Picture: Daria da Conceicao’s personal archive/via Sputnik – South African politician and anti-apartheid activist, Gabriel Tokio Sexwale, left with Mozambican-Russian filmmaker Daria da Conceicao.
By Roman Sanin
Russia and Africa have a long history of mutually beneficial and enriching relations in various spheres of interest. Since African nations gained independence, numerous Africans have studied and lived in Russia and the former Soviet Union, bringing a piece of Russian culture back to their homelands in their hearts and minds.
Russia and Africa are bound by freedom, respect for talent, and the ability to stand shoulder to shoulder, and it is no coincidence that relations between Moscow and African nations are developing, Daria da Conceicao, film and musical theatre director, producer, said in an interview with Sputnik.
Sputnik sat down with da Conceicao to discuss her recent documentary about Africans who have experienced living in the Soviet Union and Russia and their current perception of the country, African and Russian cultures, the differences and similarities between them, and Africa’s bonds with Russia.
Thirty-two-year-old da Conceicao, who was born in the Soviet Union and finished three Russian universities, told Sputnik’s correspondent that despite her African origin, she considers herself Russian first.
Her movie, titled Black to the USSR, as she said, was shot by a person “with African roots and Russian thinking”, given that her father is a Mozambican.
“When I came to my father, we saw a dialogue of cultures,” da Conceicao states.
When speaking about the film’s title, she said Black to the USSR returns to the past, to the “best period of dialogue between Russian and African cultures”.
As the film director explained, during her work on the project, she first of all went to Mozambique to meet her family, which was the primary task. Concerning the cast, Daria added, they are “my family or family friends – my father’s colleagues who studied in the Soviet Union”.
Among the cast are also Mozambicans – representatives of their culture. “It was important for me to show not only nostalgia for Russia, but to see what Africa is today, including showing that the Soviet presence in Africa respected this original African culture, never suppressed and was interested in it,” Daria says, adding: “I hope nothing changes today.”
Other guests in the film, she continues, include two South Africans – Prince Sipive Dlomo, an entrepreneur, whose family was close to the family of Nelson Mandela, and Gabriel Tokio Sexwale, a prominent politician and anti-apartheid activist, who was jailed alongside Mandela. Sexwale studied in the Soviet Union and lived in several cities, including Leningrad, Sevastopol, Kiev, Odessa, Moscow, and in Kyrgyzstan.
Speaking about African culture, da Conceicao says Africa is different from the rest of the world, as Africans maintain their identity and culture, which have been preserved in their original form.
Comparing Russian and African cultures, she noted that the former has preserved itself to a lesser extent and has been very much subjected to Western influence. However, she added, “maybe now is the time when it is returning to its roots.”
She also pointed out some similarities between the two cultures.
“If we talk about similarities, many of them exist due to the fact that Africans who occupy some leadership positions, people who are over 50 or 60 years old have experience of living in the Soviet Union and some features, some experience they still carry and pass on to subsequent generations,” the director notes, adding: “It has already become some kind of purely Russian-African features that bind our countries.”
Along with that, she emphasises African people’s respect for dance and music culture, cuisine, and family traditions.
“Perhaps this is due to the fact that the Internet is poorly developed there, and it has not won free time and has not yet imposed these false values that are not inherent in the local population. I hope that the Internet will not conquer this space soon, and that it will also remain unique in its kind,” Daria says.
Very Different, Yet Warm-Hearted Toward Russia
Elaborating on the attitude of Africans towards Russia, da Conceicao notes that South Africa and Mozambique, where Black to the USSR was shot, are “very different countries with very different political fate”.
When it comes to South Africa, she says, it has a “very friendly attitude” towards Russia and Russian culture, and towards the Soviet period of this “dialogue of cultures”. “This was expressed in the way our meetings [with the documentary speakers] were organised […] Everyone helped us, everyone was interested in us liking Johannesburg,” da Conceicao continues.
According to her, Russia has to learn “a lot of lessons from the Soviet Union” in order to maintain dialogue with Africa. Daria believes the Soviet Union held a dialogue of cultures with Africa, where “both parties mutually shared something”.
“The Soviet Union, unlike many Western countries, did not ignore the original African culture and was also interested in it. I think that is why many Africans perceive modern Russians as followers of these Soviet initiatives,” she continues.
Beyond that, Daria told Sputnik a story about a monument in Mozambique dedicated to Soviet soldiers who left their homes for Africa in order to help it struggle against colonial rule.
“There were constant clashes on the border with South Africa, and militants from the South African side blew up a car in which there were one Mozambican, the driver, and several, if I’m not mistaken, five [Soviet] soldiers, and they all died,” she explains.
Elaborating on that, she talked about General Viktor Suldin, who headed the Russian military mission to Africa and initiated the construction of the monument.
Da Conceicao believes that the “sincere dialogue of cultures” is maintained by people such as Suldin.
She said Africans respect the Soviet Union’s efforts to help former African colonies develop their own political systems.
‘No Accident’ in Elevating Friendship
At the end of the interview, Daria concluded that “the current rapprochement between Russians and Africans is no accident”.
“Maybe it is substantiated by some global processes. Maybe we don’t notice them yet. Maybe it’s climate change. Maybe it’s an economic crisis. We will soon see where things are going,” she says, adding: “[Russians and Africans are] wonderful peoples who should stick together and I think we have a lot of cultural acquisitions.”
She also noted that even before the Soviet period, Russia had a lot of things in common with Africa.
For instance, Daria underlined that one of Russia’s most famous poets, Alexander Pushkin, had African roots. “Not only is it the pride of Russian culture, but also of the African one,” she states.
As part of this mutual heritage, she also recalled the story of Abram Petrovich Gannibal, a nobleman of African origin, the great grandfather of Russia’s biggest poet, who was brought to Russia as a gift to Emperor Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th century, but instead of being an exotic court decoration, was brought up and educated by the czar “as his own son.”
“Now several African countries are arguing for his belonging to either Ethiopia, or Chad, or several other countries. But in any case, this is a native African who ended up in Europe, one might say, into slavery,” she notes, adding: “Let us not forget that he made this son not just a well-civilised person, he gave him education and the opportunity to become a general.”
As a concluding thought, the Russian-Mozambican filmmaker argued that both Russia and Africa are bound by “freedom, respect for talent, and the ability to stand shoulder to shoulder”.
This article was first published in Sputnik