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"I Shall Never Forget You, Yan'an"

— The Red Regime in Karmen's Camera

2022-08-26 15:24

On 3 September 2020, the day marking the 75th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese People's War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War, a valued book long in public oblivion over the past nearly eight decades was rediscovered. A Year in China: Notes of a Soviet Film Journalist (1938-1939), saw its first Chinese edition published since the book's debut in 1941. The book, translated by Li Hui, a veteran Chinese diplomat and former Chinese ambassador to Russia, helped bring back to life a historical period lost in memory.

In September 1938, Soviet cameraman Roman Lazarevich Karmen was sent to China by the Soviet government to report on the Chinese war against Japanese aggression. Karmen recorded, with the over 10,000 meters of film he shot, the brave and tenacious fight by the Chinese soldiers and civilians in the war, and many episodes of the red regime formerly unknown. With their kindness, fortitude and courage, Chinese women, children and young students forged an impregnable line of defense. And the CPC leader Mao Zedong developed as close a bond with the people as one between fish and water.

"What are the Chinese women like?" Karmen wondered, and he found the answer to his question during his year in China: many Chinese women were soldiers engaged in all kinds of work, including political, organizational, logistic and other tasks. On the battlefield in Central China, Karmen saw over-worked, gray-faced female political workers in flat shoes,who struggled to move their scarred feet to keep up with the marching troops and would travel a dozen kilometers each day. Karmen showered praise on the women in the Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia border region for their self-sacrifice. These women did a lot of heavylifting work. They patrolled and stood guard, formed sewing and washing teams, and joined local guerrilla forces. Their accomplishments were outstanding.

In Guangxi, Karmen met the "little travelers" of the Xin'an Touring Troupe, a CPC-led teenager revolutionary organization. These children started their arduous "traveling" mission in 1935: rallying the masses along the way to fight the Japanese militarists attempting to annihilate China. Carrying a small film projector, these little travelers sometimes took transport vehicles, yet more often traveled on foot. They played movies and staged shows for peasants and put up publicity posters in villages. They lived on a meager income from selling newspapers, magazines and staging performances. They traveled across deserts and reached many battlefields and villages. They were always in high spirits and full of passion. Their speeches and performances captivated the audience and received long ovations. They also provided logistical support to soldiers, and sometimes even helped to carry the wounded at the front line ...

Organizer of the Youth Publicity Team of Xin’an Touring Troupe — 13-Year-Old Chu Jiqun (Later Renamed Chu Qun) (All pictures from A Year in China: Notes of a Soviet Film Journalist (1938-1939) )

Karmen was also impressed by his experiences with the children in the border region: at the children's care center, kids gathered together and played with building blocks; several chubby little boys used chopsticks skillfully, gulped down their meals, and looked up into the camera with bright smiles. Karmen once worked as a temporary messenger for the schoolchildren in the border region. One night, a little boy knocked on Karmen's door and solemnly handed over a letter, asking him to take it to Moscow. The letter reads:"Dear Soviet friends... our country is in the war against Japanese aggression. This is a war for peace... The year 1917 ushered in a time of happiness for you... All children in the world should join hands and march forward bravely... We ask for your support and hope that you will come to our help...." The letter echoed the words written by Karmen in the book A Year in China. He noted that the people of his country deeply respected their past and the heroic path they had traveled in a country that once suffered deeply and from hunger. He said, we Soviets could understand and sympathize with, more than anyone else, the sufferings of the people struggling for the right to live.

There was another group in Red China who left Karmen a deep impression during his time in China — the young Chinese who came to Yan'an from all over the country. They attended university in Yan'an, and laid a solid foundation for their future fight against the Japanese aggressors. Karmen was often woken up in the morning by sounds of the bugles and chorus of over a thousand people who lined up on the square to do exercises. These students took their wooden stools and notebooks to the mountains for classes in the open almost every day. Besides attending classes, they also did their bit for the revolutionary cause by doing farm work. Carrying pickers and shovels, they sang on their way to the mountains one morning, and farmed there until sunset. Karmen was deeply touched by their enthusiasm and recorded this scene with camera.

Nowhere else in the world could such university students ever be found, according to Karmen. Many of them gave up a life of ease and affluence, one free of toil. They were strictly disciplined and keen to bring their strength and creativity to the cause of national liberation. Karmen used such words to describe these young and energetic Chinese students.

Yan'an university students tilled land on top of mountains and planted crops of up to one thousand hectares

Among the many photos Karmen took in China, an exclusive close-up photo stood out in particular. It was a photo of the CPC leader Mao Zedong. In this photo, Mao's eyebrows were slightly knit, his gaze was penetrating and firm, and he wore a faint smile. The photo was taken in Yan'an, where Karmen met Mao Zedong for the first time. This encounter on 25 May 1939 took place in a cave dwelling at Yangjialing. It went from nine o'clock in the evening till one the next morning. In this meeting, Mao made a comprehensive and deep analysis of the situation and prospects of China's war of resistance against Japanese aggression. He said with firmness that China must strengthen the united national front and fight the protracted war of resistance to the end. He added that a communist party was never daunted by difficulty. The Communist Party of China had been fighting for the independence of the Chinese people for over a decade, and difficulties and struggles had only made the Party stronger. After their conversation, Mao gave Karmen the poem The Long March in handwriting. In recalling this episode, Karmen said emotionally that he tightly held Mao's hands at that moment and felt that this handwritten poem composed by the people's leader which eulogized the greatest historical feat would be the dearest gift he would bring back from China.

Mao Zedong in Yan’an in 1939

During his month-long stay in the border region, Karmen took photos of Mao Zedong on his working days, recording real scenes of him deep in reading and revising documents. He also captured an encounter of Mao with local peasants. A group of peasants on their way back from work in the fields greeted Mao like friends, and stopped to talk to him, telling Mao their needs. Mao Zedong, standing with his legs naturally apart, inquired of them for more information and offered his ideas. The peasants showed no expression of surprise... Everyone was absorbed in the conversation, and would burst into laughter from time to time. They waved Mao goodbye as casually as they greeted him, and picked up their shovels and continued their way home. The close bond between the CPC leader and the masses was vividly captured in Karmen's camera.

Peasants in northern Shaanxi stopped to chat with Mao Zedong

On 1 June 1939, Karmen attended the celebration for the third anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People's Anti-Japanese Military and Political University, his final event before leaving Yan'an. The university students lined up at the main square, and Mao inspected the procession of these enthusiastic students. At the end of the march-past, he made a brief yet impassioned speech. Mao said, "Fight to the end! This is the will of people across the country. We are of one mind, one will. The Chinese people will prevail!" The last sentence of the speech was barely audible amid the thundering cheers and applause from the several thousand students present. The young students then took oath of loyalty to the liberation cause of the Chinese nation and the Chinese people. After the celebration, Vice President Luo Ruiqing took off the enamel badge specially made for the anniversary from his Chinese tunic suit, and pinned it on Karmen's jacket. With deep emotions, he said to Karmen: "Wear it, remember us, and don't forget Yan'an." Too excited to speak, Karmen just held tightly the hands of his dear friend.

Karmen joined the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik) the year he returned to the Soviet Union. What was on his mind was probably the unspoken sentence he put down in his book: "I shall never forget you, Yan'an".

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