Simina Neagu / London, UK
A forgotten episode of transnational solidarity recounted through archival materials and words of fiction. Taking a cue from the 23 August Stadium built for this event, Simina Neagu attempts to trace back a partly forgotten history and start a conversation on transnational solidarity between the Global South and the »Global East.« The festival, dedicated to anticolonial struggles, was attended by Trinidadian political and cultural activist John la Rose and South African political activist Paul Joseph.
With thanks to George Padmore Institute, John La Rose Estate, Paul, Adelaide and Nadia Joseph, Denise Sumi, Anca Rujoiu, Radu Lesevschi, Arjuna Neuman, Valentina Bin, parmon.
The Fourth World Festival of Youth and Students took place in Bucharest, Romania, in August 1953. It was organised by the World Federation of Democratic Youth. A large stadium, named "23 August 1944" was built especially for the festival, alongside a park and summer theatre. Delegates from 111 countries attended, and the festival was focused on anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, such as the Algerian and Vietnamese liberation. Among the delegates, two young activists met and forged a life-long friendship: John La Rose, from Trinidad, and Paul Joseph, from South Africa. What follows is an account of their journey and experience through fiction, archival materials and audio recordings.
Nine years before, the trees of East Bucharest shuddered in the wind of rapid change. On 23 August 1944, general Ion Antonescu, de facto leader of the country, and his government, were removed swiftly in a coup d’état. Overnight, Romania switched sides from the Axis to the Allies during World War II. At ten o'clock at night, radios across the country vibrated with the news of a new order. The trees witnessed silently as general Antonescu, alongside other ministers, were taken to a conspiratorial house and held hostage for eight days before being sent to trial in Moscow. The stout, unassuming house, was less than 500 m away from the site of the future stadium. The general and his ministers left to meet their fate, but the house remained, and in memory of those eight days, the brand new stadium was given its name. It carried the significance of a different future.
In the summer of 1953, tender saplings, standing tall in their freshly dug beds, watched over the giddy crowds spilling over the avenue. Stalin had died earlier that year and change was bubbling over in the Soviet Bloc. 1000 km away, political prisoners were slowly being released from the Soviet gulag. Held breaths and tense muscles were relaxing. A sense of unwinding after a long winter was in the air. The air vibrated with the electricity of excited chatter. Like any other August day, that morning was sweltering hot. Droplets of sweat forming and sliding down warm skin, behind starched collars. The light was so clear and bright, shining over the stadium. Curious, hungry eyes engulfed the crowds, as the banners fluttered lightly in the breeze. “PACE SI PRIETENIE”. Peace and friendship to all.
The air was saturated with voices, laughter and song. Among them, two young men chatting about music, sitting on the steps of the summer theatre. John, 26, smiling brightly, talking about calypso, while Paul, 23, listened while watching a group of young Romanians dancing perinita. The group turned faster and faster, circling around the two in the centre. The air crackled. The capacious sound of steel drums reverberating in calypso rhythms blended with the shrill violins of perinita. Next to them, two trade unionists engaged in an excited conversation about the Algerian liberation movement: Brentnol Blackman, of the Guyanese delegation and Anthony Kobina Woode, of the Ghanaian delegation. Just a year later, the Algerian decolonization war would start. From this meeting of French and British colonialism, Anthony was taking notes, waiting for the wave of national liberation movements to rise over the African continent and beyond. The men watched the dancers move faster and faster in the rhythms of the perinita. They were told it means "little pillow" and the festival felt like much-needed respite among the gruelling struggle they were facing. Lay your head on the pillow, my dear, and watch the world change around you.