WHEN I was very small, playmates would ask why my skin didn't turn white, since my family no longer lived in Africa but in cold, snowy Russia," recalls black Russian journalist Yelena Khanga.
Growing up as one of few blacks in a land of pale Slavs, Khanga's life and circumstances are indeed unusual: Her background combines parts Mississippi and Moscow, Zanzibar and New York, Langston Hughes and Billie Holiday.
Her first book, "Soul to Soul," is a lively, well-written memoir that chronicles 125 years of family history. While searching for her roots, Khanga finds many American and African relatives she was unaware existed until glasnost parted the Iron Curtain in the late '80s. But more interesting, she offers a unique perspective into her experience as a minority in a society that, during its years of communism, regarded blacks more with curiosity than racial intolerance.
Prejudice was the main reason Khanga's grandfather, a black agronomist from Mississippi, and his wife, a white Polish Jew from New York, left Harlem for the Soviet Union in 1931. Bertha Bialek and Oliver Golden, who were involved with the United States Communist Party, set out with a group of black agricultural specialists to help the USSR develop a cotton industry.
Their life in rural Tashkent, Uzbekistan, was a striking contrast to their experiences in the US. Not only did they enjoy good pay and special privileges, but they also reveled in the freedom to get on a train and sit anywhere or walk into a hotel through the front door. "In just a few years - you'd be surprised - you could forget what segregation was like," recalls one member of the group.
Oliver and Bertha's lives became harder after the Soviets gave them the choice of relinquishing their US citizenship or leaving the country. They chose to stay. During Stalin's purges, many friends were whisked away to labor camps, and they too were objects of suspicion for their American pasts. It was in this environment that Oliver died and their young daughter, Lily, grew up.
Lily's marriage to a Zanzibari independence leader ended tragically shortly after their daughter, Yelena, was born in 1962. He returned to his country and was murdered by political opponents. The family of three women, led by Bertha - a protective, independent-minded babushka - carved out a place in Soviet society.
Through anecdotes she remembers from her childhood, Khanga provides an account of everyday Soviet life and of her experiences as a minority who "was never made to feel less intelligent, less capable, less likely to achieve than my white schoolmates," but who nevertheless felt different and knew she was on the outside.
In 1987, after a stint at Moscow News, Khanga was selected to participate in the first Soviet journalist exchange with an American paper - The Christian Science Monitor. Her presence in the US drew quite a bit of press coverage. Black Chicago cousins tracked her down after they saw a picture of her grandfather flash across the screen during an interview she had on the ABC newsmagazine 20/20.
Khanga's tale of the search for her roots is boosted by interviews with acquaintances and family members who offer pieces to the historical puzzle. These include black and white relatives in Africa, Chicago, and New York - some who never knew Khanga's branch of the family existed.
It's interesting to note Khanga's experiences as a black in the United States. While the Soviet Union was not completely free of discrimination, the egalitarian-based society sheltered her somewhat from some of the more frequent, subtle and not-so-subtle intolerance many blacks face in America.
In the US, for example, she often encountered what she terms "The Look" - an expression that flickered across the faces of some whites "whose indifferent demeanor changed to bemused respect when I explained that I was Russian." It sent this message: "We tolerate you because you are a black Russian, an exotic member of your species. If you were an ordinary black American, we wouldn't be interested in you."
American journalist Susan Jacoby helped Khanga write "Soul to Soul," and the book has a conversational, easy-to-read tone as it takes the reader on an engaging odyssey.