Interview by Vern Smith, Daily Worker, January 15, 1935
Moscow, U.S.S.R.-“This is Paul Robeson, the greatest American singer!” declared the famous film director, Eisenstein, introducing Robeson to a reception in his honor, attended by nearly all the celebrities in Moscow’s theatre and art world. The reception was given in the “House of the Kino,” palatial club house of the workers of the movie industry.
I repeat the words of Eisenstein, master of ceremonies at the reception, not by way of informing the public as to who Robeson is, for that is well enough known, but to show the tone of the feeling of the workers and the artists of the Soviet Union towards this visiting Negro singer, son of a slave in the United States-to show the wholehearted appreciation of these Russian sons of serfs who now are freed by their own efforts.
The reception was long and brilliant and lasted until about 2 a.m. But somehow in the course of it, Robeson found time to answer a few questions from the Daily Worker correspondent.
I began with the obvious: “Have you noticed a race question in the Soviet Union?”
An undercurrent of laughter rumbled under Robeson’s big mellow voice as he answered: “Only that it seems to work to my advantage!”
And then he explained. He has been studying the Soviet Union for two years, studying the Russian language also for that length of time, has been a regular reader of the Pravda and Isvestia for months, and knows something about the solution of the race question here. He knows that the Soviet theory is that all races are equal-really equal, socially equal, too, as well as economically and politically. He expressed delight but no surprise when I informed him of the election to the Moscow Soviet of the American Negro, Robinson, working in the First State Ball Bearing Plant here.
But what he admitted he had not been expecting was the simple, wholehearted, affectionate welcome that lay in store for him. Robeson declares himself that he knows he has made a sufficient place for himself by his singing and acting, that even in the capitalist world some of the bitterest aspects of Jim-Crowism and white chauvinism are not applied to him. But it is just this feeling that a condescending exception has been made of him that is missing here. Here there is just the enthusiastic joy of Russian workers and artists, they or their fathers also once slaves of capitalist and landlord, who now welcome in addition a man they feel is a brother artist from abroad, coming with a real desire to honestly know and understand the new life they have made for themselves.
“I was not prepared for the happiness I see on every face in Moscow,” said Robeson. “I was aware that there was no starvation here, but I was not prepared for the bounding life; the feeling of safety and abundance and freedom that I find here, wherever I turn. I was not prepared for the endless friendliness, which surrounded me from the moment I crossed the border. I had a technically irregular passport, but all this was brushed aside by the eager helpfulness of the border authorities. And this joy and happiness and friendliness, this utter absence of any embarrassment over a ‘race question’ is all the more keenly felt by me because of the day I spent in Berlin on the way here, and that was a day of horror-in an atmosphere of hatred, fear and suspicion.”
Commenting on the recent execution after court-martial of a number of counter-revolutionary terrorists, Robeson declared roundly:
“From what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet Government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot!
“It is the government’s duty to put down any opposition to this really free society with a firm hand,” he continued, “and I hope they will always do it, for I already regard myself at home here. This is home to me. I feel more kinship to the Russian people under their new society than I ever felt anywhere else. It is obvious that there is no terror here, that all the masses of every race are contented and support their government.”
Robeson commented on the absence of slums, on the huge building of workers’ apartments in the factory districts, such districts as are invariably slums in capitalist cities. He declared that he will make an extensive study of the club life of the Soviet worker, especially as the clubs are centers of instrumental and vocal musical training, and of dramatic art.
[Robeson has developed a theory, based on his knowledge of Central Asian folk music and drama, and on his recent three months experience in Africa in connection with the filming of a motion picture scenario based on African life, that a new vehicle of expression, not drama, and not opera, can be evolved from these arts of primitive peoples. He sees certain underlying consistent bases in all this art of primitive civilizations. He hopes to supplement his observations by a study of Chinese folk music and drama.
He has selected the Soviet Union as a most proper center from which to conduct his researches, and as the only country giving him unstintedly the social and other environment in which he can systematically complete his research and work towards this new form of artistic expression. He says that he intends to remain in the Soviet Union until about the middle of January, then will have to return to England for the final completion of the film of African life and to wind up his other affairs there. Then sometime during 1935 he will come with his whole family to the Soviet Union for a prolonged stay, working on his researches and on the first steps of the new form of drama and opera, meanwhile singing and acting in the Soviet theatres and moving pictures.]
At the reception given in his honor here, Robeson sang, besides several Negro workers’ songs and spirituals, four selections in the Russian language: two from the opera “Boris Godunov,” one old folk song and a Cossack lullaby. Hearty applause and the voiced opinion of those present testified to his progress in the rather difficult Russian language.
He has deliberately and for a long time been laying plans and preparing to move to the U.S.S.R. as the most suitable center for the important work of artistic innovation which he has in mind, and because he had decided on the basis of much evidence that it is a place where a man may do such work with greatest freedom and facility. He said in his interview that he is more than satisfied that the Soviet Union is just such a place.