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In the Land of Czars and Commissars: African Americans in Russia, the Soviet Union, and Post-Soviet Russia, 1824-2015

It was in May 1824 that Nancy Gardner Prince, rescued from alife of poverty and hardship in Massachusetts through a recent marriage, foundherself in a most surreal circumstance unlike any previously experienced by anAfrican American in this region of the world. After recently arriving in St,Petersburg, the capital of Imperial Russia, she found herself calmly strollingdown magnificent hallways, attentive guards acknowledging her presence. Nancyand her husband passed through doors of the royal palace on their way to keepan appointment with Czar Alexander I,the ruler of the largest nation in the world. 

For other talented and enterprising African Americans whofollowed, Russia, though a culturally and physically distant and far lesstraveled destination, offered opportunities not readily available to themelsewhere. Though mostly visitors and temporary residents, these blacksojourners nonetheless felt acceptance and appreciated their stay in Russiawhich they saw as a distant refuge from the daily humiliations that theyroutinely faced in the United States. Through their travels and experiences half a world away they helped toshape an image of and interest in Russia and the Soviet Union that would informthe views of this land, its people, history and culture for millions of AfricanAmericans who would never travel there. 

The earliest we hear of Americans of African descent inRussia occurs in the late 1700s when unnamed black sailors, common on Americanships sailing abroad then, were mentioned as members of the crews whose vesselsdocked at Russian ports.  In 1809,a manservant known simply as “Nelson” accompanied the family of futureU.S. President John Quincy Adams when he traveled to St. Petersburg as U. S.Ambassador. A year later, Adams permitted Nelson to be employed in the serviceof Czar Nicholas I along with Alexander Gabriel, an AWOL ship’s cook whom theczar impulsively plucked out of a crowd in the Baltic port city ofKronstadt. 

A stalwart campaigner for the Republican Party, in July1898, Philadelphia-born

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