I’m reading Reading for Entertainment in Contemporary Russia: Post-Soviet Popular Literature in Historical Perspective, edited by Stephen Lovell and Birgit Menzel (Sagner, 2005; strangely, it doesn’t seem to have an Amazon listing), and I (admittedly not the average reader) am finding it enthralling. Lovell’s introductory essays are instructive and well written, but the real prize is Marina Koreneva’s chapter on “Russian Detective Fiction.” Koreneva goes all the way back to folk tales like Bova Korolevich and Shemyaka’s Judgment and the wildly popular tales of the real-life thief Vanka Kain (see the section on Matvei Komarov in this post), and she has an extraordinary depth and breadth of knowledge of the field. When she gets to Soviet times, she explains that the conventional view that the 1930s and ’40s were a “detective-free time” is mistaken: even though the genre was officially suppressed, such works appeared in “the series, or ‘libraries,’ of thin brochure-type books that the publishing houses put out for the benefit of various groups of Soviet readers” (e.g., the Library of the Red Army Man, the Library of the Village Correspondent, etc.), and in the 1930s alone “there were dozens of such series.”
But what drives me to post is footnote 36. She’s been talking about how publishing houses after Khrushchev’s reforms were “self-financing enterprises,” meaning they were supposed to support themselves rather than relying on state subsidies, and yet they were only allowed to publish a certain number of adventure novels (which actually turned a profit) each year; to get around this, they camouflaged such works in all sorts of places (series, supplements to journals, almanacs with titles like “Heroism,” etc.), which “placed the readers themselves in the position of a detective: in order to find the desired text, it was necessary not only to expend energy … but also to work out where to start looking for it.” And to show the lengths to which people were willing to go, she has the following footnote:
Some detective lovers learned foreign languages specially so as to be able to read foreign novels in the original and get round Soviet publishing. The Ekaterinburg writer Viktor Miasnikov recalled that at the end of the seventies he worked at a factory with its own Polish language society. The workers were learning Polish purely to be able to read the detective novels that were available in the ‘bookshops of socialist literature’. Especially popular were the pocket editions of the Polish series ‘Labyrinth‘ and ‘The Silver Key‘, which included not only Polish but also American, French and English detective novels.
My hat is off to those determined genre fans! And I’m reminded of this passage from Gladkov’s Cement (see this post): “Comrades, we have a wonderful library, whose books have been confiscated and nationalised from the bourgeoisie and the capitalists — but they’re all of German origin. Now, according to proletarian discipline we must read them, because we must remember that, as workers, we belong to the international masses and therefore, must command every language.”