The American Russian Institute

Fred S. Naiden

Abstract for the American Russian Institute

The American Russian Institute, founded in 1926, served for two decades as a pro-Soviet propaganda vehicle for the Communist Party USA. Like other party-line organizations of this era, the Institute passed through an initial period of isolation and stagnation before attaining its peak in the late 1930s and early and mid-40s, when it published The American Quarterly of the Soviet Union, the only hardcover American journal ever dedicated to life in the USSR. Progressive luminaries such as John Dewey served on the Institute board, and the historian Moses Finley, who would later be knighted after an academic career at Cambridge University, served as the chief of staff. Besides the Quarterly, the Institute published several other pro-Soviet publications and conducted cultural outreach. It apparently had no connections to Soviet spy networks that worked through the Communist Party, USA in the 30s and 40s. After the Truman Administration declared the Institute to be a subversive organization in 1947, the Institute lost funding, staff, and readers, and closed in 1948.

No scholarly treatment of the Institute has ever appeared, but the entire run of the The American Quarterly of the Soviet Union, from 1938 to 1947, is now available at For Finley’s role, see issue 135.2 of the American Journal of Philology, entitled “Moses Finley 1913-1954: The Making of an Ancient Historian,” appearing in 2014.

The American Russian Institute

Founded in 1926 under the auspices of the Communist Party USA, the American Russian Institute served as the chief American vehicle of pro-Soviet propaganda until its demise in 1948 at the start of the Cold War. Like other party-line organizations of this era, the Institute passed through an initial period of isolation and stagnation before attaining its peak in the late 1930s and early and mid-40s, when it published The American Quarterly of the Soviet Union, the only hardcover American journal ever dedicated to life in the USSR.

In its most active years, the American-Russian Institute worked out of 38 Park Avenue, NYC, an address that the organization shared with other party-line groups such as the charity group Russian War Relief. It recruited celebrity sponsors such as the conductor Leopold Stokowski, the social scientist John Dewey, and the anthropologist Franz Boas, who unlike the other two had worked with Communist-front organizations in universities. A sprinkling of wealthy donors of a reliable political complexion joined these luminaries as members of the board. The Institute hired its staff from among left-wing intellectuals in New York City. Important posts went to party members. The writers for the Quarterly and for other publications published by the Institute came from the same left-wing demimonde: cheap literary labor motivated by idealism but confronted with Dickensian conditions in New York journalism.

At the Institute, as at similar non-profit organizations, the allotment of power was not what it seemed. The board had less power than the staff, which answered to the Communist Party and sometimes to the Soviet government. The writers and other producers of the Institute’s cultural products, especially the Quarterly, also had less power than the staff. These “cultural workers,” in the party’s jargon, were not prominent writers or experts. Instead they were the untenured professors of the day—industrious, conventional, and timid.

Among the staff, the two most important were the field director of the Institute and the editor of the Quarterly. Among other duties, the field director served as the unacknowledged publisher of the Quarterly. He corralled the board, raised money, appointed staff, and pursued the Institute’s goal of promoting the Soviet Union without being taken as a mouthpiece for the Communists. The editor of the Quarterly had peculiar duties, too. Since the American universities of the time paid little attention to Soviet affairs, the Quarterly served as a substitute for an academic, peer-reviewed journal. Yet the Quarterly was trying to reach educated readers, not scholars. It could be pro-Soviet without fact-checking.

From the late 30s through the mid-40s, two would-be academics ran the Quarterly. The institute’s field director, Moses Finkelstein, was a Columbia University graduate student in an ancient history. A child prodigy, he had earned a Columbia law degree at 21, then taken up Greek and Latin. While at the Institute, he was ABD. Before that, he had served as a left-wing organizer among intellectuals and teachers, including a stint as Franz Boaz’s chief aide. When he did write his dissertation, it became a well-known book, The World of Odysseus [available at] that got him a post as a don at Cambridge, where he ended his career as Sir Moses Finley—a change of name emblematic of his switch from organizing to scholarship. Finley left the United States after he took the Fifth Amendment when asked about his Party membership by a Congressional committee.

The editor of the Quarterly, Harriet Moore, had studied Classics at Bryn Mawr. So had her mother. Her father was corporation counsel of the Pullman Company, which broke the socialist-led railroad strike of 1894. Like Finley, she would tacitly confirm her party membership by taking the Fifth. Unlike Finley, who had heard Russian (and more Yiddish) at home, Moore had studied the language on her own. Less of an intellectual than Finley, she was more of a linguist. She touched up the Institute’s public face, the Quarterly. He handled its policy. To the Soviet authorities, he had clout. She had a trust fund, and a correspondingly low salary.

The 1938 inaugural issue ran a typical 73 pages, free of both ads and illustrations. It featured not just a “Study of a Ukrainian Collective Farm,” but also “Housecleaning in Soviet Law” and “The Man of Eighteen Symphonies.” [like all issues, available at]. The article on the collective farm said nothing about how these farms came into being at the expense of the Kulaks, peasant proprietors whom the Soviet regime had exterminated. The symphonies article, on the composer Mayakovski, mentioned the reigning Soviet style of art, “socialist realism,” only once, in a letter of the composer’s that admitted that he had not mastered this style in his instrumental pieces, just in his pieces with libretti. The Quarterly also included “Documents.” In April ’38, some of these were a “Decree Stopping Payments to an Italian Firm,” a “Decision Canceling Stakhanovite Month” in honor of an exemplary worker, and a “List of new Theatrical Productions, Opera, and Ballet.”

How to treat your housecleaner, 18 symphonies, Italian firms—the Quarterly might have been published by Carnegie Hall. But Carnegie Hall would not have included the farm or the Stakhanovite.

The staff for these publications also produced other propaganda. At the low end, they assembled teaching kits for schools, such as the following, available gratis in California in 1947: The Secret of Soviet Strength, Mother Russia; Socialized Medicine; Lenin, That Boy Nikolka; The Baltic Riddle; and Maxim Litvinov’s Against Aggression. Higher up came post-graduate courses for credit for New York City teachers. The Communist party leader Bella Dodd—the highest-ranking trade unionist to name names to the McCarran committee in the 50s—enrolled in one of these courses. At the high end, the staff organized New York gatherings for the travel writer Edgar Snow one month and Uzbek painters another, and subjected soon to be published books on the USSR to discrete correction.

Finley and Moore wanted their prize publication, and their organization, to be respectable. That touch of the Classics helped, and so did avoiding the Communist Party, USA. Yet the purpose of their work was to help the Party advocate a Soviet model for American society. No organization had ever advocated any foreign model for America—not even the socialists. All through the 1920s, the Institute struggled to perform its task. It had few members, little money, and, most of all, no journal. For most readers interested in the Soviet Union, the possible spread of Communist revolution was a more interesting subject than Soviet life. Years later, after the USSR became a superpower, there was more interest, but also more partisanship. Journalists sometimes worked for intelligence agencies and scholars served as consultants to foreign ministries and presidents. In between these two periods was a decade when the Soviet Union was more an anomaly than a threat. A journal on the USSR might have reported widely on the new society. Policy makers at the time would have profited from it, and so would historians today. Instead there was the Quarterly and other even more propagandistic publications. The Institute board might have changed the Quarterly, but the one member who tried to change it, Dewey, met with opposition from the staff.

Dewey, the nation’s leading public intellectual—perhaps the inventor of this role, which differed from the leadership provided by the orators and preachers of earlier decades—took up the embarrassing issue of Leon Trotsky. He wanted the institute to examine Trotsky’s criticism of the Soviet Union, not from an anti-Communist perspective, but from a progressive one. Dewey, who thought the Soviet Union was doing well in some respects, wanted it to do much better in others. When the staff notified their contacts in the official Soviet cultural organization known as VKOS, and VKOS relayed the news to the foreign ministry, the ministry said it wanted Dewey out. Heeding Soviet wishes, the staff resisted Dewey’s suggestions. Their opposition drove him to quit the Institute—that, and the assassination of Trotsky by Soviet agents in 1940.

The Soviets disliked the Institute. It had too many men like Dewey on the board, and it had the wrong kind of staff, described by one apparatchik as “very close to the Communist Party…. at the same time [they] consider this part of their work as cleaning up of their capitalist consciousness and redemption of their capitalist sins.” This remark appeared in a letter sent by a VKOS official in Washington to the “Third Western Department, The People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs,” in 1938. It is now where such a letter might be expected to be stored—the Russian State Archive in the Kremlin in Moscow (fond 5283, op. 1a, file 325, p. 8).

Finley, Moore, and their fellow Communists apparently did not notice Soviet dissatisfaction. They also felt secure in their urban, left-wing milieu. New York was choc a bloc with non-profit organizations and publications where Communists or fellow travelers ran the office. Some New York publications, like The New Masses, were for the general public [for this journal, see]. In in the April, 1938 issue that appeared the same time as the debut of the Quarterly, there was more on the struggles of the Brooklyn Dodgers than on those of Communist Party of the United States. Yet the author of the baseball piece, the editor of New Masses, Robert Forsythe, was an avowed Communist as well as a professed Dodger fan.

These kinds of publication were not uniquely American. In England, the Anglo-Soviet Journal did the work of the Quarterly, and Labour Today did some of the work of The New Masses [two English journals available at]. The British publications lacked the Jewish flavor provided by men like Finley, and the very different flavor provided by millionaire socialists like Moore. British staff were proletarian, like most of the British Communist Party. The staff in New York were variegated, like the city around them.

When the Cold War began, in 1947, U.S. Attorney General Clark declared the Institute “subversive,” along with 90 other organizations on a list that came partly from the FBI. White House counsel Clark Clifford later wrote that Hoover and others pressured the Administration to act. [C. Clifford: Counsel to the President: A Memoir (New York 1991) 177, available at]. Money and contacts dried up, and in late March 1947 Finley resigned as director. The Quarterly and the other publications closed later that year, and in ’48 the Institute closed, too.

According to Finley’s FBI file, the bureau inferred that he had spent the Institute into bankruptcy [FBI 100 2441 5/19/47, available under the Freedom of Information Act]. This conclusion must have come from a government plant in the office. More likely, the Institute lost support among liberals, who were now turning anti-Soviet. Finley, Moore, and the Communist Party had banked on unity between progressives like Dewey and the revolutionary left, but issues raised by the Cold War—Soviet spying in the US, the Red Army’s occupation of Eastern Europe, the Chinese Civil War—split the progressives from the left.

Meanwhile, the British pro-Soviet journals kept thriving. The reason for this trans-Atlantic contrast was partly economic. The British left-wing literary scene scarcely changed between the 30s and the 50s, but the New York scene did. In the 30s, New York writers felt the impact of the Depression. After World War II, the GI Bill and the growth of graduate programs made academic credentials easier to get, and the writers of the ’30s switched to university posts. Once the Attorney General declared the American Russian Institute “subversive,” these writers and others with a paper trail protected themselves by moving to the political center. Most of them quit the Communist Party well before the revelations about Stalin or the invasion of Hungary in 1956. Independents like Dewey stopped working with Communists. For the Institute, these changes spelled not only a loss of staff, but also a loss of income from donors who saw no more names like Dewey’s on the masthead.

The Communists at the Institute scattered. Moses Finley went back to graduate school, finished his degree, starting working at Rutgers and then found himself blacklisted. In 1954 he received his post at Cambridge in spite of the attempt of the anti-communist Sidney Hook to torpedo him. The Cold War had not affected university life in Britain. Harriet Moore found work in other party-line publications, but only for a few years. She retired to Brattleboro, Vt., sustained in part by income from the railroad fortune made by her father.

The left blamed the demise of organizations like the Institute on governmental interference. The right gladly blamed the Soviet Union. The FBI blamed those it spied on. But in 1947, in the glare of the atomic bomb and the Iron curtain, there were no readers for a piece on 18 symphonies or on farms in the Ukraine as opposed to White Russia. There was room for scholarship, and for partisanship, but not for an American Quarterly that had never, in spirit, been a quarterly, or for an American Russian Institute that had never, in fact, been Russian as opposed to Soviet. This magazine and the organization that ran it deserved to expire, albeit decades ahead of the foreign power that influenced them.

Until recently, only a dozen or so university libraries carried the Quarterly. None had a full run. Now every issue is available at UNZ on-line. Chinese Communists can read it. What will they make of it? Will they wish that they had an American publication to praise conditions in their factories and to argue that the United States should imitate China rather than criticize it? More likely, they will conclude that the Quarterly is a period piece impossible to revive in any form.

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