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From Russia with “Spain”: A Journey to Moscow’s Spanish Center, and More

The invitation, in both Spanish and Russian, to the event at the Spanish Center

November 3, 2012

The symbol of the Spanish Center of Moscow, on the entrance at Kuznetskii Most Street, 18. The Center occupies a space on the third floor of the building.

By Glennys Young

Two days after the autumn quarter started, I headed for Moscow, Russia. I went to attend an event at Moscow’s Spanish Center (Ispanskii Tsentr, or, in Spanish, the Centro Español de Moscú.) On September 29, the Center held a program to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the evacuation of nearly 3,000 Spanish children to the USSR during the Spanish Civil War. Immersed in a book project on Spanish Civil War exiles in the USSR — The World the Refugees Made: The Spanish Civil War, Soviet Socialism, and Memory Politics — I could not miss this event, nor the chance to meet, and perhaps even interview, some of the now elderly “niños de Rusia” (Spanish children evacuated to the USSR during the Spanish Civil War) who would be honored that day. That I did. But the trip was about more than that.

When the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 with Franco’s defeat of the democratically-elected Spanish Republic, refugees fled from Spain all over the world. Indeed, they had started leaving Spain even before the war ended. More than 30,000 children were evacuated to countries around the world, including the USSR. In 1937-1938, as the “Great Purges” claimed their victims, nearly 3,000 children were brought to the USSR in five expeditions over stormy and dangerous seas. Soviet radio, newspapers, and film celebrated their arrival, portraying Stalin’s USSR as supremely generous in taking in the children, whose official age was to be between 3 and 14. Prior to the “Great Patriotic War” (the Soviet name for World War II), the children lived in 14 well-appointed orphanages. A significant number of Spanish exiles in the USSR, however, arrived as adults. Spanish political refugees (among them leaders of the Communist Party of Spain [PCE] such as Santiago Carrillo, José Díaz and Dolores Ibárruri), as well as medical personnel who had cared for Spanish communists and Republican officers, fled to the USSR. By the war’s end, also stranded in the USSR were 200 of the 800 Spanish pilots who had studied at Soviet aviation schools, and about 285 sailors from the nine Republican ships in Soviet ports. The only thing permanent about the Spanish contingent in the USSR was change itself. The number of Spaniards — those who considered themselves part of the USSR’s disparate Spanish community, even if they were not born in Spain and spoke Russian — shifted constantly. Their number fluctuated as Spaniards died fighting in the Great Patriotic War, married Russians or other Spaniards and started families, and as some Spaniards — especially the now adult niños and the surviving aviators and pilots, some of whom had been incarcerated in the Gulag — went “home” as Stalin’s death in 1953 launched the “thaw” and the USSR allowed emigration in certain circumstances. Approximately 200 went to Cuba to build Castro’s socialism, sometimes to return to the USSR after a few years, and others to stay for decades. Other Spaniards remained in the USSR until its end, and afterwards.

Children’s group performs la jota aragonesa, a traditional folk dance from Aragón, at the event at the Spanish Center.

My book-in-progress, The World the Refugees Made, is the first transnational history of Spanish Civil War exiles in the USSR and beyond. It is “transnational” not just because its focus is a contingent of Spanish citizens who left their homeland and made lives in another: the USSR. It is “transnational” in that it follows the Spanish exiles wherever they went, no matter how many times they crossed borders, whether back to Spain for good, to Spain and back to the USSR, or to Cuba and other parts of Latin America. It seeks to make important interventions into the historiographies of the USSR, Spain, Cuba, to the history of Communism, and even international human rights. And it excavates the transnational dimensions of the politics of memory — the intertwined efforts of governments, citizens, and unofficial organizations to refashion the past, especially political repression and violence — in the extended “transitions” to post-totalitarian and post authoritarian forms of government in the post-Stalinist USSR, post-Franco Spain, and post-Soviet Russia and the Soviet successor states. It examines how these separate contestations of the past influenced the others through personal networks across space and time.

My research agenda for The World the Refugees Made, then, had sent me to Moscow. All the more reason to go was that I had a contact in Madrid — Dolores Cabra, president and general secretary of the Asociación Archivo, Guerra y Exilio — who had offered to introduce me to some of the now elderly niños and arrange interviews. Underscoring the urgency of my trip was the fact that the Spanish Center’s existence is precarious. About two years ago, the Spanish Government declined to pay the subsidy it used to provide for the Center, which is in a building not far from the Kremlin. Since then, the Center has scrambled for funds to stay alive. The trite phrase “window of opportunity” was on my mind as I braced myself for the long trek to Russia and back.

On September 29, I arrived at the Spanish Center at about 2:30 in the afternoon for the event, slated to begin at 3 PM. Had I arrived any later, I would not have gotten a seat. The small performance hall — the windows of which had been decorated with historical documents relating to the niños — was filled with a diverse audience of about 200 people. The audience included elderly niños, their families, reporters with cameras (including, I was later told, one from Russia’s most liberal radio station, Ekho Moskvy or Echo of Moscow), and a representative from the Spanish Embassy.

The program was a fitting commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the evacuation of the Spanish children to the USSR, and more. At times the speakers and performers specifically addressed the “niños de Rusia” in attendance, and their immediate families, other niños who could not attend, and the collective memory of those who had died. Several speakers spoke with passion about the suffering the niños had endured. After the Spanish Civil War had demonstrated its “enormous cruelty,” as one speaker put it, causing the children to be evacuated to the USSR, the Spanish children then found themselves victims of another war — the Great Patriotic War. This was a war in which some of them served, others died, and during which many young Spaniards were evacuated eastward with the German advance. Still other speakers acknowledged the lives the niños had made in the USSR after World War II, and the longing they had for Spain, to which they could not return until 1956 at the earliest. Throughout the program, an important theme was the meaning that the Spanish Center itself had for the Spanish children, their families (including Russian spouses), and other Spanish exiles. Created in 1966 as a “voluntary organization” with strong ties to the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union and Spain, the Center had become, as one speaker put it, an “island of Spain” in the USSR. The program itself testified to that. Children (including Russian children enrolled in the Center’s music and dance programs!) performed Spanish dances and sang Spanish songs, as did adults. Amidst a mood of festive celebration, though, was deep anxiety about the Center’s future. And so, the final song, “¡Viva España!” — sung vigorously by the performers and multi-generational audience — was at once an anthem about the identity of the Spanish exiles in the USSR and about the future of the Spanish Center itself.

The invitation, in both Spanish and Russian, to the event at the Spanish Center.

After the ceremony was over, Dolores Cabra introduced me to a number of niños and their children, introductions that laid the foundations for interviews over the next few days. In my jet-lagged state, I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn’t a dream. I really was meeting the people about whom I had read countless archival documents, published sources, and monographs. But I was just as worried as I was excited: Would I be able to “connect” with the Spanish exiles — the “Hispanosoviéticos,” as Ché Guevara once called them — so that they would want to tell me about their lives? Would I be able to speak Spanish well enough? While developing rapport for an interview takes time, I was reassured that evening. The Spaniards I met seemed not only intrigued, but even honored, that an American professor would travel all the way from the United States just to come to the fiesta for their 75th year in the USSR, and to interview them. I surprised myself by speaking some of my best Spanish ever! Whatever pride about my linguistic skills I felt (I also spoke Russian and some French at the Spanish Center) was greatly overshadowed, over the course of the next few days, by my own anxiety about the future of the Spanish Center, my fear that I would not be able to do anything to help (I’m still working on it), and my sadness about the stories the Spanish exiles told me about their lives, and, in one case, about the lives of her parents. Scholarly categories like “hybrid identity,” “transnational history,” and “multi-directional cultural encounters” — concepts I’d been using to frame my work — seemed not only inadequate, but ridiculous, as I conducted the interviews and assimilated them, often more on an emotional than an intellectual level, when I took Moscow’s Soviet-era metro to and from the Spanish Center.

And yet, in retrospect, these concepts remain relevant — if perhaps not to my book about the Spanish exiles (the jury is still out), but to me and my own relationship to Russia. Intermittently during the trip, and steadily since I’ve been back, I have had the thought that the trip was also about reconnecting to my own identity as a historical anthropologist, one might say, of Soviet and now post-Soviet life. I made my first trip to the USSR in the summer of 1986, when I was a language student at Leningrad State University, and also lived in the USSR in 1987-1988 on the official academic exchange between the USA and USSR, under the institutional auspices of IREX. Although I’ve made a number of trips to the Russian Federation since the fall of the USSR, this was the one during which I had the most heightened consciousness of the simultaneous existence of the Soviet past and post-Soviet present. Some of this had to do with friends I met with, whether by chance or by intention. The chance meeting happened on the day after I arrived in Moscow, when I went to the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) to do archival research. Shortly after I walked into the reading room, I saw someone look at me, smile as if he knew me well, and say hello. It was Prof. E. Anthony Swift, now of the University of Essex, and an excellent scholar of Russian and Soviet history. But in that moment of unexpected meeting, he was also Tony Swift, my friend and fellow graduate student at Berkeley in the 1980s. Tony had been on the IREX exchange in 1988-1989, the year after me. For a second, or at least a nanosecond, as we greeted each other for the first time in decades, I had a sense of déjà-vu or time travel: The jet lag, coupled with the still somehow Soviet décor (even though this was no longer the “Central State Archive of the October Revolution,” as it was named during the Soviet period), made me think it was the late 1980s. After the archive closed, and we headed to a nearby Starbucks (!) to catch up, we talked about what had, and had not changed, in the more than 20 years since the dissolution of Soviet communism and the USSR.

A different sense of my own relationship to Soviet and post-Soviet time struck me a few days later, when I again worked at GARF and met a friend at the same Starbucks. Anastasia, the friend I was meeting, is a young Russian woman who studies Spanish language and literature at Moscow State University. I had gotten to know her the previous summer in Salamanca, Spain, where we were classmates in an advanced language course. She is part of a definitively post-Soviet generation, a generation with knowledge of and curiosity about, but no direct experience of, the late Soviet past. Ironically, I, a foreigner, did have direct experience of her country’s past. She and I talked about many things, but almost inevitably, we at times landed in the same territory I had found myself with Tony Swift: identifying, and grappling with the meaning of, “Soviet” elements of post-Soviet life. I savored a conversation on the Moscow metro, in which we commented on the fact that the subway cars were old ones from the Soviet era, and the sign telling riders not to lean against the doors was almost surely of Soviet vintage. Yet the ads elsewhere in the subway car anchored me in the post-Soviet present. They reminded me this was a Moscow in which I could now buy anything I wanted, at almost any time I wanted.

So, what did this trip turn out to be about? Yes, it was about attending the event at the Spanish Center. Yes, it was about interviewing now elderly niños and their children. Yes, it was about working at GARF. But it was also a crucial juncture in my ongoing relationship, professional and personal, to the history of the Soviet Union, to everyday life in the USSR, and the post-Soviet present. Not only was this trip important for the insights it had given me about post-Soviet everyday life. This trip was a milestone in another, and more fundamental, sense: It was the trip in which I made my professional interest in Spanish exiles in the USSR an indelible part of my everyday experience of post-Soviet life. Like the Spanish exiles, though on a different scale and for different reasons, I had found, and created for myself, an island of Spain in Russia. For me, Russia will never be the same again. And that is a wonderful thing!