Remembering My Lesbian Communist Friend: What Happened to the Revolution?
Shelby Morgan 1949–2017
The Soviet Experiment 1917–1992
My latest favorite T-shirt shows two punks of indeterminate gender kissing. Its message is in Cyrillic script. I once asked my friend Shelby, who lived in Russia for a year, to translate but she couldn’t make sense of it. Then I was wearing it when I encountered a Russian woman at a party celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
She gladly translated:
Shut up! Shut up! Punk out!
Now that I know its message is from the Russian Pussy Riot era, which brought back Soviet-style show trials when a punk music group politically opposed Vladimir Putin, I love the T-shirt even more. Wearing it on the anniversary of the 1917 revolution conjures thoughts of tangled Russian history.
I’ve been thinking about Russia a lot as I’ve been grieving the death of my friend Shelby Morgan. Shelby loved Russian culture and the Russian people. She was deeply influenced by the poet Anna Ahkmatova.
I interviewed Shelby as she was dying of ovarian cancer. The story of her life is fascinating and I learned so much that I had not known. I was especially interested in how she became radicalized and why she joined the Communist Party.
Shelby was born in 1949 with the same May 19 birthday as Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm X and Augusto Sandino. When she walked into Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco and saw a poster with the date and pictures of all of them, she knew she was destined to be a revolutionary.
She was born and raised in Corning, a little Arkansas town on the Mississippi Delta. It was flat farming country, hot and muggy. Her father was a traveling fertilizer salesman.
Growing up a white girl in the South during the Civil Rights Movement colored Shelby’s political development. The forced integration of Little Rock Central High in 1957 when she was eight years old stunned her.
“I remember saying to my mom, ‘Why would people act this way just because of skin color?’ Mom said, ‘It makes no sense.’ That was a very big deal to me.”
Partly because the Arkansas education system was so terrible, her parents sent her to a boarding school for white young ladies in Memphis, Tennessee in 11th grade (1966–67). Most of the students were from Mississippi and Alabama where schools had just been integrated, so their parents sent them there to get them out of the integrated public schools.
Shelby landed in San Francisco in the early 1970s. Her first job was at the Exploratorium (a hands-on science museum) where she worked with its founder, Frank Oppenheimer. The younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, he had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
“He would play the flute while I played piano. We had a sweet little friendship going on. He was an old man at that point, an old commie. His atonement for his brother Robert’s involvement with the atom bomb was to start the Exploratorium.”
She joined the Communist Party in 1978.
“I was totally anti-capitalist at this point and even with the disaster that the Left was in at that time, there was an international movement and it was just thrilling to me. I just felt this was where the good work was being done. And it was fun. Man, did I have fun. The people were just great.”
By that time, most of the older generation of commies had left the Party after learning of Stalin’s purges.
“The old commies, people who’d left the Party, said ‘what about Czechoslovakia?’ We knew about all the atrocities. And I, because of my gender training, said I’d leave the theoretical issues up to the leadership who were primarily male. I said I’m about doing the work on the ground. And I just turned my back to it. It was only years later I started thinking I have to hold myself accountable for this too.”
Communists and others around the world were encouraged by Mikhail Gorbachev’s promise of reforms after he was elected to leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985. When the era of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (transparency) arrived, “we were hot for Gorbachev. I didn’t officially drop out of the Party till we moved to Russia in 1990.”
Shelby’s husband at the time, Dan, was accepted to do research in Russia. They took their four-year-old daughter Sarah with them in 1990. They came back one week before Gorbachev was overthrown in 1991.
“It was a very Interesting and difficult year. We were in Leningrad (now called Saint Petersburg, the cultural capital and the second largest city in Russia). This is hard to talk about because it was so difficult. Russians were really suffering at that point. For the first four months I was living the life of a Soviet woman, so while Dan was in the archives at the University of Leningrad, I would wait in line. There was no food to be had. You would go into a store and the shelves would be literally empty. I would stand in line for a soup bone and cabbage for two hours. We lived off cabbage soup. Fortunately Sarah got fed three days a week at school. After four months we got diplomatic coupons so we could shop. Even then I had to ride a bus across town for an hour to shop. Buses were so crowded. To get on you would have to push people. Sarah was sick all the time with earaches. The clinics and hospitals were filthy. They had no equipment, not even syringes. There was no hot water. I had to boil water to bathe and to wash clothes.
In 1991 the Soviet Union was in a severe economic crisis. The government was collapsing.
“We lived a block from Red Square in Leningrad. People were burning effigies of Gorbachev in the square. I remember standing in Red Square just sobbing. My dreams were dashed. Then Dan went to another city for a while to do research and left Sarah and me in Leningrad after we’d only been there a couple of months. My Russian was very poor. The Iraq war broke out. The American embassy called us together and told us we had to be really careful, lay low, watch your back. Sure enough one night someone threw a rock through Sarah’s bedroom window. I was just terrified.”
“I had a job teaching psychology (Transactional Analysis) at U of Leningrad. The Russians were hungry for input from the West. Psychology was dismal there. I also taught at a collective called Harmonia and did a Radical Therapy (RT) group.”
Her husband was researching a biography of the physiologist Ivan Pavlov.
“When the summer came around, we moved out to the country to Pavlov’s daughter’s house in Komarovo on the Finnish-Soviet border. Stalin had built a village there for artists and intellectuals. It was where Pushkin had lived along with other famous artists and writers. I was really happy there. It was a sweet village with pine and birch trees and a beautiful lake. We used to pick berries. There were no cars. Most people caught a train between Leningrad and Komarovo. Everyone rode bikes there. On the way to the lake there was an old graveyard with old crosses and tombstones where the great female Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, was buried. My father died then just as the government was changing and I couldn’t get a plane back. This was just weeks before Gorbachev was overthrown. Everything was shut down. So I hung out at Akhmatovas’s grave to mourn my dad.”
As her marriage dissolved and she mourned her father’s death, Shelby watched as anti-Gorbachev forces grew. In Leningrad she heard tanks rumbling by on the cobblestone street outside their window.
“We were supposed to come back in September but I started thinking about getting Sarah in kindergarten so we came back early or else we would have been there (on August 19, 1991) when Gorbachev was actually overthrown.”
“We knew it was going to happen just the way it did because there was no civil society to butt up against the government and the mafia. Because it was so heavily state run.”
Back in the States, Shelby joined the feminist movement and later came out as a lesbian. She worked as a youth counselor, a union organizer, in electoral politics, in the anti-apartheid movement, in the nonprofit world, sometimes as the only white person on staff. Shelby’s anti-capitalist outlook influenced her work in the Radical Therapy Movement.
“The theory was you should work only with people in groups, not individuals because unhappiness in life was not based on mental illness. It was a result of alienation from meaningful work, from community, from your body, from meaningful relationships. It was a way to anti-pathologize people’s unhappiness, a total anti-medical model of psychology.
“The reason people have trouble doing that: we grow up under capitalism, which is based on the idea that some people have to win, some have to lose. It’s based on competition and we carry that into our relationships. So RT developed this set of skills to teach people to have cooperative rather than competitive relationships.
Radical Therapy was really key to building a mediation movement.”
Finding a time to interview Shelby was not easy. Even as she was dying, she was organizing, working for single payer health care, marching in demonstrations against Trump and for equality and justice. She was a lifelong activist and she is dearly missed by a large community of friends and comrades.
Shelby Morgan died August 28, 2017
The poet Anna Ahkmatova remained in Russia during the 1917 October Revolution and until her death in 1966. For long periods she was in official disfavor, and many of her relatives and friends fell victim to Soviet political repression.
In February 1917, the revolution started in Petersburg (then named Petrograd); soldiers fired on marching protestors, and others mutinied. In a city without electricity or sewage service, with little water or food, they faced starvation and sickness. Ahkmatova’s friends died around her and others left in droves for safer havens in Europe and America. She had the option to leave, and considered it for a time, but chose to stay and was proud of her decision. She wrote of her own temptation to leave:
A voice came to me. It called out comfortingly.
It said, “Come here,
Leave your deaf and sinful land,
Leave Russia forever,
I will wash the blood from your hands,
Root out the black shame from your heart,
[…] calmly and indifferently,
I covered my ears with my hands,
So that my sorrowing spirit
Would not be stained by those shameful words.
— When in suicidal anguish, trans. Jane Kenyon
On the revolution’s centenary I’ve been thinking about Russia as I read articles by the prolific journalist Masha Gessen and The Unwomanly Face of War by Pulitzer Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich, who chronicles stories of Soviet women soldiers in World War II.
In the Smithsonian magazine I read a compelling piece by Ian Frazier, Whatever Happened to the Russian Revolution. He condenses the history for us in between reminiscences of his travels to Russia in the last 24 years.
There are many lessons here. I hope we Americans can learn them soon enough to avoid contemporary political catastrophes.
I wrote this in 2017, but now as Putin makes war on Ukraine, it seems remarkably relevant again. The legacy of Putin’s rule will have long-lasting effects in Syria, Yemen and Ukraine, but also in Russia as Russians scramble to leave their own country, displaced by a brutal dictatorship.