09 March 2008

Mapping Anticolonialism in Interwar Moscow

A few people have asked about my dissertation on anticolonialism and the Communist International. Rather than bore you with some snoozirific summary of my main arguments and sources, I decided to play with GoogleMaps and put together a little cartography of what I study, inspired by the better work that one can peruse over at Strange Maps.

I'm sure I'll be able to market the walking tours soon: "Folks, on your left is the bench where South African Communist Albert Nzula passed out and died from the cold. His Soviet mentors later cursed him at his funeral for his lack of discipline and waste of talent. Moving on, to the left, next to the Whiskey Bar is..."

[Click on map to enlarge.]


1. Tverskoi Bulvar, 13-15. The home of the university and dormitory for KUTV, the Communist University of Toilers of the East. From 1921 until 1938, hundreds of students from the Soviet Caucasus and Central Asia intermingled with young men and women from Asia, Africa and the Americas, undertaking a study of Marxism-Leninism and the colonial problem. Among the most famous students were Ho Chi Minh, Nazim Hikmet, Jomo Kenyatta, William L. Patterson, and Rattan Singh. My dissertation is particularly interested in the experiences and work of a couple score of Americans of African and Asian descent who came through the school.

2. The VOKS (All-Union Society for Cultural Ties with Foreign Countries) Office on Bolshoi Gnesdnikovskii Pereulok. This is where the visits for figures like Rabindranath Tagore and Paul Robeson, among others, were organized, planned, executed and reviewed.

3. Hotel Luxe on Tverskaya (then Gorkii). Fancy-pants Communist International functionaries were housed here on a semi-permanent and permanent basis. Amongst them were Katayama Sen (famous for his apple pies—seriously, I’ve found three separate documents that refer to how good they were) and two groups of feuding Indian nationalists in the early 1920s. These latter two groups got into a heated, written exchange of letters regarding whom should have the Comintern’s backing. They were, by my math, only a few doors apart, but still chose to have it out in missives copied to the ECCI (Executive Committee of the Communist International).

4. Ulitsa Ogareva, d. 4. Today this lane is once more Gazetnyi Pereulok, but back in the day it had a slightly more revolutionary name and was home to Lovett Fort-Whiteman, the only known African American victim of the Purges. In the mid-1930s, LFW regularly hosted evening get-togethers for other black Americans to talk about life in Moscow.

5. Hotel Metropole. Afro-Chinese Trinidadian dancer Si-Lan Chen, among others, stayed at the Metropole, the more bourgeois place to put up fellow travelers. Chen lived here for almost ten years while trying to perfect a form of dance that incorporated modern and traditional Chinese elements. It was also where she wooed Langston Hughes one cold winter in the early 1930s. Most African Americans who came through Moscow as tourists in the interwar period stayed here.

6. Si-Lan’s big brother Percy Chen, however, got his own crib at 7 Bolshoi Komsomolskii Pereulok, where he hosted big wigs and wrote up articles as a foreign journalist for VOKS and took on various other capacities as Comintern/Chinese nationalist functionary.

7. Down on Ulitsa Kominterna, there was a gang of Comintern work going on, as the street’s name (now ul. Vozdvizhenka) might indicate. Among other things, you could find the offices of the World Agrarian Institute, where area specialists worked on the peasant problem in colonial territories and the studios of Inoradio (Foreign Radio) where you might here black Communists reading Langston Hughes poetry or special English-language reports on life in the Soviet Union.

8. At Ulitsa Solyanka, d. 12, the workers of the Trade Union International (Profintern) put together messages for workers all over the world: "Workers unite! Defend the Soviet Union! And [insert tailored message here]!" Sometimes that inserted message would even be something interesting. Some of the folks who worked them up included George Padmore, a future advisor to Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and James W. Ford, two-time vice-presidential candidate on the CP ticket in the US.

9. Stirring revolution can land you in hot water. For those who were deported or threatened with long jail sentences or death in their home countries, there was the Dom politemigrantov (House of the Exiled, or Home for Political Émigrés, but I like the former since it sounds like a horror film) on Vorontsovo Pole. A number of Asian migrant workers from the US West Coast ended up here by the early 1930s.

10. Next door to the Pushkin Museum and across the way from where the Church of Christ the Savior now stands again, KUTK (Communist University of Toilers of China, also known as Sun Yat-Sen University) operated for a brief five years. The food was terrible and they fired the one rector who seemed to know anything about China. Fierce internecine battles continually erupted among the students. And two of the biggest complaints of the students? Married attendees couldn't find a place to shack up and even if they could there were no contraceptives. Well, that and the Trotskyites who kept on popping up.


kg said...

Dude, I so want the walking tour!!! I mean, I live on Ul. Luigi Longo! A few min walk from Ul. Salvadora Alliende and ul. Kuusinena! My dad says the Kommintern had training facilities here at Sokol. Know anything about that?

Jaredhw61 said...

Fascinating post! Best of luck with research from grad student to another.

Anonymous said...

The walking tour is very appealing but I really, really want to read the dissertation too.

kg: a railroad worker friend of mine was startled, one day while switching freight cars at the Port of Oakland, to see a ship called the William Z. Foster.

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

KG, Around 1960, a secret institute for the study of social problems opened up just north of the Aeroport Station, so maybe that's what your dad is thinking about. It was unofficially dubbed the "Lenin School," after the secret interwar higher Party school for foreigners. That's the only thing I know about that went on in that neighborhood.

Jared, Thanks. You too.

Rootless, OK, well, I'll keep up the work on the dissertation, I promise. Do we know from whence the good ship Foster hailed?

Anonymous said...

I think the William Z.'s home port was Odessa.

I'm fascinated by the way the history you're studying--at such a fine-grained level that you know Sam Darcy's birth name, my God--is interwoven with people I actually knew, dirctly or at one remove, like Karl Yoneda and Si Gerson. I went to high school with Gene Dennis' son, also called Gene, who is (or was if he's retired) the librarian for the longshoremen's union here; there was a good documentary a few years ago about his discovery that his dad had another son, by a woman he met while attending the interwar Lenin School. Thick description, yeah.

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

ADDENDUM: I should note that while VOKS did have an office at the location depicted on this map, the main office, it is clear now upon reviewing my notes, was on B. Nikitskaya. I'm too tired to fix this any time soon. Mentally move that pin a smidge south and west, and you'll be at the other location.

kg said...

I'm sure you're right and that's what my dad was referring to.

blackstone said...

This was a great post, very interesting. So of course the dissertation itself will be just as good. Very creative and new.