The Russian Library Initiative: For Better or Worse

At the Read Russia event at Book Expo America last week (was it really only last week!?), Overlook Press announced a new project, the Russian Library initiative, supported by Read Russia and the Russian government that is going to result in the publication of 125 works over the next ten years that span all a thousand years of Russian literary history to create an official, singularly-released, uniform edition of Russian literature, from the great early Russian epics to, hypothetically, the present day.

As a Slavophil with a penchant for history who now works in publishing, a bunch of people hit me up about Overlook’s project, asking what I thought about it. And I’ve been marinating my sentiments for over a week, trying to weight both the positive and the negative, and then Chad asked me to write about it, so I guess I’ll have to give it my all. I love this project, I love Overlook and Ardis and anyone who publishes anything from Russia, and I love all of the works that will be included in this series, though not all 125 titles seem to have been compiled yet. And yet I have some serious problems with everything. According to Overlook’s press release:

“Selected titles will have been nominated and commissioned by an Advisory Board of distinguished scholars, translators, and academics. The series will feature not only the obvious great masterpieces of Russian literature by Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov, but other major works that continue to remain unknown outside Russia, for example, early texts from the Russian literary canon such as the early works as The Primary Chronicle (1113), The Lay of Igor (1185), and The Novgorod Chronicle (ca. 1200). These will be followed by nine centuries of Russia’s rich literary tradition to the present day. THE RUSSIAN LIBRARY editions will be designed and produced to an elegant standard format, each volume introduced and critically annotated by appropriate scholars.”

This is a massive achievement, worthy of praise. But let’s talk about the reality of the situation here. The Russian government is behind this, via the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications, and they are presumably bankrolling the entire project (because no one in the right minds actually expects that even the most dedicated Game of Thrones fan is actually going to go out and pick up The Lay of Igor just because Overlook is bravely publishing digital and attractive print editions of the epic). This “Russian Library” initiative is meant to invoke the great national library collections of the world, like The Library of America. But any time a government gets involved in the publication of anything, there’s reason to be wary, and innumerable questions arise: what are their intentions, what is their endgoal, and why will certain works be selected but not others?

My biggest problem with the “Russian Library” project is a problem that infects the entire publishing industry and which, of course, inspired the title of this blog (and the reason why I’m here). Considering an estimated 3% of everything published in America every year is a translation (shout out to the Three Percent idea!), but only an estimated 0.3% of the total are original, new translations, why would we continue to pour so many dollars and resources behind projects to republish and republish the Dostoevskies and Tolstoys of the world, authors who have had fantastic translations done numerous times since their original Constance Garnett translations over a century ago, and who are already republished and retranslated far too often every year?! To give this project some credit, this might be the first time some of the epics have been released to the public in their full, unedited form (I’m not really sure if these will be edited, nor am I sure if they’ve ever been released in their full form in the States, I read them in Serge Zenkovsky’s awesome Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales), and it remains to be seen how many of the 125 books will not just be reprints (I doubt any of these works will be retranslations, though Russian translators in the States could sure use the work) – I hope it’s more than one.

So who is the target market for this ambitious project? My guess is American politicians, because I don’t believe scholars of Russian history constitute a large enough of a share of the market for books these days. I think, quite plainly, that the Russian government wants to boost its image abroad. And what is the one thing that everyone in the world unequivocally likes about Russia? Hint: the answer is not vodka; the answer is literature. But if the Russian government really wanted to support its image and Russian literature abroad at the same time, they shouldn’t have to reissue Crime & Punishment for the umpteenth time, they’d support the writers of today who live and breathe Russian literature or the authors who were repressed and/or swept into the dustbin of history (only to be rescued by fine folks like NYRB, whose publications of Platonov, Grossman, and Krzhizhanovsky are worthy of the highest praise) who could be held up as bright and shining examples of how Russian literary culture perseveres, despite political tugs-of-war and name-calling.

The Russian government does not, however, typically support contemporary Russian literature. They do not support the translations of contemporary Russian literature abroad, and it seems like the Russian government would much rather forget that Russian literature is alive and well, with the innumerable Russian authors who are still waiting for their first translated publications in the States, prominent Russian names like Prilepin, Bykov, Shishkin (whose first English translation is finally coming out this fall through Open Letter, or even authors who have had only a limited number of their works ever published in English, like Ulitskaya and Slavnikova (who both should be included in this set, considering her work with Overlook), Petrushevskaya, Sorokin, or Pelevin.

The Russian government would be better served by supporting financially the publication of all kinds of Russian literary endeavors abroad through international presses like Overlook, NYRB, Open Letter and others, and especially those precious few organizations that currently support Russian translations abroad: the Prokhorov Fund’s ‘Transcript’ project (headed up by the amazing Irina Prokhorova, the literary sister of Brooklyn Nets-owning oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov) and the new Center for Translation in Moscow. So Russian government, good for you for finally seeing the value in your long cultural history for export abroad, but it’s time to act on that in the here and now and stop publishing so many reprints of 19th-century Russian literature and work on righting the wrongs of your politically-repressive history of suppressing great literature and get all of the great works that have never been translated in the past thousand years printed and distributed in America ASAP. Then that will be something I could stand up and applaud whole-heartedly.

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