Wednesday, August 30, 2017

From Kremlin to Kremlin: African Americans in Uzbekistan, Part #1

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Yosif Stalin Roane's parents, Jospeh and Sadie
This fascinating article was first published on RFE/RL in April 2016.

Yosif Stalin stood before his Kremlin, Virginia USA, home on a windswept, spring afternoon, his weathered hands gripping his walker. "I still own it," he said of the white, two-story house off a lonely country road.

It's no coincidence that this octogenarian was named after one of the 20th century's bloodiest dictators, but it's just half of his name. His full name is Yosif Stalin Kim Roane, and he was the first child of African-American parents ever born in the Soviet Union.

"Didn't nobody pay that no mind," Roane said of his notorious namesake in a recent interview with RFE/RL. "They mostly called me Joe."

Roane, 84, is among the few living offspring of African-Americans who traveled to the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s to seek a better life in the nascent communist state. Most of these voyagers were driven by political convictions or economic hardship amid the Great Depression and pernicious racism in the United States, including the segregationist Jim Crow laws of the American South.

That Roane was born in an empire run from the Kremlin and grew up in this tiny Virginia hamlet of the same name is a coincidence that inspired the title of a recent documentary, Kremlin To Kremlin, aimed at preserving the record of his family's remarkable journey for future generations.

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Yosif Stalin Kim Roane at the exhibtion in Kremlin, USA
The film, produced by local historians, tells the story of Roane's father, Joseph J. Roane, a member of a team of African-American agronomists recruited to bring their expertise to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, most notably to improve cotton production in the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.

The elder Roane, who died in 1995, is widely credited with helping develop a successful hybrid of American and local cotton capable of growing more quickly in Uzbekistan. "Of course Uzbeks knew cotton growing, but these new types of cotton dealt big changes in the industry," Bekjon Toshmuhammedov, a biology professor from Uzbekistan, tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. "As far as I know, Uzbeks still grow the types of cotton created by the Americans."

Raised in a well-to-do African-American family in Kremlin, Virginia USA, Joseph J. Roane studied agronomy in college. After graduating, he was recruited to come to the Soviet Union by Oliver Golden, a black cotton specialist from Mississippi who would ultimately give up his U.S. citizenship and remain a Soviet national until his death in 1940.

Golden had been a student of the renowned African-American agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver, who helped select the team of agronomists. Soviet authorities had seized on the plight of black Americans as an antipode to what they promoted as their new classless society free from racism. Indeed, many of the dozens of African-Americans who relocated to the Soviet Union praised the way they were treated there, even as more and more Soviet citizens were being targeted in the snowballing Stalinist purges.
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Agronomist George Tynes flanked by Soviet army cadets

These travelers came in various groups. In addition to the agronomists recruited by Golden, one group that was brought over to make a Soviet propaganda film about the evils of racism included the influential Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.

The film never materialized, though Hughes traveled through the Soviet Union and met Golden and the elder Roane in Uzbekistan.

"Then you have some political trainees from the 1920s who were very attracted to this country that professed a nonracial society and actually treated them in a hospitable way that was totally unheard of in the United States," Joy Gleason Carew, author of Blacks, Reds, And Russians: Sojourners In Search Of The Soviet Promise, tells RFE/RL.

"It's amazing when you think about these people willing to leave home, and country, and language, culture for what they hoped would be a better life," adds Carew, an associate professor at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky.

Both Golden and his wife, a Polish-Jewish American named Bertha Beliak, were committed communists. Golden found work as a scientific researcher at Tashkent’s Irrigation Institute and was elected to local political office, opportunities he would have been denied in the U.S.

But the elder Roane said later that he "hardly knew where the Soviet Union was when Golden came to my college to speak" and that that he didn't know "exactly what a communist was."

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Left to right: Oliver Golden, his wife Bertha Beliak and daughter Yelena Khanga
Roane told Golden's granddaughter, Russian journalist and television personality Yelena Khanga, that he signed on with Golden because the Soviet foreign-trade agency hiring the workers "was offering better pay for a month than a lot of people would make in a year in the Depression."

"Secondly, I was young and I wanted to see the world. I thought this might be the only chance I'd ever get," Khanga quotes him as saying in her 1992 book about growing up as a black Russian-American.

Roane and his new bride, Sadie, decided to make a honeymoon out of the trip. The group of agriculture specialists arrived in Leningrad in November 1931 after a four-week journey and then traveled to Uzbekistan, where they found ramshackle housing and infrastructure.

But they received better wages and accommodation than the locals. "The Soviets did make extra overtures to them to make sure they were a little more comfortably housed than the average Uzbek," Carew says. This hospitality was evident when Sadie Roane gave birth to Yosif in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, on December 4, 1931. "She had at least five nurses to help her take care of me," Yosif says. "She had all kinds of help, as if she was a celebrity."

Much of what Yosif recounts about the Roanes' life in Soviet Uzbekistan is based on hearsay because of his young age at the time. But he says that he remembers meeting other prominent African-Americans who visited the country. These include the famed performer and civil-rights activist Paul Robeson, who came under withering criticism at home for his vocal admiration for Stalin and the Soviet state. "Paul Robeson carried me around on his shoulders," Yosif says.

Watch a 2-minute clip of this fascinating story. [ If this clip does not appear on your device, please go directly to ] 

 Stay tuned for the 2nd part of this extraordinary slice of history.


Related posts:
Langston Hughes: An African American Writer in Central Asia in the 1930s
Remembering Muhammad Ali’s Visit To Uzbekistan
Sidney Jackson - An American Boxer in Uzbekistan

This article is republished with permission. Copyright (c) 2017. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Tashkent: The Blacksmith and his Family Return

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The Shamakhmudov family, 1940s Tashkent
Update 24 April 2018:

Tashkent authorities have announced this monument will be reinstalled in its original location at Istikol Palace (formerly the  People's Friendship Concert Hall).  The installation will be complete  by 9 May 2018.

Tashkent residents are rejoicing.

One of the city's symbols - the monument to the blacksmith Shaakhmed Shamakhmudov and his wife Bahri Akramova, who adopted 15 children of various nationalities during  WWII - has returned to downtown Tashkent, where it truly belongs.

The generosity of Tashkent residents is legendary - it has long been known as "the city of bread".

During the Great Patriotic War, more than one million evacuees, including more than 200,000 children who had lost their parents, were moved to Uzbekistan. Every day, between 200 and 400 orphans arrived at Tashkent railway station.

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The original monument honouring the Shamakhmudov family.
The sculptor was Dmitry Ryabiche, also famous for Tashkent's Monument
of Courage, which memorialises the 1966 earthquake

Spurred by a mass movement of Tashkent women, thousands of families followed the example of the Shamakhmudovs, sheltering Russian, Belorussians, Moldavians, Ukrainians, Latvians, Kazakhs, Tatars etc. and adopted children, many of whom did not remember anything about themselves.

Their ages were often determined by a doctor, and the children's names were often give by the new parents.

In 1982 the monument was created by sculptor Dmitry Ryabichev and installed in the square in front of the People's Friendship Concert Hall. It became a symbol of the humanism of Uzbek people and was a source of immense pride.

However, in 2008, it was mysteriously moved to the outskirts of the city, much to the shock and disappointment of Tashkent residents.

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The Shamakhmudov family waiting for their new home in Tashkent
The name Shamakhmudov was famous throughout the Soviet Union. The parents were awarded the Order of the Badge of Honour and Bahri Akramova was also awarded the title of Mother Heroine.

The Shamakhmudovs were prototypes of the protagonists of the novel "The Nobility of Man"("Его величество человек") by Rahmat Fayzi.

The feature film "You are not an Orphan", directed by Shukhrat Abbasov, also told the tale of the blacksmith and his family. This film won the best script prize at the 1964 Leningrad film festival. A street in Tashkent is named after the family.

During April 2017, the monument was transported piece by piece to Babur Park, recently renamed as Friendship Park, and installed next to the Peace Bell. It was officially opened on 1 May.

Below is a 3-minute clip about the Shamakhmudov family. [ If this does not appear on your device, please go directly to ]

Related posts:
Tashkent: A City of Refuge
Tashkent's Soviet Buildings 
Seismic Modernism - Architecture and Housing in Soviet Tashkent
Pushkin in Babur Park, Tashkent 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Kyrgyzstan: The Herzen Museum - Forgotten Art in a Forgotten Corner of Central Asia

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Image: Steven Hermans
The village of Ak Dobo (it’s still Orlovka for the locals) does not immediately invite for a stop-over. Just a small village, a bit forlorn. Nothing special on first sight. That is, until you enter the village museum, and discover a treasure trove of Soviet art.

Theodor (Tjodor) Herzen was a bookkeeper of German descent who, living in the little village of Orlovka, taught himself to paint.

The Talas valley had been home to many Germans at the time, who settled here in numbers in the late 19th century, and Orlovka was populated by Germans since 1882.

The Herzens were late arrivals, forcibly resettled by the Kremlin in the 1920’s, together with other Germans and different Caucasian peoples.

Old man Herzen was not particularly talented, but he gave birth to a son, also called Theodor Herzen. He became one of the great artists of Kyrgyzstan, and his work can still be found all over the country, in mosaics, bas-reliefs, paintings and graphic work.

The museum consists of a large, 2-floor space. Downstairs, one room is dedicated to the work of father and son Herzen, mostly centered around Orlovka. There are a few large landscape tableaus, and portraits of village people give a sense of how life in an ethnically mixed community must have been in those days (there are no Germans left in Orlovka). Youthful work of the son shows he had great talent and flair from an early age.

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Image: Steven Hermans
Take the stairs up to the second floor, switch on the lights, and be amazed. A treasure trove of 50-60 paintings by renowned artists from Kyrgyzstan and the greater Soviet Union stand here, unattended.

The paintings show the array of styles popular/allowed during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, when many Soviet artists came to Orlovka. There are also some sculptures, including one by Vera Mukhina.

Downstairs again, and in a room which mixes pots and irrigation pipes from the ancient Silk Road settlement of Ak Dobo with ceramics from museum caretaker Almaz, hang some of Herzen’s best works. As a child he would listen to Kyrgyz bards as they told the ancient tale of Manas, and during 8 years in the 1970’s he worked on a graphic version of the story. Some of the litho prints can be seen here, while many more illustrate the Manas book.

Rounding off, you get to see some Soviet keepsakes, pins of the places in the Soviet Union Herzen visited, and check out the Lenin head in the office. The unlikely location of the museum and the expert commentary from Almaz (Russian/Kyrgyz only) make for an interesting stop on your way to/from Talas.

A taxi there costs 50 som from dowtown. Entrance to the museum is by donation. The museum is closed and only opened on request. Caretaker Almaz can be reached at +996 701 602 345, or ask Turdubek from CBT (Community Based Tourism) in Talas.

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Herzen's illustration for the epic Manas
The village of Orlovka may also have a homestay - we met a friendly lady saying she hosts travelers. Ask around if you are interested.

Next to the museum, the House of Culture is another interesting Soviet sight, with a sad Ferris wheel in the background, and a golden fountain in front, rather intriguingly renovated by a bunch of Swiss people in 2010. From Orlovka, you can hike to Besh Tash via Urmaral valley and Besh Kol.

Note: The Herzen museum is not visited during the Uzbek Journeys tour. However, if you have extra time in Kyrgyzstan, an excursion there can be arranged. Talas is 300 kms from Bishkek.

This article, written by Steven Hermans, was originally published on Caravanistan and later on Minor Sights. It is published here with permission.

Related posts:
Tashkent Nostalgie - Eugene Panov's Exhibition, Tashkent
Central Asia in Art: From Soviet Orientalism to the New Republics 
Homage to Savitsky
Ernst Neizvestny's Last Soviet Sculpture - Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Lauh - A Wooden Wonder of Uzbekistan, Part #2

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Nine-tiered Uzbek bookstand
This article concludes the story about the remarkable Uzbek book stand - the lauh. It is made without nails, clay or hinges. Part #1 was published last week.

It should be pointed out that not every craftsman is capable of making a lauh even if he can make remarkable boxes, tables, chandeliers, screens, doors and furniture.

The making of a lauh requires the utmost wood-carving craftsmanship. One has to have a special attitude of mind and virtuosic carving skills.

The construction of a lauh is based on accurate mathematical calculations and meticulously adjusted lines, angles and bends. A slightly inaccurate movement of the chisel or the handsaw – and all efforts will "go to the dogs".

This cannot be allowed because the piece of wood has passed through a very lengthy pre-treatment before it came to the woodcarver. Therefore, there should be no fuss or haste, only patience and composure.

Hardwood such as that from walnut and plane trees is used for making lauhs. In order for the book rest to remain durable for many years and to prevent it from deformation and cracking, the wood should be properly pre-treated.

The patterns on wood are more beautiful and clear if logs are soaked in special water reservoirs for a whole year. During that period of time, colorants penetrate from the bark into the smallest pores of the wood. The older the tree, the nobler the hues.

Later, boards 50-60 mm thick made from these logs are placed in stacks with gaps between them and dried for between 8 and 10 years in a dry, dark and well-ventilated room, with regular overturning.

A craftsman can judge the readiness of wood by knocking on its surface with his knuckles. When a board is finally ready, a bar of the required dimensions is sawn from it, and the mystery of making a lauh begins.

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Carved mini Uzbek book stand
Parallel lines are drawn on the horizontal and lateral faces of the bar, which mark the places of future slits and saw kerfs usually made by two craftsmen (it is next to impossible to make a lauh alone).

When a lauh is ready, it is thoroughly polished. The craftsmen entrust this operation to their apprentices.

It turns out that wood-carvers and wood-painters, like musicians, have their own training techniques.

Craftsmen have design albums. They are filled with rows of patterns, the so-called “simple flower". Apprentices draw the same pattern until all lines coincide when sheets are superimposed one onto another.

Then they start drawing another pattern. There are twelve of them, each more difficult than the previous one.
 With time, every craftsman develops his own unique style. Probably, for this reason, wood-carvers never put their identification marks onto the articles they make. Each craftsman is recognized thanks to his own style.

Despite the diversity of individual styles, the Uzbek school of wood-carving cannot be mistaken for any other . The most convincing proof is the unique Uzbek lauh highly appreciated not only by tourists visiting Uzbekistan but also by the most sophisticated connoisseurs of national handicrafts.

If you have a lauh and have forgotten how to make the various positions, here is a 22-second video to jog your memory. [If this does not appear on your device, please visit this link directly:]

Source: This article, written by Galina Yudina, was first published in Uzbek Airways in-flight magazine.

Related posts:
A Glimpse of Khivan Woodcarving 1937
Chekichs: Uzbek Bread Stamps
Lauh - A Wooden Wonder of Uzbekistan, Part #1