15 September 2007

The Golden Brains of Moscow

“We are indebted to the Soviet Union for our best anticommunists. Our best Marxists, however, we get from Paris.”

Such was the report given to a Russian scholar researching in Africa during the late Cold War, recalled at the “Pax Africana” Conference this week, co-sponsored by the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World History and MGU’s Institute of Asian and African Studies.

I have to say, at first I was a bit worried about this conference. With twenty-three invited speakers from Russia, South Africa, Britain, Madagascar and the USA, I expected, to be frank, a few more representatives from the black diaspora. I found only three. To make things even more uncomfortable, the first panel focused on the problems of minorities in Africa—three papers on Afrikaaners and other whites in South Africa and one paper on Indians in Ethiopia and Tanzania. Behind the liberal framing of the problems of post-apartheid life, there was a nervous recurrent disavowal of nostalgia; you know, the kind of recurrent disavowal that can’t but make one wonder. Plus, it’s just peculiar that the premiere panel of a conference on Africa was all white people who didn’t really discuss black people. But I'm old-fashioned that way.

To top off this already awkward situation (well, awkward for me), I was treated to a series of curious anecdotal comparisons (in the discussion period) of what great businessmen Indian diasporics are, from the UK to South Africa to Tanzania. Why is that? I kept my head tucked down—furchrissakes, I haven’t balanced my checkbook since 1994. (Sorry Dad, it’s the truth.)

But things took a turn for the better, as the conference got away from South Africa. Highlights included work on Italian racial ideology and occupied Ethiopia, African students in Moscow in the 1960s and a conceptual framework for understanding cultural interaction in colonial Africa (a little too broad for my taste, but it was a spirited paper). Curiously, even in Moscow there was a little Skip Gates-bashing, particularly for his inadequate work on the Africana encyclopedia. Aaron McGruder seemed to feel the mood all the way back in the US, with this cartoon appearing the same day:


During the breaks, Russian scholars proved that they are, perhaps, the most generous in the world. (At least, they put Americans to shame.) The unofficial doyen of Russian Africana Studies—whom I had met last month—checked in with me and then apparently told everyone else what I was working on since I had a steady stream of academics coming to me to ask about my work and give me archival tips. One elderly gentleman literally grabbed me by the arm and wouldn’t let go until he was sure I understood how to work the system to get to otherwise “closed documents.” Another invited me over for dinner next month and told me that I should drop by the office to keep the Institute abreast of my work. And I should, of course, present my findings in the spring. The biggest sign of their munificence: they were all completely indulgent of my terrible Russian and poorly formulated questions for two days straight.

On an architectural note, to keep up that recurrent theme, the conference convened at RAN (Rossiiskaia akademiia nauk) for the second day. That place--nicknamed the golden brains of Moscow, for reasons that should be clear from the picture at the top of this post--is just phenomenally bizarre. And oddly beautiful.

Entrance Courtyard at RAN

View of Moscow from the 22nd Floor