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The Voyage of the ‘Pobeda’

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Desperate crossings – Lenin’s sealed train, Luding Bridge, Granma – were at the heart of several 20th-century revolutions, but the one that killed my great-grandmother seemed to be a perfectly average late-summer voyage. According to the official account, on 1 September 1948, the steamer Pobeda (‘Victory’), bound from New York to Odessa, was in the Black Sea, nearing its destination. A sailor rewinding some movie reels in a storage cabin inadvertently caused a spark, igniting the thousands of highly flammable filmstrips and phonograph records inside. Two crew members and forty of the 310 passengers were killed. Among them were Evgeniia Afinogenova, née Jeannette Schwarz of the Lower East Side, and Feng Yuxiang, former war minister of the Republic of China, on his way to bend the knee to Mao Zedong. Among the survivors were Afinogenova’s two daughters, aged six and eleven, my grandmother and her older sister, who were taken to Moscow to be raised by their grandmother.

Schwarz had been the first in her family of Romanian Jewish immigrants to be born in the United States. In the 1920s, she renamed herself Jeanya Marling and moved to Los Angeles to start a dance school with her husband, John Bovingdon, who had previously taught economics in Japan. Together they pioneered a new approach to nude and seminude interpretive dance, at the centre of which was a performance called ‘The Ascent of Man’. Just what Man was ascending to is obvious from the hundreds of pages of material the FBI amassed on their Communist connections. As with countless other artists of their era, there was no conflict for them between personal libertinism and faith in the austere project they fought for.

In 1931 Marling and Bovingdon went on tour to the Soviet Union, where they were supposed to work with Langston Hughes on the aborted race-relations drama Black and White; on set, the German director was nonplussed to learn that nobody thought Bovingdon’s chiselled features made him a convincing union organiser. Hughes described in I Wonder as I Wander how the duo performed ‘The Ascent of Man’ until someone in the audience laughed, at which point Bovingdon ‘leaped like Tarzan to the mantelpiece and sat there, glaring at the offender’. The show was over. Soon the film production, too, abruptly collapsed, due to a sudden improvement in US-Soviet relations.

Marling left Bovingdon for the Soviet playwright Aleksandr Afinogenov, who wrote plays about lies and fear in the Soviet Union, as well as treacly melodramas. In 1937, at the height of the Great Terror, my great-grandfather was expelled from the Party and the Writers’ Union. His wife renounced her American citizenship, which may have saved his life. He never abandoned his belief in communism, or even in Stalin’s leadership, but instead took his year in the wilderness as an opportunity to rebuild himself as a committed Stalinist. In 1938 he was readmitted to the Party, and was clawing his way back to literary respectability when he was blown up in the Central Committee building in Moscow by a German artillery shell in 1941. Afinogenova was pregnant with my grandmother when her husband died. She raised her daughters in Moscow, returning briefly to Los Angeles after the war. They boarded the Pobeda for their homeward journey in New York on 31 July 1948.

Meanwhile, Feng had just finished giving a lecture tour of the United States in which he heaped scorn on his old patron, Chiang Kai-shek. A baptised Methodist who worked to convert his own troops, as well as a staunch opponent of communism, he had long been a popular warlord in the United States. But in 1948, as his wife Li Dequan put it, his ‘wish was to return to the Liberated Area and participate in the people’s democratic revolution’.

There were suspicions that the fire had been set by Chiang’s agents, or perhaps Soviet ones. Stalin had his own ideas. The Pobeda had carried 2000 Armenian repatriates from Egypt, dropping them off at the Georgian port of Batumi shortly before the disaster. Stalin believed that there were US agents among them whose goal was to ‘set our oil fields on fire’. He and Malenkov agreed that it was they who had sabotaged the ship. Arrests were duly made, in a familiar High Stalinist routine, but the accusations didn’t lead to a diplomatic incident; instead, the Armenian repatriation programme was swiftly wrapped up and the incident buried.

Li publicly insisted that the fire was an accident. ‘Although our Soviet friends had some casualties,’ she wrote in the People’s Daily on her return to China, ‘they still refused to take care of their own’ – in other words, they prioritised Feng’s family over Soviet citizens. (Did my great-grandmother die unwittingly for the cause of Sino-Soviet friendship?) Praising both her husband’s legacy and her treatment by the Soviet authorities, Li helped to cement his reputation as a good, if belated, Communist. In November 1949 she became the People’s Republic of China’s first health minister.

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