agricultural experts to Tashkent in 1931 to help modernize cotton farming in the rugged, sun-parched fields of Central Asia. The little outpost of African-American emigres was well known and visited by the likes of Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson.
Eventually, some of the participants returned to the United States. But others like the Goldens stayed, even though they never found the socialist paradise they had envisioned.
“My parents were people who thought they found utopia, but what is built in the Soviet Union was not a utopia, it was not even communism or socialism, it was totalitarianism,” she said.
Her father died in 1940 at the age of 53 of a kidney ailment that was the result of being beaten by police during a Communist Party demonstration in New York City in the 1920s, Golden said. Her mother, who was left to raise Golden alone, remained a communist and never regretted her decision to stay in the Soviet Union, her daughter said. She died in 1985 at the age of 80.
Lily Golden spent most of her early years in Tashkent, where she became a tennis champion of Soviet Central Asia before moving to Moscow, where she studied African history and music. In the 1960s, she was married briefly to a student from Tanzania and had a daughter, Yelena Khanga. Khanga, a journalist who is living in New York City, attracted national attention in 1988 when she was the only black reporter in the Soviet press corps during the Reagan-Gorbachev summit.
Golden made her first journey to the United States in 1987 on a trip sponsored by the Center for U.S.-U.S.S.R. Initiatives, a San Francisco-based organization seeking to promote greater understanding between the two countries.
Sharon Tennison, the organization’s president, said at that time, getting permission for Golden to leave the country took some “arm twisting.”
“At the time they said that Americans would turn against her because she is black and communist,” Tennison said. “But I think they were just afraid she would defect.”
Golden was finally given approval for a brief tour, which included a trip to her father’s hometown of Clarksdale, Miss., where she was unable to find any living relatives despite an exhaustive search.
“I didn’t think I had any relatives on my father’s side left,” she said.
But a year later, Golden and photos of her father were featured in a television special about blacks living in the Soviet Union. The program prompted telephone calls from relatives in Chicago, where most of her family had migrated after the war.
Golden was soon on her way back to the United States to meet her Chicago relatives.
And last year, three of Golden’s Chicago cousins were among a group of 16 people to tour the Soviet Union and visit the grave of John Golden and the house in which Lily was raised.
“I touched the door to their house,” said Delores Harris, a cousin. “It was thrilling to know that my uncle used to go through that door.”
The moment held a special meaning for Golden as well. It was a chance to share her Soviet roots with her new-found family.
“I am Russian. No doubt about it,” she said proudly. “Oh yes, I was born there and all that culture is mine--Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky.”
The presence of blacks in Russian culture dates back centuries, she said, citing as an example the father of Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin, who was of African descent. Pushkin’s great-grandfather Hannibal was an Ethiopian prince who served Peter the Great as a general.
In Los Angeles, however, it wasn’t Russian culture that Golden was seeking when she went to a nightclub in the Crenshaw District.
“Play ‘Route 66,’ ” she yelled out to blues singer Linda Hopkins. The well-known song about the highway that once ran from Chicago to Los Angeles seemed appropriate.
It was an ideal time to practice the black American slang she had picked up on her trip.
“Gonya Girl! (Go on girl!), Get out of here!” she said approvingly in her heavy Russian accent.
Golden met Hopkins after the show and the blues singer welcomed her with a big hug.
The next day, Sunday morning, Golden was off to Arizona to speak to several groups before going on to Taos, N.M., to attend a conference of American Indians.
“Recently, I learned that my grandmother was an Indian and now I’ve become interested in indigenous people,” she said.