It looks at the emergence of Russians/Russia as a medium against which to distinguish American exceptionalism within American popular culture. It argues that the significance of Russian bodies for American identity formation dates back to the late eighteenth century, when American-born explorer developed an interest in Russian America (Alaska). While the importance of American westward expansionism and explorer culture for American identity formation has already been established by American studies scholars, such as Henry Nash Smith back in 1950, Alaska and its Russian colonizers have never been considered within such studies. This project fills this research gap, analyzing American sources on Russia's colonial history in Alaska, nineteenth-century anthropological and historical works on Alaska, and oral histories of Alaskan Indigenous people. Examining early American imaginaries of Russia will shed light on the full range of at times incongruent American ideas about Russian bodies within American popular culture from a cross-sectional historical perspective. It will provide a better understanding of the simultaneous existence of two very different views on Russia: on the one hand, as dangerous place, where Russian vulnerable bodies have to face Russian authoritarian power and, on the other hand, as an almost magical land, populated by figures that embody artistic sophistication and intellectual superiority.
I argue that the current assemblage of Russia imaginaries consists of elements that date back to the time of the American fight for independence, nineteenth-century popular culture, and American humanitarianism, and are neither sufficiently explained by the legacies of European Orientalism (Wolff 1994) nor through the continuation of Cold War cultures (Whitfield 1996). Researchers such as Larry Wolff (1994) and David Engerman (2004) trace US cultural discourses of the twentieth century back to the European Enlightenment and its project of orientalism. Orientalism localized Russia as in-between the two poles of racialized barbarian Others and white European civilization as anti- or half-modern, not-yet-civilized. Without disputing these scholars' findings, I question their universality. More recent scholarly work views contemporary Russia discourses through the lens of European orientalism and identifies therein the crucial role Russia imaginaries have played in the construction of US identity as progressive and modern (Williams 2012), Sadowksi-Smith 2018, Basulto 2015 etc.). This line of thought, however, fails to consider both US independence from Europe and the US's specific take on modernity, which manifested itself during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries alongside Russia's colonial imperial power. In focusing exclusively on (elite) discourses that followed European orientalist thinking, these scholars present an unbalanced historical picture of US Russia imaginaries and discourses. This one-sided view additionally leads to a lack of recognition of the strong influence that nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian art and music had in the US – from Anton Rubinstein or Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky to the prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, and the designer Léon Bakst. Last, but not least, it misses the significance of Russian ideas for many emerging progressive social movements during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the afterlife of these ideas within more recent modernity discourses. In other words, the strong focus in enduring cultural notions of Russia as backward and a latecomer to modernity makes those ideas in which Russia was conceptualized as a modern power, progressive and civilized seem more of an anomaly or an exception rather than any kind of discursively significant or lasting influence. Yet, Russian colonialism significantly influenced discourses of American expansionism and the emerging American nationalism and theories of race and ethnicity. Moreover, the Russian Revolution(s) and their aftermath significantly shaped US humanitarianism and internationalism. US Marxists, suffragettes, Jewish progressives, and anti-segregation activists engaged intensively with Russia, the early Soviet state and the Russian people during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This engagement needs to be analyzed, given how important these liberal and progressive movements were for future ideas about US identities, progress and development. Last, but not least, the continued imaginary of Russians as ballerinas or piano virtuosi in contemporary popular culture (e.g. in the movies Orphan 2009 and Red Sparrow 2017) as well as its enduring image as a nation of exceptional talent, prompts a re-evaluation of the significance of nineteenth-century geniuses such as Rubinstein or Tchaikovsky, Pavlova, Bakst etc. The fame and influence of these artists left a deep impression on the US public and created an image of Russia as a land of groundbreaking art, an image that continues to survive today.