When my fellow American writers learn that I was born and raised in Leningrad, USSR, they often ask me about my publishing credits in Russia. After all, in America, I have published more than 70 articles! They are astonished to find out that, in Russia, I never dreamed of being a writer. In the USSR, writing was like being a member in a secret society – only for selected ones with degrees in journalism or creative writing. Additionally, to be officially recognized as writers, these folks had to be members of the Union of Soviet Writers.
However, even compliance with these rules did not guarantee their manuscripts’ publication. In the USSR, all publishing houses (as with any other kind of industry) belonged to the government. Therefore, only “ideologically correct” books promoting the ideas of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, praising the wonderful life in the Soviet Union, and exposing “the ugly face of capitalism” would be published. For instance, American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser and Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed were very popular. Conversely, the novel of H.G. Wells Russia in the Shadows, which described how a new Russian Republic was overcoming disastrous consequences of the Russian Revolution, was locked in the special book depository for years.
And let us not forget about the almighty censure! American writers, who often take for granted their freedom of speech, probably cannot imagine numerous government committees with powers to blacklist manuscripts and destroy all copies of already published books. Russian people were forced to surrender their copies of prohibited books because even possession of writings by “enemies of the state” would be considered a crime. No wonder that while I grew up, I never heard about such prominent Russian writers as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Nabokov. Only in 1985, after the Perestroika, I learned about Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak – and the source of this information was an American exchange student!
Finally, there were no freelancers in Soviet Russia because all able-to-work individuals had to be officially employed until their retirement. In the USSR, the official state of workers, we all lived according to the socialist principle of distribution, “to each according to his or her labor.” Thus, people who shied away from work were charged with parasitism, and put on trial. This happened to Joseph Brodsky, a Russian poet, who did not have an official job. During his trial, Brodsky stated that, though he did not have a degree in poetry, his gift was from God. Naturally, he was found guilty of social offense and sentenced to five years of hard labor. (Nevertheless, in 1987, Brodsky received the Nobel Prize in Literature.)
Such was the life in Soviet Russia back then. Not surprisingly that, despite my interest in writing, I worked as a kindergarten teacher, librarian, and even archaeologist – but not a writer. Actually, for 35 years of living in Leningrad, I met only one writer!
And now, when I come to visit my relatives in Saint Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), I see positive changes in the world of literature. First, I am overwhelmed by the abundance of books – yes, including previously blacklisted ones! Second, it looks like writing stopped being an enigmatic vocation of the elite. Today, numerous publishing houses are willing to give a chance to aspiring writers. Some even offer a self-publishing option which became so popular that even my 80-year old mother was inspired to self-publish two children’s books!
Are these changes irreversible? I wish I knew… Yet, I think that these popular lines of a 19th century Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev sum up all Russian realities:
“Your mind will fail to comprehend
Or analyze its way of living:
For Russia is a special land –
Believe in it and keep believing” (translation by Tatiana Claudy)
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Tatiana Claudy is a freelance writer living in Indiana. Her bylines appeared in Creation Illustrated and Mystery Weekly Magazine, TRAVEL THRU HISTORY, Writing-World.com, and FundsforWriters e-publications.
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