Claude McKay was a young writer exploring the possibilities of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics when he addressed the 4th Congress of the Comintern in the Kremlin’s Throne Room in 1922. A key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the Jamaican writer wondered if the USSR could offer him what the United States did not: racial equality.
With the centennial of the former Soviet Union coming up Oct. 17, Masha Chlenova, curator of the exhibit “Russian Revolution: A Contested Legacy,” uses still images of McKay from that day in 1922 to help us understand just what he was feeling at the time. She takes a very measured approach to how she presents MaKay’s images, along with other images and artworks from the time that represent the USSR’s attempts to bring equality to women, Jews and LGBTQ people.
Chlenova, a Columbia University-trained art historian who emigrated from Russia in 1995, feels it’s important to take Americans back to 1917 to explore the dynamism of the USSR experiment without judgment.
For example, did communism fail McKay? Were the Soviets sincere in their outreach to black Americans and other black peoples whose favor they curried with generous academic scholarships? That is for you to decide. Chlenova’s job is to present the facts. You can feel free to draw your own conclusions.
As for images of McKay, Chlenova makes sure visitors can see him for who he was at the moment the image was taken.
“I heard his voice as someone who comes at a particular historical moment to a particular place and makes sense of it for himself in an honest way,” she said. “And this is what I want to salvage and preserve for people. It’s a particular historical moment of this young man standing in the Kremlin.”
Accompanying the set of McKay photos will be a copy of an essay (pdf) written in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine, in which he details his experience speaking at the Kremlin and his optimism about the new state.
McKay’s welcome in 1922 operated in sharp contrast with the treatment of black people in Russia today, where African immigrants often complain of racially motivated attacks. In 2011, artist Yevgeniy Fiks was video-recorded reading McKay’s speech at sights around Moscow where racist attacks took place in 2011. Video of his performance will also be featured at the exhibit, along with the works of Anton Ginzburg.
A preview of the photos I saw takes you to a time when you really have to look beyond your own perceptions of what you think you understand about the early USSR and explore it for what it was at the moment—for example, the Soviets’ attempts to provide gender equality for women, as seen in the image below of Boris Klinch and Vladimir Kozlinskii’s piece depicting a woman as a highly trained professional worker, centered between images of women being abused by men. Again, historians have long debated to what extent these efforts for gender equality were realized, but these works will be featured at the exhibit for you to make your own decisions.
The section of the exhibit showcasing works portraying women’s liberation comes less than a year after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill that decriminalizes some forms of domestic violence. Would Lenin have approved of Putin’s move some 100 years ago as a founder of the USSR? Of course, we’ll never know. We just have the works of Klinch and Kozlinskii to show us what was happening at the very beginning stages of the USSR and beyond.
It’s hard not to project your own political views onto the artists’ works, and Chlenova is aware of that. For that reason, she took care to ensure that she did not project her own views onto the exhibit during our interview. (I nudged her to share her own political views, but she wouldn’t budge.)
That’s what makes the exhibit so powerful. The works speak for themselves. Whatever opinion you draw from them, it will be based on careful observations of the art as it was created at the time.
“This is the material,” Chlenova said. “Look at it and think. And sometimes you just open up the questions and leave them open. This is what this work does.”