Moscow, Spiridonovka Street 30/1: Between Africa and Russia
The last sunny September days in Moscow. Instead of strolling at the banks of the river or watching passengers go by in the cafés at Gorky Park, I adjourned to the chilly halls of the library of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Africa Institute to collect material for my book dealing with a transregional history of Soviet African Studies during the Cold War.
This time, I was chasing dissertations from Soviet Africanists – a group that not only consisted of Soviet scholars but included students from the Arab world as well as from all parts of the African continent. As I am particularly interested in the encounters of Soviet and African scholars and how this has impacted on the formation of Soviet concepts of Africa, of development, and of socialism, I was enthusiastic to find numerous unpublished manuscripts of African experts – which they had written in Russian – in the Soviet Union in which they yield the benefits of their “home-grown” expertise about their countries of origin, partly comparing these experiences with Soviet trajectories.
These dissertations had been hidden for – I assume – at least two decades in the stacks of this library. Tanja,* the librarian, was of utmost kindness, being excited about the interest of a German researcher in coming to work at her place, which had certainly seen much more busy days. She obligingly responded to all my requests, pulling out the partly mouldering and disintegrated manuscripts from hidden shelfs in the large room. I assisted her, reading out the names of the authors to help her find the titles. The manuscripts of the Soviet scholars Gavrilov, Potekhin, Filatova, and the like were easily found. But when the list of (to her, obscure) foreign names grew longer – Afana, Bakondolo, Paul-Bonné, Traoré – she halted and disdainfully muttered: “Eto ne nash” – “this is not one of ours”.
Now it was me who was bewildered. At this institute– which has been engaged with research about Africa since the late 1950s and served as a meeting place for African and Soviet activists and academics (the latter proudly claiming to be the better Africanists as they said they had no colonial or neo-colonial agendas) – I had not expected to find somebody who would not be as curious as I was about the forgotten world of internationalism in the Soviet Union.
Tanja instead preferred to show me around the institute, leading me to its main conference hall.
She introduced me to the rich history of the building, dating back to the investments of an Armenian merchant family in the eighteenth century who came to Moscow to be closer to the economic and political centre of the Tsarist Empire. After the revolution, the first Soviet court confiscated the palace to hold its meetings there. After the Second World War, the Polish embassy moved in, but had to leave again in the early 1980s, as the institute’s new director, Anatoliy Gromyko – son of the then Soviet foreign minister, Andrey Gromyko – convinced his father to help him improve the institute’s position in the heart of Moscow. While I was fascinated with this history, I was even more taken with the arrangement of the room, with pictures of the institute’s three directors on one wall, faced on the other wall by the portraits of African activists and politicians such as Patrice Lumumba, Amílcar Cabral, and Jean Ping – a part of the interior Tanja obviously ignored or would not make sense of.
The actors in this anecdote come together on different layers of time and space – the Russian librarian, the German researcher, the Soviet scholars and ministers, the African academics and activists, the Armenian merchants, the Polish diplomats. They all left their traces in this peculiar place, integrating it in different spatial formats and orders over time – the Tsarist Empire, the Soviet Union, the decolonizing world, the Cold War, the multipolar fragility of the twenty-first century – in which they all had very different shares, imaginations, desires, and positions. They made use and were part of a variety of techniques and infrastructures: the library, the academy of sciences, representational architecture, diplomacy, cultural policy, etc. They thereby appropriated this peculiar place – the palace on Spiridonovka Street, next to the famous Tverskaya – re-narrating its history, selectively remembering its past, and reshaping its position and infrastructures, thus not only locating it in Moscow’s (and, hence, Russia’s) commercial and cultural centre, but relating it to competing spatial formats. The unuttered – yet productive – misunderstanding between the German researcher and the Russian librarian appears then as one little chapter in a longer history of space-making under the global condition in the heart of Moscow.
Dr. Steffi Marung (SFB 1199, Leipzig U, Germany)
Steffi Marung earned a PhD in global studies from Leipzig University with a study on shifting border regimes of the expanding European Union since 1990. Prior to earning her PhD, she had studied political science and German literature in Halle, Berlin, and Prague. From there, she further developed her interest in processes of (re-)spatialization into an ongoing book project on the transnational history of Soviet African studies during the Cold War. In the framework of the international collaborative project “Socialism Goes Global”, she has extended this research towards more general questions of the geographies of East-South encounters during the Cold War. Teaching global history courses at the Global and European Studies Institute at Leipzig University and being involved in further book projects (one on the transnational history of East Central Europe since the nineteenth century, another one on the global history of area studies, and a third one on transregional studies), she contributes to the SFB’s programme with research on the historiographical background of and multiple disciplinary theoretical foundations for the investigation of spatial formats and spatial orders. To this end, she endeavours to facilitate and promote joint cross-project discussions and the formation of a common theoretical language and framework.