Russian Los Angeles: Introductory Remarks.
Let me try to explain the relevance of our particular interests to this workshop before passing on to the individual papers. The primary aim of our larger project, The Foundations of Russian Culture in Los Angles or Russian Los Angeles(for short), is to record, register and, as far as possible, preserve the intellectual and material culture of the Russian emmigrant community in the Los Angeles area, especially from the period ca. 1920-ca. 1950. The essential procedure whereby we are gathering data relevant to this project is through personal interviews which we hope, will contribute to the construction of an Oral History of Russian Los Angeles. One of the least explored colonies of the Russian diaspora, the Russians in Los Angeles have made a rich and varied contribution to the cultural and commercial life of the city, for example, to the film industry. While strongly dependent upon the Russian emigration from China in the 1940s, the Los Angeles Russian community is unique in its diversity, composed of many generations, social strata, and cultural orientations.
The focus of Russian Los Angeles is not only on the past and current contributions of Russians to all walks of life here, but also on the destiny of the Russian legacy as preserved (or not) by particular individuals and institutions in the Los Angeles area. What we are undertaking is a series of interviews with ordinary Russians, so as to try and determine the consistency of a Russian neighborhood, learn of its material culture and, where possible, inventorize and rescue relevant collections of books, archives, and artifacts. This endeavor will establish the perimeters of the social, political, and economic bases of Russian society in Los Angeles, delineate the cultural identity of the Russians emmigrants who arrived in Los Angeles from Russia, China or Western Europe during the three decades of 1920-50, and touch on the delicate issue of Russian integration within the complex racial and ethnic mix of Southern California.
A second part of the project is to use the personal conversations and consequent Oral History as a guide to the physical whereabouts of items of material culture, especially books and archives, that need to be rescued for posterity. The smaller collect ions of churches, clubs, publishers, families, and individuals are attracting our particular attention, since these are the sources most likely to be lost over time. Little research has been done on the location and preservation of Russian archives in California and the existing surveys are fragmentary and incomplete. The results of our survey and of any subsequent material preservation will be of value not only to sociologists concerned with the ethnic diversity of California and political scientists interested in the relationship of Russians abroad and the Soviet Union, particularly during the Stalin era, but also to cultural historians in need of information about emmigrant readership, intellectual constituency, and changes in Russian language.
As you listen to the three reports that follow,
therefore, please remember that they are connected organically with this
Russian Los Angeles: Displacement and Absorption.Not surprisingly, Russian Los Angeles shares salient characteristics with other national displacements and transpositions.
But the subject of Russian Los Angeles also confronts us with practical questions that distinguish it from other ethnic colonies, especially the divisions incurred through the methods and ways of emigration from the homeland. The first wave, for example, often driven by religious persecution and/or by domestic poverty at home, formed one component of the massive Eastern European exodus to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the second wave (post-1917) came as a consequence of political persecution, i.e. it was part of the Russian bourgeoisie and aristocracy expelled by Lenin’s government; the third wave (post-Second World War) consisted of Russian prisoners of war liberated from Germany by the allies and allowed residency in the U.S. -- instead of enforced repatriation; the fourth wave derived from the substantial Russian colonies in Shanghai and Harbin that feared and suffered political persecution in the wake of the Chinese Revolution; the fifth wave of the 1970s-90s is extremely mixed and has been fed by a variety of causes at home (political and intellectual dissidence, financial insolvency, anti-Semitism).
Obviously, we are taking all these problems into consideration as we develop our larger project concerned with the foundations of Russian culture in Los Angeles, even though we are concentrating on a particular contingent of the vase spectrum, i.e. the Russian groups of the 1920s-50s.
Before we turn to our second representative, I would like to indicate why my own academic discipline (art history) is of direct relevance to our diasporic concern. A legitimate examination of any diaspora should exploit any humanist, natural or occult science that can help us to understand the social, political, and cultural mechanisms of the subject. For too long, however, ethnographers, anthropologists, social historians, and political scientists have failed to recognize the full instructive functions of art appreciation, although in social history this conventional scenario is changing (and I note the commendable efforts of Professor Carl Ginsburg at UCLA who recompiling the social histories of the Italian and German renaissance’s by giving particular credence to pictorial and architectural interpretation).
As far as Russian Los Angeles is concerned, there is a pressing reason why the visual or pictorial appreciation is of particular importance, i.e. in the 1930s-50s the movie industry here attracted an inordinate number of Russians, so many that observers referred to the Jewish and the Russian ‘Mafias’ in Hollywood. In other words, the early Russian diaspora here often lived for or by a pictorial practice, working as designers, photographers, producers, actors, cameramen, musicians, scene painters, set contractors, and architects (Constantin Cherkas, Vernon Duke, Vera Stravinsky, Nathalie Wood, etc.). The visual legacies of such people help us to understand both the esthetic tastes and the communication systems of the Russian diaspora; and in studying their material culture, we may gather additional evidence as to how the Russians wished to preserve their roots, how much they were willing to adapt to a more international style, and which strategies they formulated in order to accommodate both impulses.
In a wider context, an appreciation of the ‘visuality’
of the Russian colony here connects to the position of material culture
within any diaspora in general and to the complex problem of the physical
extension and reflection of a national ethos. Did Ivan Ivanovich choose
to decorate his apartment in order to duplicate or imitate a Russian home?
Or did he embrace the streamlined anonymity of the American ocean-liner
style? Did he entertain other visual resolutions in the design of his everyday
life? Such questions are crucial to my particular approach to the history
of Russian Los Angeles and will play a creative role in the descriptive
analysis that we are undertaking. But, of course, this is only one instrument
of application and it is complemented by the intellectual concentrations
of other colleagues.