Performing Tsarist Russia in New York: Music, Émigrés, and the American Imagination

By Natalie K. Zelensky. 2019. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 235 pages. ISBN: 978-0-253-04118-0 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Lydia Bringerud, Memorial University of Newfoundland

[Review length: 836 words • Review posted on September 1, 2021]


[Cover ofPerforming Tsarist Russia in New York: Music, Émigrés, and the American Imagination]

Folklorists and ethnomusicologists who read Performing Tsarist Russia in New York: Music, Émigrés, and the American Imagination by Natalie Zelensky will immediately feel at home in its pages. Her theories are grounded in our disciplines, especially in her analysis of emergent identities, performance, and nostalgia. Those in our disciplines will also be familiar with the author’s complex positionality as both insider and outsider in the community she studies. The book takes a deep look at the forces (esoteric and exoteric) which construct the identity of a group and its constituents, and ultimately asks where the boundaries lie between assimilation and cultural difference. The two main themes of the work, she writes, are how music both created and sustained émigrés in the First Wave of the Russian diaspora in New York and how American popular culture both interacted with and represented this cultural community.

The first chapter of the book focuses on the 1920s and looks at how music sustained the First Wave of Russian émigrés as they transitioned in Harlem and also experienced exile from their homeland. She complicates the idea of homeland in general in the book by discussing how the memory of the past is both constructed in and informed by the present. In the case of First Wave émigrés to New York, the Russia they remembered was pre-revolutionary. Nostalgia for an imagined golden past emerged as First Wave émigrés performed Russian folk music to fulfill an American audience’s appetite for the exotic.

The second chapter is about First Wave performers’ deliberate coding of “Russianness” as a specific set of cultural tropes in the 1920s and 1930s. Zelensky demonstrates that certain symbols came to stereotype Russian émigrés at this time, especially through sheet music: caviar, vodka, samovars, and balalaikas, for example (83). “Self-stereotyping” or self-exoticizing continued, especially through heavy borrowing of Romani music and cultural tropes, presented as part of this Russian image (93). However, there was subtler fusion happening at the same time; Russian émigrés were actively exploring cultural fusion in music, especially with jazz. Mainstream musicians covered some folk songs, for example, and Russian music even made its way into cartoons. Russian aesthetics came into vogue in other ways, such as clothing, helped along by some émigrés who were working as seamstresses. Zelensky describes this process as a cultural feedback loop.

Chapter 3 covers the encounter between Second Wave Soviet immigrants and the First Wave group in the years surrounding World War II. Earlier émigrés were horrified by the transformation of their homeland after the Bolshevik Revolution and felt a need to preserve what was lost. This was an important point of musical exchange between First and Second Wave groups, because the First Wave encountered Soviet music in the U.S., and the Second Wave encountered music which had been banned in the Soviet Union. Concepts of “Russianness” were expanded in this exchange.

Chapter 4 discusses the anti-communist diaspora in New York during the Cold War. Specific focus is given to the composer Vernon Duke (the stage name of Vladimir Dukelsky) and his work for Radio Liberty, an anti-communist propaganda station which specifically targeted the Soviet Union. The station highlighted the voices and music produced by other émigrés whose specific stories and interests play into a complex portrait of Russian émigré representation.

Chapter 5 skips several decades to land in the present day. Zelensky discusses Russian balls as sites of imagination, construction and performance of identity, belonging, and difference. This chapter is unique in that the author herself speaks from participant observation at a ball, reflecting on the physical experiences of nostalgia and enchantment.

The author is confident in her subject matter, and she supports her arguments throughout the book with extensive references. Her writing is both elegant and efficient, and her chapters flow easily from one to the other. The book effectively demonstrates the complex dynamics between diversity in a community and the way that a community can be pushed into “singularity,” as Zelensky writes. The forces that create this singularity may come from both inside and outside the community, whether through shared experiences and language or from the perceptions of other communities in New York. Zelensky deftly weaves these threads together using individual stories, archival material like photographs, and music scores to paint a rich portrait of this historical period. She describes Vera Ilinyshna Tolstoy, for example, who was a countess in Russia, but was forced to work singing in a bar and at a hairdresser’s in Paris to make ends meet. Her story exemplifies the dramatic shift made by many First Wave émigrés who went from leading privileged aristocratic lives in Russia to blue-collar jobs in New York.

This book is first and foremost an ethnomusicological study, and it will be useful to those interested in that theoretical lens. Zelensky herself writes that most of the literature written about Russian popular music during this period has been by historians rather than by musicologists or ethnomusicologists. Her book adds depth to this discussion by centering the cultural aspects of this music.

This site is best viewed in modern desktop browsers.
© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.