19 March 2008

“And if you know Bertrand Russell, I agree with his ideas”: Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places

I spend a fair amount of time in the archives looking at documents that reveal the various reasons that foreigners were attracted to the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. For instance, when Rabindranath Tagore wrote to Soviet officials, he explained that he would like to see if the USSR had solved the peasant problem, as that was the most urgent problem facing India. African American actor Wayland Rudd both looked up to the advanced methods of Soviet theater and sought an opportunity to play non-demeaning roles. A Muslim student in the early 1920s thought that the Soviet Union was a great place to study in preparation for his participation in a pan-Islamic uprising. Both Indian and Black farmers wanted to move to Central Asia from America to work on technologically advanced collective farms.

Among these many experiments in establishing a new society, there was also the sense that the Soviet Union (and especially Moscow) was a bohemian location, as odd as this may seem in retrospect. A number of visitors played up the fact that one could live and love freely here, unconstrained by anti-miscegenation laws or archaic moralities, a vision that eventually showed up (in a rather ossified form) in the popular 1936 movie "Circus" [Tsirk].

Yesterday, I found a funny little letter attesting to how Soviet life appealed to one foreigner, R. Swaroop, an energetic twenty-five year old journalist from India. On 16 October 1933, Swaroop wrote to a Mr. Orlov at VOKS (All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Overseas Countries) in hopes of getting a personal perspective on the Soviet Union by establishing correspondence with two Soviet citizens—one male and one female. In the letter, Swaroop explains that he admires Soviet economic achievements, although he disagrees with violent revolution as a means of liberation. He also approves of the establishment of a new morality, free of religious superstition; he sees religion as a salve that allows one to live with exploitation, rather than confront it.

I hate religion for supporting it all [political and economic oppression], and you have done the wisest thing in doing away with it. It is a great obstacle in our progress. Similarly the older sort of morality which gave women a place of subordination to man was a great hitch. Of course, I don’t believe a trash what they say about the nationalization of women. I myself believe in a new sort of morality, and if you know Bertrand Russell, I agree with his ideas.

At this point, Swaroop goes on a little jag of name-dropping. He admits that he only made it through a year of college, but he’s a voracious reader; he is especially keen on Krishnamurti. He’s also an amateur photographer and he’s learning dance from Madame Menaka (Lila Sokhey), one of the most well-known Indian dancers of the 1930s. He concludes his missive by describing the kind of people he would like to correspond with. Any man will do, it seems, but in light of his interests he asks for a particular type of female pen pal.

...I wish my girl correspondent from your country to say how she feels under this new regime. I hope she won’t feel shy to discuss sex matters with me as a European girl will do. I am a man.

That’s the last sentence before he signs off.


kg said...

Typical... Any chance the dude still alive? I'll write to him :).

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

I dunno, by my math, he's 100. But if that dancing worked out, maybe he's still in good shape. Google turns up zilch, alas.