The Socialist Sixties: Crossing Borders in the Second World

By Anne E. Gorsuch; Diane P. Koenker | Go to book overview

4 The Thaw Goes International
Soviet Literature in Translation and Transit
in the 1960s

Polly Jones

“IS IT SNOOTY of me to insist that in most realms of art the West is, in the simplest sense, more advanced than the Communist East?”1 This was the rhetorical question posed by Philip Toynbee in his review of Evgenii Evtushenko’s autobiography for the English newspaper the Observer in summer 1963. For Toynbee, the gulf in literary quality between “them” (writers authorized for publication by the Soviet authorities) and “us” (writers published in democratic Europe and North America) remained unbridgeable. His critique reproduced the binaries of the Cold War in the literary realm; here was one contest of the “cultural cold war” in which West had trounced East.2

Yet this haughty, seemingly emphatic critique nonetheless raises some questions: How backward was Soviet literature? Which criteria were being used to judge backwardness? And why, if its quality was so low, was this work being translated and reviewed so prominently in a national newspaper? The answer, and the subject of this chapter, lies in the enormous changes to Soviet literature’s role and reputation in its two principal English-language markets in the early 1960s. The period, and this year above all, saw a marked rise in the number of Soviet literary works translated into English and a sharp upswing in public awareness and consumption of Soviet literature in Britain and America, provoking publishers, critics, and readers to rethink its identity.3 When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich, published in 1963 in numerous translations and in huge print runs, became a best seller across Europe and North America, Soviet literature turned into a “sensation.”4 During the Khrushchev Thaw—and indeed because of the Thaw—literature authorized for publication in the Soviet Union was deemed more worthy of translation and more marketable to Western

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