For a number of years now, Russian émigré artist Yevgeniy Fiks has been examining the cultural legacy of the USSR, both within its borders and in the U.S. Although politically to the left, Fiks is no simple dispenser of Soviet nostalgia as is prominently on display in the Back to USSR restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. (But if you ever find yourself there, don’t miss the Red Snapper. It is to die for.)
No, Fiks’s interest is in revealing the contradictions of being a Communist, if I might be indulged in using a bit of Marxist/Hegelian jargon. In his last show at the Winkleman Gallery on far West 27th Street, an area that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, he focused in on the Red/Gay hysteria of the 1950s when being a Commie and a “fag” was deemed inimical to American values. As anybody familiar with the Soviet Union can attest, gays had it just as bad. Despite the early Soviet Union’s openness to different forms of sexual identity, Stalin’s counter-revolution included a law enacted in 1933 that made homosexuality punishable by a 5-year prison term.
In November 2012, I conducted an interview with Fiks that my readers would find most interesting, I’m sure. He covers his various projects, including portraits of CP’ers in the USA as well as his rather witty experiment in donating copies of Lenin’s essay on imperialism to major American corporation’s libraries.
I also invite you to check out Fiks’s website where he describes his esthetic in these terms:
My work is inspired by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which led me to the realization of the necessity to reexamine the Soviet experience in the context of the history of the Left, including that of the international Communist movement. My work is a reaction to the collective amnesia within the post-Soviet space over the last decade, on the one hand, and the repression of the histories of the American Left in the US, on the other.
I’ve been interested in discovering and reflecting on repressed micro-historical narratives that highlight the complex relationships between social histories of the West and Russia in the 20th century. Having grown up and having been educated in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, my work is about coming to terms with the Soviet experience by carving out a space for critique both without and within the Soviet experience. Having lived in New York since 1994, I’m particularly interested in the history of the American Communist movement and the way it manifests itself in the present-day United States.
My work has been influenced by the writings of Susan Buck-Morss about discovering sites of the “post-Soviet condition” in today’s US and the effects of the Cold War on present-day American society and culture, and I am interested in the activist use of that legacy.
His latest installment in this ongoing project that I had the good fortune to attend on Friday evening–once again at the Winkleman Gallery–is devoted to the experience of African-Americans in the former Soviet Union. The key figure that unites the visual art on display is émigré Black actor Wayland Rudd, who moved to Russia in 1932 to escape American racism. He became an icon in the USSR, with a fame that rivaled Paul Robeson’s. On display in the gallery are a number of works that might not have an obvious relationship to Rudd but that invite meditation on the underlying tensions between Black identity and official Communism.
The exhibition is crowned by Fiks’s 200 plus collection of Soviet posters, etc. that deal in one way or another with the image of Black people. They range from the heroic to at least one piece of advertising that evokes the Aunt Jemima picture of old.
To be sure, whatever racial stereotyping existed during the worst days of Stalinism, there was nothing to match the naked bigotry on display in a post-Soviet world:
Financial Times (London,England)
June 14, 2003 Saturday
Black in the USSR Xenophobia is on the increase in Russia, propelled by groups of violent extremists. Their victims, says Hugh Barnes, range from embassy elite to a few hundred black students, marooned when the collapse of the Soviet system cut off their financial support
Vladimir Putin raises a glass to a packed hall of distinguished guests and foreign academics, mostly from developing countries, nearly all black. They are graduates of Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University, now renamed Friendship University. Founded in 1970 at the height of the cold war to educate students from Africa and Asia, the university was named in honour of the Congolese leader assassinated by the CIA, and it was designed to inculcate its graduates with the values of Soviet socialism. The Russian President makes a toast to higher education – “a great tradition always open to talented young people, independent of class, wealth, religion or ethnic origin”. There is applause. “I want to repeat: in Russia, dear friends, you are always the most welcome guests.” More, rapturous, applause.
Outside the hall, in the main plaza of the university, a gang of 20 skinheads attempts to mount the latest in a series of racist attacks. Similar attacks have, in the past, resulted in murders. On this occasion, only the presence of a reinforced security cordon to protect the visiting dignitaries (rather than the university’s remaining black students) foils the attempt to wreak havoc. Inside the Friendship University all is official friendship. The incidents outside are not commented on, now or afterwards.
Yet Russia is suffering from a rise in xenophobia. The Russian leader has warned of “inflammatory slogans and fascist and nationalist symbols, which threaten human rights and lead to pogroms and people being beaten up and killed”. Most of those who are being beaten up and killed are the students at Friendship University and elsewhere, marooned when the collapse of the Soviet system cut off their financial support. But others are the kind of people who applauded the president in the hall: visiting dignitaries and diplomats.
By targeting the embassy elite, the swastika-emblazoned thugs have spread concern through the ranks of foreign envoys living in Moscow. A Madagascan, a Kenyan and a Malian diplomat were set upon by racists last year, and skinheads attacked the wife of South Africa’s ambassador as she was shopping in an upscale neighbourhood, burning her with cigarettes.
Wayland Rudd’s decision to move to the USSR was completely understandable given the terrible oppression Black people faced in Jim Crow days. You can read Black autoworker Robert Robinson’s “Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union” to get another glimpse into the émigré experience. The Wikipedia article on Robinson refers to others who made the journey:
He described acquaintances in the Soviet Union: Henry Smith, a journalist; Wayland Rudd, an actor; Robert Ross, a Soviet propagandist from Montana; Henry Scott, a dancer from New York City; Coretta Arle-Titz, actress and music professor; John Sutton, an agronomist; George Tynes, also an agronomist; and Lovett Whiteman, an English teacher. He noted meeting in the 1930s the American writers Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson, who had traveled to the Soviet Union.
One of the works on display in the gallery was a book by artist Suzanne Broughel that collected the statements of participating artists in the show, including Yevgeniy Fiks who commented on his own experience as an émigré. In Russia, he was a Jew but in the U.S. he was a Russian.
In a brief chat with Yevgeniy at the show, I mentioned to him that I saw all sorts of contradictions involving Jews, Communists and Blacks growing up in Woodridge, New York—a village that the leftist newspaper PM described as a working-class Utopia in 1947. In the late 1950s there was a thriving group of leftists that included both Communists and American Labor Party activists that was spearheading an organizing drive of mostly Black workers in Woodridge’s plantation-like commercial steam laundry that served local hotels. So popular was the left in my village that even my father held a brief membership in the American Labor Party. But whatever messages the party was propagating on Black-white equality were lost on my father who was always sure to unload spotted fruit to the “schvartzes”, as he put it.
I am not sure of the status of this documentary-in-progress but it will surely add to the body of knowledge about the Red-Black connection once it is completed: