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[INTERVIEW] From Internationalism to Postcolonialism: Literature & Cinema between the Second and the Third World

Note from LeftEast editors: A shortened version of Selim Nadi’s interview with Rossen Djagalov was published in Jacobin Magazine.

Could there have been a Third World without the “Second”? Certainly, there could have been — but it would have looked very different. Most histories of these geopolitical blocs and their constituent societies and cultures are written in their relation to the West. Yet the interdependence of the Second and Third Worlds is evident not only from a common nomenclature but also from their near-simultaneous disappearance around 1990.

Rossen Djagalov’s book From Internationalism to Postcolonialism: Literature and Cinema between the Second and the Third Worlds (McGill-Queens University Press, 2020) addresses this historical blind spot by recounting the story of two Cold War-era cultural formations that claimed to represent the Third World project in literature and cinema: the Afro-Asian Writers Association (1958-1991) and the Tashkent Festival for African, Asian, and Latin American Film (1968-1988). Their inclusion of writers and filmmakers from the Soviet Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as extensive Soviet support, aligned these organizations with Soviet internationalism.

These cultural alliances between the Second and the Third World never achieved their stated aim — the literary and cinematic independence from the West of these societies from the West. But they did forge what Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o called “the links that bind us,” along which now-canonical postcolonial authors, texts, and films could circulate across the non-Western world until the end of the Cold War. In the process of this historical reconstruction, From Internationalism to Postcolonialism inverts the traditional relationship between Soviet and postcolonial studies: rather than studying the (post-)Soviet experience through the lens of postcolonial theory, it documents the multiple ways in which that theory and its attendant literary and cinematic production have been shaped by the Soviet experience.

SN : In your book you are interested in the cultural interdependence between the Third World and the Soviet state. How did you become interested in such a topic? What is the state of scholarship in this field?

My interest in the topic was born in the Soviet archives, where I was doing my dissertation research on a related topic. What happened was that canonical postcolonial authors such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or Sembène Ousmane, who occupied an entirely different compartment of my brain, kept cropping up in various reports of the Soviet Writers’ Union. A similar discovery awaited in the archives of the Soviet Filmmakers’ Union. My questions about these juxtapositions kept growing and becoming more complicated: how did these writers and filmmakers enter the Soviet orbit? What did they see during their visits to writers’ conferences, film festivals, or university studies in the USSR? How many of their texts/films were translated/ screened in the USSR and who read/saw them? Was Russian/Soviet literature and filmmaking influential to their work? Did the transnational cultural formations they sought to build with Soviet help influence global patterns of literary and cinematic circulation? What is the legacy of these exchanges after the end of the Second and the Third World? What is the relationship between these Cold-War-era formations and contemporary postcolonial studies? Some of these questions I managed to answer better than others, which I am still working on.

Had you asked me about Second-to-Third-World scholarship ten years ago, I would have struggled to provide a basic bibliography. Historians have gotten further than literary or cinema studies. Odd Arne Westad’s Global Cold War (2005) introduced a framework that exploded the previously bipolar schema. My personal favorite, Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations: People’s History of the Third World (2007), opened with a fantastic couple of sentences — “The Third World was not a place. It was a project” — and went on to draw a portrait of that project and its interactions with the First and the Second Worlds. In literary and cinematic studies, scholarship was slower in coming. Maybe the two exceptions that come to mind were Robert Young’s Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (2001) and Masha Salazkina’s book Eisenstein in Mexico (2009). But between Slavists’ adoption of world literature/ world cinema frameworks and postcolonial scholars’ accelerating re-examination of the history of their own field, over the last decade, there has been an explosion of excellent scholarship on the topic and a productive conversation between (post-)Soviet and (post-)colonial studies. One of the pleasures of writing this book was having plenty of interlocutors from both sides.

SN: Though the main part of your study concerns the Cold War, in the first chapter, you focus on the early Soviet state and the importance of the Africa, Asia, and Latin America for the early Bolsheviks. We know that the latter organized events like the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East (1920) and established institutions such as the Communist University for Toilers of the East (KUTV, 1921-1938). How important were cultural issues for Bolshevik involvement in the (semi)colonial world?

Please note: the illustrations follow the original book naming/numbering.

In a sense, the first phase of Soviet engagement with the colonial world, which took place in the interwar period, was more significant than the second, which began with the 1955 Asia-Africa conference in Bandung, even if the Soviet investments in supporting independence movements and newly decolonized states were incomparably greater during the latter phase.

One can find plenty of fault with the anti-imperialism of the Bolsheviks even during the interwar period: a good deal of paternalism towards those being emancipated and a highly stageist understanding of history; growing great-power logic and constant about-faces. Before casting a stone on them, however, it is worth remembering that the USSR in the interwar period was the one country that not only verbally denounced imperialism but put a good deal of money where its mouth was. And even if we were to unreservedly accept the existing critique of Bolshevik intentions vis-à-vis the colonies and their concrete efforts, the sheer effect of the October Revolution on the (semi-)colonial world was immense. There it was interpreted not so much as an anti-capitalist revolution (as it was in the West) but as an anti-imperial uprising and thus a major inspiration behind such movements as the May 4 movement in China, Rowlatt Satyagraha in India, the 1919 Egyptian Revolution, and a good deal of the anti-colonial activism in the years that followed.

As a deliberate component of these early Soviet anti-imperialist initiatives, literature and film played a relatively minor role: after all, the networks that extended between the USSR and the colonial world were primarily clandestine , and these offered little space for culture. Nevertheless, Russian/ Soviet texts did trickle into (semi-)colonial societies, often via circuitous routes and multiple translations, and whether written before or after 1917, they came with the halo of the Russian Revolution, symbolically gesturing to a modernity alternative to that of the West. The (semi-)colonial intelligentsias reading these texts interpreted them to suit their particular anti-colonial, nationalist struggles.

Please note: the illustrations follow the original book naming/numbering.

SN: How did the Soviet interest in the (semi)colonial world change over the 1930s?

What changed was the consolidation of Stalinism as well as European geopolitics. Much of the interwar-era anti-colonial work was actually enacted within the Comintern, the Eastern Secretariat of its Executive Committee, and affiliated institutions such as the League against Imperialism and KUTV. When it first appeared at the end of the 1910s, the Comintern was an entity rather distinct from the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs (the Soviet foreign ministry). Its support for communist organizing in Britain and France, for example, and anti-colonial uprisings in their colonies, ran at cross-purposes with the diplomatic efforts of the Soviet state to secure major European powers’ recognition. By the 1930s, however, Stalinism had reduced the Communist International to an instrument of Soviet foreign policy. Even though Comintern was formally closed down in 1943, most likely as a good-will gesture to the Allies, its activities had been permanently debilitated since the Purges of 1937-38, during which an extraordinary large proportion of its Moscow-based personnel, including from the Eastern Secretariat and its affiliated structures, was executed, arrested, or dismissed. By the late 1930s, Moscow had lost many of the resident communists hailing from the (semi-)colonial world, the networks as well as much of the expertise about Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

There were also international factors behind the decline of early Soviet anti-colonialism in the 1930s. As Fredrik Petersson shows in his history of the League against Imperialism, the Nazi takeover in Germany in 1933 resulted in the League’s loss of its Berlin headquarters, from which it never recovered. The communist adoption of a broad anti-fascist Popular Front in response to the rise of Nazism further harmed anti-colonial internationalism. While this policy has been often hailed as a success in Europe and the United States, as far as anti-colonial activists were concerned, the Popular Front de facto meant Soviet Union’s alliance with the main imperialist powers (Britain, France) against Germany and hence a disinvestment from their cause. As a whole, the expectation of a European war shifted the Soviet leadership’s interest away from anti-imperialism.

SN: Did the 1955 Bandung Conference change something in the way the Soviet state apprehended the (semi)colonial world? How had this change consequences on cultural productions?

It was not until Stalin’s death and the slow beginning of destalinization that the Soviet state could once again re-enter the realm of anti-colonial politics. Prior to that, even major events such as the decolonization of the Subcontinent in 1947 went barely caused in late-Stalin-era foreign policy. The emergence of an independent India and Pakistan was treated as formal tweaking within the capitalist world order rather than the beginnings of a new and potentially non-capitalist Third World. The Bandung Conference, which inaugurated that world, startled the Soviet foreign policy establishment into action and brought about a renewed investment into anti-colonial politics. The two-decade-long gap between the first and the second phase of Soviet anti-colonial politics and the zigzags of those policies, however, had managed to alienate many independence movements from Moscow. Moreover, in this second phase of engagement with the (semi-/post-)colonial world, the USSR had lost its monopoly on anti-colonial and anti-racist discourse: that was coming from many quarters now, and especially from the Third World project itself, which became the main moral voice against colonialism.

In addition to the Soviet loans and economic aid, experts and military support, this second phase of Soviet anti-colonialism included a major cultural component, a massive program of translating literature from Asia, Africa, and Latin America into Russian and other languages of the USSR, and active courtship of writers and filmmakers from these continents. After all, as an heir of nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia, the Soviet state, down to its very bureaucracy, was a culture-centric state, which believed in culture’s, and especially literature’s, capacity to change people’s minds, change whole societies. Fantastically, it extrapolated this belief to societies with vastly different traditions and structures from its own. By the logic of the Cold War, this investment had to be reciprocated by the Western side. Never before (or after) had the CIA been caught supporting literature; during the 1950s and ’60s, when it famously subsidized a whole empire of literary magazines across five continents. As Monica Popescu and a number of other scholars have shown, this investment transformed the structural circumstances of postcolonial literature. For all the devastation the Cold War brought to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, writers from these continents were some of its main beneficiaries — and so, too, were readers, as the Soviet bloc and the West tried to distribute “their” texts as widely (and hence, cheaply) as possible.

SN: In October 1958, several important figures like WEB Du Bois, Nâzim Hikmet, Mao Dun, and others met in Tashkent – the capital of Uzbekistan – at the Afro-Asian Writers Congress. Why was it important to organize this event in Tashkent? To what extent were the participants aware of each other’s writings?

Please note: the illustrations follow the original book naming/numbering.

The choice of Tashkent as the setting of the inaugural, 1958, congress of the Afro-Asian Writers Association (and ten years later, for the biannual Tashkent Festival of African, Asian, and Latin America film) was, of course, very deliberate on part of the Soviet cultural bureaucracies. A city showcasing the successes of Soviet development and powerful local historical traditions, Tashkent impressed positively even congress delegates not at all inclined to sympathize with the Soviet project. They were seeing not another European metropolis—which they would have seen had the event been set in Moscow—but rather, a highly diverse and primarily non-white society. Besides, as everybody knows, Uzbek people are much nicer and more hospitable than Russians. Thus, from the late 1950s until the end of the Soviet Union, Tashkent (and to a lesser extent, Alma-Ata, Samarkand and Bukhara, Erevan, Baku, and Tbilisi) disproportionately figured on itineraries of African and Asian cultural delegations to the Soviet Union.

One of the recurrent themes at the Tashkent Afro-Asian Writers Congress and the film festivals held there was the participants’ amazement at having to travel to Tashkent to meet each other. If they were aware of the nuances of Western literature or cinema, they had little knowledge of the processes taking place in neighboring African or Asian or Latin American country. Peripheries, after all, don’t talk to each other and it was the very ambition of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association and the Tashkent Festival to challenge these countries’ status as Western cultural peripheries by building on such interconnections.

Please note: the illustrations follow the original book naming/numbering.

SN: To what extend were cultural production from the Third World received (and discussed) in the Soviet state?

That’s actually a somewhat sad part of the book’s story. Literature from Africa and Asia was extensively translated by Soviet publishing houses, but could not rival the popularity of Western texts. I came across a number of Soviet-era copies in Russian libraries in completely virgin state, with pages uncut. Especially in the eyes of the Western-centric late-Soviet Moscow and Leningrad intelligentsia, Real Literature could only come France, England, Germany, and the United States and any text originating from Africa or Asia was a priori inferior.

There were exceptions: the Latin American boom novel enjoyed immense popularity in the USSR after it had received Western imprimatur and so did Japanese literature. A number of individual writers such as the Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet and his compatriot, the satirist Aziz Nesin, enjoyed genuine, grassroots popularity among Soviet readers. Also, influential as it was in forming popular opinion, the Russian intelligentsia from the two capitals did not exhaust all Soviet readership: there were a number of people genuinely interested in decolonization and specialists in the field. Anecdotally, readers coming from Soviet Central Asia or the Caucasus were particularly interested in literatures from neighboring countries: Azerbaijanis in Turkish literature, Tajiks in Iranian literature, Uzbeks in texts coming from Afghanistan and India. 

With cinema, the story is somewhat different: certain non-Western cinemas, such as India’s, enjoyed immense popularity with Soviet viewers. Three of the 25 most watched films on Soviet screens (a category that includes Soviet as well as foreign films, Western as well as non-Western ones) hail from India. There is one from Egypt, The White Dress (1975). Topping this list with оver 90 million viewers is the little-known Mexican melodrama Yesenia (1971). The genre here is key: as the Soviet state produced few melodramas and imported even fewer from the West, the main source of this most popular of genres, as far as Soviet viewers were concerned, was non-Western cinemas.

At the same time, Third Cinema—political-consciousness-raising cinema, which we associate with the documentaries produced and screened in underground conditions by Latin American filmmakers such as Argentinians Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas or the perfectly legal but still revolutionary fiction film of Mrinal Sen in India and Sembene Ousmane in Senegal—proved unpopular with Soviet audiences in the rare occasions they reached them. This lack of mass audience interest is partly understandable: such films are rarely popular by their very genre, at least when compared to melodrama. Some political films were purchased by the USSR in 2 or 3 copies (essentially playing in 2-3 cinemas in Moscow) as a diplomatic gesture vis-a-vis an important leftist filmmaker. But often, they were not even purchased. Preferring to work with states rather than movements, the late Soviet state was suspicious of guerrillas, with rifles or cameras.

SN: Did the attempt to create a “Soviet-aligned Third-World literary field” work? What consequences did it have on the very writings of Third-Worldist authors?

Please note: the illustrations follow the original book naming/numbering.

We usually tend to imagine the Cold War as a contest of two equal forces, in the process, not only erasing various Third World but also exaggerating Soviet capacity vis-à-vis that of the United States or Western Europe. Even at its peak, the Soviet economy represented only half of that of the United States. Nor were East European Soviet-bloc states economically a match for Western Europe. Moreover, the colonialist networks the US, Britain, France, Portugal, and Belgium had developed, and the languages and the schooling they had imposed, made the newly decolonized societies structurally dependent on them in the field of literature, among others. Just as importantly, Western domination in the World Republic of Letters has been quite stable for the last two centuries. Thus, though backed by the moral capital of the newly assertive Third World and the material support of the Soviet cultural bureaucracies, this effort to forge a literary field encompassing Soviet-bloc and the Third World faced much more powerful forces and was eventually defeated as was the attempt to create a unified political or economic Third World via import-substitution industrialization, South-to-South and South-to-East trade and political alliances against the West. Nevertheless, these efforts were not without consequences: that Indian audiences could read African literature and vice-versa and that writers from the three continents imagined themselves as part of a single cultural front was due to the work of the Afro-Asian Writers Association, its congresses, its translation initiatives, its literary prize and multi-lingual journal.

In terms of formal consequences on writing, postcolonial scholarship has already accounted for the literary nation-building in which narratives from Africa, Asia, and Latin America engage during this period. In addition, a number of authors from these continents sought to represent international solidarity vis-à-vis other Third-Worldist forces, or gesture towards distant utopias such as the USSR (or China). Through subgenres such as the Latin American supply-chain novel, which connected mines and plantations, with corrupt politicians in the country’s capital, with boardrooms in Chicago and New York, this Third-Worldist literature sought to imaginatively situate its reader within a broader world-system.

Please note: the illustrations follow the original book naming/numbering.

SN: Tashkent also hosted the biennial Festival of African and Asian Film. How important was cinema in these cultural connections? Were they any aesthetic debates on Third World cinema?

When asked about his switch from novel-writing to filmmaking, Sembène Ousmane would often speak about the illiteracy in his native Senegal that stood in the way of postcolonial writers’ ability to address their own peoples. He called cinema “Africa’s evening university.” Soviet cultural bureaucracies gradually reached a similar conclusion. But there was also another factor behind their work to expand Soviet cinematic networks to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, which distinguished this effort from their promotion of Russian or Soviet books abroad: profits. To a far greater extent than literature, the earnings of Soviet films abroad (or the box office of foreign films on Soviet screens) mattered to Soviet bureaucracies. Sovexportfilm—the Soviet monopolist on buying and selling films abroad—was for most of this period a branch of the Ministry of Trade.

Nevertheless, Western, and in particular, Hollywood, domination was even greater in the global cinematic field than in the literary. As Sembène and Sovexportfilm discovered, it was very hard to show a non-Western film in Senegalese cinemas. The solution proposed by the African, Asian, and Latin American filmmakers, who would gather every two years, starting from 1968, at the Tashkent Film Festival, was to nationalize the entirety of the national film industry, from production to distribution. But this would only happen at countries that had taken an explicitly socialist path of development.

As the main festival of the cinematic Third World, Tashkent was important in familiarizing filmmakers from the three continents with each other’s work, and more specifically, in internationalizing Third Cinema beyond its Latin American core.

SN: How influential was Soviet film on Third cinema? How come Latin American filmmakers decided not to follow the path of Sovietism?

By the 1960s, the USSR had lost much of its luster as a revolutionary force in the eyes of many Third-Worldist radicals. Depending on how confident and strong they were, even pro-Soviet communist parties were increasingly willing to challenge it so that they could better correspond to their own realities. Many leftists were looking elsewhere for inspiration: at certain times and in certain geographies, China or Cuba seemed where the revolution was really at. Moreover, if their struggle against (neo-)colonialism — their independence — was to be worth anything, they couldn’t simply look up to another super-power, even if that was Moscow, for instructions. So, most Third Cinema filmmakers, especially in Latin America, where the movement originated, refused to pay tribute to Moscow in their films or public statements.

Still, it is hard—if not impossible–to produce engaged cinema without making some reference to Soviet cinema of the 1920s, to Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, and the many others who helped develop the grammar of political cinema. One particular genre whose evolution I studied from the early Soviet period (Dziga Vertov, Roman Karmen) to Third-Cinema filmmaking in Latin America, was the solidarity documentary film. The connections are there. And yet, as Masha Salazkina — who has done more research than anyone on Soviet cinematic internationalism vis-à-vis the Third World — has shown, some Latin American filmmakers denied seeing Soviet films from the 1920s or reading Soviet film theory, even when they most likely had.

SN: Did this interest in Third-World literature and cinema continue after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

No. Among other things, the end of the Soviet bloc and its state socialism around. 1990 meant the region’s reintegration into Western-dominated literary and cinematic world-system in a (semi-)peripheral status. In this new, unipolar One World, there was little place for the cultural flows once connecting the former Second and Third Worlds. Looking at Moscow’s bookstores today, it is impossible to imagine that thirty-five years ago they were selling a great many Soviet translations of African and Asian literatures. In Russian cinemas (before the pandemic), even Indian films are completely gone and the domination of Hollywood is near-total. Today’s Russian expertise in African, Asian, and Latin American studies is a fraction of the knowledge the Soviet area studies apparatus had generated. For my research, for example, I was reading multiple volumes of Soviet-era scholarship on African cinema. I can confidently say that not a single person works in that field in Russia even though African cinema has grown significantly since those days, not least thanks to the work of a number of Soviet-educated filmmakers such as Sembène, Souleymane Cissé, and Abderrahmane Cissako.

The former building of Progress Publishers, which once printed over 2,000 titles in 72 languages a year. After its privatization in the early 1990s, the remaining books and documentation of the publishing house were burnt in the courtyard by the “security guards” of the new “owners” while the editors watched years of their work disappear in the bonfire.

The former building of Progress Publishers, which once printed over 2,000 titles in 72 languages a year. After its privatization in the early 1990s, the remaining books and documentation of the publishing house were burnt in the courtyard by the “security guards” of the new “owners” while the editors watched years of their work disappear in the bonfire.

These weren’t completely structural and impersonal world-systemic transformations and the role of members of the Russian and East European intelligentsias, rushing to claim the privileges of whiteness as the Soviet bloc came to an end, should be remembered. With the disappearance of Soviet censorship during perestroika, what used to be marginal view voiced only by a fraction of anti-Soviet dissidents, namely that, the Third World is a backwater holding “us” back from joining the family of civilized Western nations, became a trope in among the new generation of democratic politicians. Mass media during perestroika shifted from celebrating the African National Congress (ANC)—which the Soviet bloc, unlike its Western counterparts, had supported—to praising the apartheid government. Today such a legacy accounts for liberal intellectuals’ reaction to this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, which ranged from anti-anti-racism to open racism.

SN: Finally, returning to the title of the book, what part does postcolonial studies play in it?

Said’s Orientalism came out in 1978, a moment when the Afro-Asian Writers Association was entering a period of decline. The Camp David Accords and the consequent geopolitical realignment of Egypt meant that the Association—headquartered in Cairo—entered a period of homelessness from which it never fully recovered. At the Association’s last congress in Tunis, in 1988, there was a sense that the best-known writers, participants in the movement, had either passed away or otherwise withdrawn and no new ones were coming.

Indeed, the larger decline in the prestige of the Second World and the “pitfalls” and “assassinations” (as Vijay Prashad put it) that had diminished the unity, confidence, and strength of the Third World meant that cultural producers from Africa, Asia, and Latin America no longer looked up to Moscow, Third-Worldist forces, or joint efforts such as the Association with any kind of hope. The disappearance of the Soviet bloc around 1990, and with it, of the Third World further cemented the status of the West as the one global arbiter of cultural value, a site where reputations are made and unmade.

It is in this context that we should think of the emergence of postcolonial studies in Anglo-American academia of the 1990s. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s trajectory, from a participant in the Afro-Asian Writers Association and a recipient of its Lotus Prize to a professor of postcolonial studies in the United States is illustrative in this respect. Even though some of the seminal works of the field were written in the 1980s, it was not until after the end of the Cold War that the field was institutionalized, with funding, centers, specialized publications, and teaching positions. And while postcolonial studies today performs some of the same labor as the writers of the Afro-Asian Writers Association or the participants in Tashkent Festival’s Filmmakers Forum once did, decrying Western-centrism and championing the work of African, Asian, and Latin American cultural producers, the field is doing so while located in Western academic institutions. In the process, it avoids being tainted by the political pragmatism of inter-state relations but also remains distant from the living social movements that once animated Third-Worldist struggles.

Of course, the differences go even deeper than that: the revolutionary rhetoric of Third-Worldist formations gave way to postcolonial studies’ sophisticated French poststructuralism; the harsh (neo)colonized-colonizer binaries with which Third-Worldists and Soviets operated has been sidelined in favor of a (autobiographical and deconstructionist) celebration of hybridity; the embrace of progressive nationalisms, discursively compatible with Soviet internationalism, replaced by postcolonial interest in diasporas and transnationality. Mainstream postcolonial theorists have been suspicious of the nation, which had constituted one of the main political horizons of earlier national liberation struggles. They have been even more critical of the (postcolonial) state, in which earlier Third-Worldist intellectuals and Soviet bureaucracies had placed so much hope: to reduce inequality, to industrialize the country, to raise national culture. In order to reflect on this transformation and its political and aesthetic consequences, however, postcolonial scholars need to engage this broader history that stretches beyond Said’s Orientalism, beyond even Bandung, and through the Soviet and broader Marxist engagement with the colonial question.   

Selim Nadi is a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre d’histoire at Sciences Po Paris (France) and the Universität Bielefeld (Germany). He is a member of the editorial board of the journals Période and Contretemps and writes on the European and American workers movements and the issue of racism and colonialism.

Rossen Djagalov is an Assistant Professor of Russian at NYU and member of the editorial collective of LeftEast, a platform of the East European Left.

By Selim Nadi

Selim Nadi is a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre d’histoire at Sciences Po Paris (France) and the Universität Bielefeld (Germany). He is a member of the editorial board of the journals Période and Contretemps and writes on the European and American workers movements and the issue of racism and colonialism.