“I Breathe Freely” An Interview in Moscow with Paul Robeson’ by Julia Dorn from New Theatre. Vol. 2 No. 7. July, 1935.
PAUL ROBESON, looking for a medium and a starting-point from which to determine the true African culture, has found in Soviet Russia the closest and most friendly attitudes to his own. The internationally known Negro singer and actor, at the end of his first visit to the Soviet Union early this year, said, “In Soviet Russia I breathe freely for the first time in my life. It is clear, whether a Negro is politically a Communist or not, that of all the nations in the world, the modern Russians are our best friends.”
Since he speaks Russian, Robeson was able to talk direct1y with children, peasants and workers. Everywhere, in tramways, buses, streets and parks, he met with the same reaction from the people, he told this interviewer. “I was rested and buoyed up by the lovely, honest, wondering looks which did not see a ‘negro,’ ” he said. “When these people looked at me, they were just happy, and interested. There were no “double looks,’ no venom, no superiority…. “
Looking for roles and songs, he has reached the same conclusion as Professor Kislitsan, the Russian sociologist, who has announced facts to prove that all races are related in culture, differing in the degree of their development only so far as they are affected by natural resources or the hindrances of exploitation.
“I find,” declared Paul Robeson, “that the handicraft of certain periods of the Chinese and African cultures are almost identical; and that the Negro is more like the Russian in temperament and character.”
Robeson has taken a keen interest in the Soviet minorities, their culture and the policy on national minorities. During his short stay in Moscow, he talked with representatives of the Commissariat of Public Education, and saw the policy in action. He plans to return to the Soviet Union to make a serious study of minority groups, which is to he linked with his intensive researches into Asiatic and African culture. He has insisted, in answer to press comments labeling his interest in Africa “jingoistic,” that he is not trying to “escape” race oppression in America and Europe by taking a nationalist attitude.
“I came here,” he says, “because the Soviet Union is the only place where ethnology is seriously considered and applied… Africa does not realize that it has something to contribute, that it has a culture as clear as the European. The Africans, instead of preserving their own culture, are fighting the idea of ‘be what you are,’ and go European as soon as they can …. The African and American Negro problem is not purely racial. These cultures must be freed, formulated, and developed, and this cannot be done without a change in the present system. The Negro cannot develop his culture until he is free.”
Africa must be taught to be proud of its contributions. “Stalin speaks of the cultures of the different nationalities of the Soviet Union as ‘socialist in content and national in form.’ .. “
Mr. Robeson was interested in the Eastern and Russian music, which he believes African music strongly resembles.
“The Negro folk songs and African music strongly resemble Eastern and Russian music. When I approached Russia, I found that I was interested in the Eastern part. I can’t read Turgeniev, whose language is influenced by France and the West,” said Mr. Robeson, who reads and speaks Russian fluently, “but I am interested in Gogol and Pushkin, who show more Eastern and Tartar influence …. “
PAUL ROBESON is vitally interested in the efforts of the Western Negroes to free themselves. He stated, “I believe there is no such thing in England and America as inter-racial cooperation from the NAACP point of view. Our freedom is going to cost so many lives that we mustn’t talk about the Scottsboro case as one of sacrifice. When we talk of freedom, we don’t discuss lives. Before the Negro is free, there will be many Scottsboros. The Communist emphasis in that case is right.”
Becoming more personal, Mr. Robeson spoke of needing something to sing outside of Negro and English folk songs, and Western peasant folk material, and of discovering, about four years ago, the Hebrew and Russian songs. He learned the two languages, finding that they were both quite easy for him.
“There is little audience in England and America for the things I feel like singing or playing. They want Negro religious songs from which they take, not the suffering, but the comfort of the resignation they express (not heeding that the song’s cry for heaven is only a reflex from the Negro’s having suffered hell on earth) …. “
Although he did not give any concerts during this visit, Mr. Robeson sang some of his most popular songs to the workers of the Kaganovitch Ball Bearing Plant, where he was applauded by a group including a great many foreign and American workers. He also broadcast; and on his return, he plans a concert tour of folk songs, and there is talk of a film with Eisenstein. He said, “The most important development in Soviet culture I have seen is in the moving picture field.”
Among the theatres· he visited, Mr. Robeson was most interested in the Moscow Children’s Theatre, and the Realistic Theatre. At the former, he was pleased by The Negro Boy and the Monkey, a popular play about a little African who comes to the Soviet Union and is guided by his Pioneer comrades. The production method of Oxlopkhov (regisseur of the Realistic Theatre) impressed him with its similarity to motion picture technique, which he feels is best adapted to the tempo of life in the Soviet Union. Its plan, with the audience surrounding the stage platform, and participating in the performance, agrees with his own feeling that the artist should he in close contact with his audience.
Paul Robeson’s activities have been put, with the enlargement of his interests, on an international scale, including studies and experiments in Eastern cultures along with his participation in African and American affairs. In correlating racial cultures, he sets a standard of awareness, saying, “The Negro must be conscious of himself and yet international, linked with the nations which are culturally akin to him.”
Workers Theater began in New York City in 1931 as the publication of The Workers Laboratory Theater collective, an agitprop group associated with Workers International Relief, becoming the League of Workers Theaters, section of the International Union of Revolutionary Theater of the Comintern. The rough production values of the first years were replaced by a color magazine as it became primarily associated with the New Theater. It contains a wealth of left cultural history and ideas. Published roughly monthly were Workers Theater from April 1931-July/Aug 1933, New Theater from Sept/Oct 1933-November 1937, New Theater and Film from April and March of 1937, (only two issues).
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/workers-theatre/v2n07-jul-1935-New-Theatre.pdf