The American Who Electrified Russia is a film which explores the relationship between history and family memory through the biography of an individual who was a relative of the film-maker. Solomon Abramovich Trone (1872-1969) was my maternal grandmother’s first cousin; both were born in the small town of Jelgava (Mitau) in Latvia. Ironically, I owe my good fortune that he came to live in London when I was growing up to Senator McCarthy and American anti-communism. He had gone to live in the USA in 1916 and later become an American citizen; when they took his passport away in 1953 he was visiting London, and there he decided to stay. Otherwise I would probably not now be telling his story.
A figure unrecorded in the history books, Trone’s life was nonetheless intertwined with History, but in a paradoxical fashion. A participant in the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, one of the few on the left to be critical of Stalin in the 30s, but nevertheless a life-long Marxist, he was also a director at General Electric, first in Russia before the First World War and then after it in America. Behind the scenes, he was a key figure in the electrification of the Soviet Union. In 1928 he was signatory—for the Americans—of a majorcontract between GE and the Soviet Union (before the latter was even officially recognised in Washington). A forgotten bit of history—doubtless because it was inconvenient for both sides to remember it—which is here unfolded before our eyes through archive footage, including a marvelous but forgotten film by Esfir Shub, K.Sh.E. (Komsomol Patron of Electrification) from 1932. Shub’s film concludes with the inauguration of Dneprostroi, the hydro-electric power station on the Dnepr which was the largest in the world at the time, and although without mention in the film, incorporating turbines supplied by GE. On the other hand, the film does include the presence of a number of American engineers. Both Trone and his son Dimitri were involved in its design and construction respectively, and we also see photographs taken at the opening by Dimitri.
For Trone, it must have been a bittersweet moment. In April 1930 his friend the poet Mayakovsky had committed suicide. At the end of the same year, he can be seen in a photograph published in the New York Times of the foreign press at the first hearings in Moscow of the Prompartia trial. He was attending not as a reporter but an observer. One of the earliest of the Stalinist show trials, the Prompartia, or Industrial Party, was a fabrication. The alleged conspirators, some of whom Trone knew well, were Russian and foreign electrical engineers accused of sabotage. The trial itself, a few months later, was broadcast live on the radio, but in the film we make do with a silent newsreel. Trone was deeply affected, and left Russia in a state of depression.
After retiring from GE in 1931, and returning to Russia and Germany on a prolonged visit, Trone and his second wife, Florence, played host to the Russian writers Ilf and Petrov when they visited the USA in 1935. They appear in the book Little Golden America as Mr and Mrs Adams, who spend two months driving the authors across America and back, and Trone (but sadly not Florence) crops up in a couple of the photos of the trip which were published in the Russian magazine Ogonek.
In 1940, Trone and Florence went back to Europe to help rescue Jewish refugees from Germany. Over the following years he worked, usually with Florence at his side, as an adviser on industrial development to the Kuomintang in China, to Nehru in India, and in Israel. His time in China was interrupted in 1945 when Roosevelt appointed him to the Allied Reparations Commission—ironically, with the nominal rank of Colonel of the US Army—and he ended up attending the Potsdam Conference. The film traces all these episodes. And inevitably, to recall his life it also speaks of people he knew through work or friendship: Lenin, Trotsky, Mayakovsky, Brecht, Nehru, and others whose names are less familiar.
In recounting the biography of this man whom family and friends just called Papa, The American Who Electrified Russia becomes an essay in what is known in Latin America as cine rescate—the film of historical recovery. To tell the story, it weaves a dialogue between family memory and the public archive. On the one hand, family reminiscence, photos and documents; on the other, film archives in London and Washington, the General Electric archives at Schenectady, and a huge amount of documentation uncovered partly through deep internet research. These include assorted files on Trone held by different offices in Washington, including security agencies who first had him under surveillence in 1917. He repeatedly comes under suspicion for being a Russian agent, although the more intelligent informants draw a distinction between his enthusiasm for Soviet economic development and any involvement in subversive activities. What is true, according to Trone’s daughter Sasha (who was born in 1933) is that after he left Russia in 1916, he ceased to be a member of the Communist Party, which decided he ought not to jeopardize his usefulness in bringing American expertise and machinery to Russia by joining the Party in the States. And what becomes clear is that after his visit to Russia in 1932, when he was already 60, he thought it through and decided to spend whatever years remained to him making himself useful elsewhere, wherever his experience of industrial development could be of service. With his knowledge of the East dating back to his early work before the First World War, it is not surprising that he was drawn to China and India.
Walter Benjamin spoke of ‘the enigmatic question…of the biographical historicity of the individual as such’. The truth is that nothing should be taken for granted. The film begins with family reminiscences in which everyone pauses to wonder if they’re remembering correctly. Family photos must be closely examined to deduce their time and place. Passports help provide evidence of travel itineraries. Published articles in newspapers and magazines sometimes corroborate events but are sometimes also inaccurate. Footage from the archives provides visible evidence of the places, sites and activities which figure in Papa’s long life—but of course it’s too much to expect to find him in any of them. Although we did uncover a reel of 8mm of a family celebration in 1955 where he makes a very brief appearance, and also turned up a home-made cassette recording of him talking from sometime in the 60s.
But still, to locate a biography in its time and place, it is necessary to negotiate the recalcitrance of whatever the archive yields up—documents, memorabilia, photos, films—all of it, like family memory, is fragmentary. The world which lies outside the frame, off-camera, remains elusive. The problem is approached in this film by making the process of interrogation part of the story. And indeed it would not have been possible without the labours of the archivist, David Evans, of Toronto, who thus shares the narration of this extraordinary life with Papa’s daughter Sasha, myself, and other family members. The final strand is provided by five commentators: Misha Iampolsky, Tariq Ali, and Eric Jacobson, and two historians who knew Papa in different circumstances: Romila Thapar of Delhi, and Eric Hobsbawm in London.