JANUARY 14, 2021
ROSSEN DJAGALOV’S NEW BOOK, From Internationalism to Postcolonialism: Literature and Cinema between the Second and the Third Worlds, is part of a growing scholarship focusing on the ways in which the Soviet Union used cultural diplomacy to influence emerging postcolonial societies, joining recent studies such as Joshua Malitsky’s Post-Revolution Nonfiction Film: Building the Soviet and Cuban Nations (Indiana University Press, 2013) and Tobias Rupprecht’s Soviet Internationalism after Stalin: Interaction and Exchange between the USSR and Latin America during the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Djagalov’s book focuses on two cultural sectors — literary publication and cinematic production — and traces the ways that Soviet cultural agencies organized platforms for engagement with cultural activists across multiple countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
From Internationalism to Postcolonialism attends equally to literature and film, reflecting the way Soviet cultural bureaucracies singled out these two media as the key institutions of cultural outreach, in the form of conferences for writers and directors, collaboration across national borders, and multilingual modes of publicity such as magazines and international prizes. Djagalov convincingly argues that literature was a more comfortable terrain for Soviet cultural bureaucracies than cinema, thus enjoying a higher profile and access to more resources. Cultural production was central in coalescing the broader internationalism of the Third World in particular, muting ideological differences, and providing, for a time at least, the appearance of a common front.
Another notable aspect of this book is how it provides a broad view of Soviet cultural policy from the early 1920s through the end of the Soviet period. Chapter one summarizes Soviet literary outreach under Joseph Stalin, from the 1920s to the mid-1950s. Chapter two looks at the history of the Afro-Asian Writers Association from 1958 to 1991. Chapter three traces Third World novels that tried to synthesize the contradiction between international solidarity and emancipatory struggles at home. Chapter four provides a history of the Tashkent Film Festival, and chapter five looks at documentary films. The wide-ranging coverage argues persuasively for the continuous importance of cultural outreach throughout the entire Soviet period.
The volume proves a useful reference source for those trying to figure out which bureaucratic organizations operated in which field. It also provides a valuable discussion of the influence of international conferences in promoting new publications and films to the international market, showing how the Soviet Union prioritized creating interconnections among proletarian, leftist, and antifascist artists. Djagalov traces how certain cities became privileged contact zones for Soviet, African, Asian, and Latin American cultural figures. His analyses of the emergence of the Moscow-based University for Toilers of the East and of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, as the launching pad for Third World cinema provide solid case studies of the breadth and depth of Soviet cultural diplomacy and the centrality of distribution networks.
The dominance of institutional history means that limited attention is given to audience response. Djagalov does provide some insight, however, into how the Soviet population reacted to the extensive efforts to promote Second and Third World works, with interest in non-Western literature and cinema never approaching the insatiable curiosity about works coming from Western Europe and the United States. The campaign-style practices that accompanied every congress or conference proved not only expensive to mount but also reinforced the intelligentsia’s tendency to view Afro-Asian works as yet another propagandistic initiative of the Soviet government.
The main contribution of this volume is to make clear how the state apparatus of the former Soviet Union invested time, effort, resources, and talent to create networks of cultural groups that circumvented traditional state institutions. Their focus on Asian, African, and Latin American countries also provided a platform for artists that were ignored by First World outlets. The result was a significant contribution to the literature and cinema emerging from countries that did not enjoy the kind of resources available in the United States and Western Europe. The book does leave one wanting to hear more from the Second and Third World participants in this endeavor, which illuminates just how difficult this kind of research is. While Djagalov commands an impressive array of archival materials, his narrative would have been strengthened by direct engagement with documents produced by the artists themselves. This, however, would have required a near-impossible level of proficiency in multiple languages.
In his conclusion, Djagalov addresses the question of whether the relationships forged by the internationalist cultural diplomacy of the Soviet Union carried over to the post-Soviet period. The answer is not particularly encouraging. The institutions founded to support cultural relations and research — such as the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, the Institute of Asian and African Countries, and the Vostochnaia Literatura publishing house — have all seen a significant decline in material and economic support. The Soviet Union’s once formidable area studies apparatus has atrophied, a decline that has significantly affected the distribution of foreign books and films, with the market now dominated by Hollywood releases. These cultural patterns reflect the end of anti-colonial Third World movements and the inauguration of a new, Western-centered postcolonial system.
Djagalov’s conclusion carefully dances around the uncomfortable question of the emerging influence of increasingly nationalistic and racist ideologies within post-Soviet Russian cultural policy, especially given the utopian dimensions of the Soviet Union’s internationalist cultural diplomacy. This hesitation reflects the difficulty that Russian area studies has had speaking directly about the intersections of race, nationality, and politics in the Soviet and post-Soviet period. Considered as a whole, however, Rossen Djagalov’s From Internationalism to Postcolonialism: Literature and Cinema between the Second and the Third Worlds provides a highly valuable reference for readers and scholars interested in the breadth and depth of cultural outreach conducted by the former Soviet Union.
B. Amarilis Lugo de Fabritz is the master instructor of Russian at Howard University in Washington, DC. She got her doctorate in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Washington, Seattle.