Luka Mudishchev as Politizdat Parody.

I was delighted to read Alexander Jacobson’s A Soviet Imprimatur on Imperial Smut: Politizdat’s “Luka Mudishchev” as Parody of the Soviet Book (Jordan Russian Center); not only is it a fascinating bit of literary (or sub-literary) history, it has a personal resonance for me. It begins:

On January 11, 1970, the British émigré newspaper Wiadomości reported on the publication of a new Russian book, a pocket-sized volume that had been a London bestseller during late 1969. In its article, Wiadomości emphasized the volume’s pedigree, writing “[t]he book was published in Moscow by the Central Committee of the CPSU, the editorial board was composed of eight of the most eminent members of the Soviet Writers…the book is dedicated to Sholokhov, and the preface was written by Furtseva, the Minister of Culture.” However, after laboriously establishing these credentials, the newspaper continues in an unexpected direction: “the reader, so prepared, opens the book – and is unable to believe his eyes.” Rather than a work of socialist prose, the book constituted an edition of Luka Mudishchev, an infamous pornographic poem popularly attributed to the eighteenth-century poet Ivan Barkov.

To both Wiadomości and most contemporary readers, publishing this text under a Soviet imprint seemed like some sort of absurd joke. However, beneath its irony, this volume presents a sincere argument. At its core, the 1969 Luka Mudishchev offers a scathing critique of the Soviet publishing process.

To uncover this argument, we need to begin with the book’s true provenance. Of course, this volume was not actually produced by the Soviet government. Instead, it was created by a tamizdat publisher named Alec Flegon, an eccentric Romanian expat famous for his brazen literary stunts.

I don’t know how many people remember Flegon today — I’m surprised to see I don’t seem to have mentioned him at LH — but he was quite a presence in the scruffier suburbs of Russian literature when I was studying the language half a century ago, and I still have a couple of his editions. Here’s a nice tidbit from Jacobson’s essay:

Flegon’s modus operandi was to combine prominent texts, such as Doctor Zhivago, with fake Soviet imprints. In his words, he believed that this pairing could trick “unsuspecting [Soviet] customs” into allowing his books into USSR. Amazingly, Flegon was correct. As Paolo Mancosu recounts, a copy of his Zhivago found its way to Prague, where it convinced Czechoslovakian authorities that the Soviet government had signed off on Pasternak’s text. In response, the government authorized a 1969 Slovakian edition of Zhivago.

But it’s Luka Mudishchev that sets off my nostalgia. It came out while I was in college, and when I saw it I couldn’t believe what I was reading; like most adolescent males, I couldn’t get enough of dirty language, and I translated a chunk of the poem into appropriately filthy English. My then girlfriend and I took turns reading the original and my version at a department party, and a good time was had by all. The original is available here; as far as I can tell, it hasn’t been translated into English (except, of course, by me, and God knows what became of that scribbled sheet of obscenity).


  1. WP: “[Barkov] died in 1768. There were widespread rumors that he died either in a suicide, with the autoepitaph Жил грешно и умер смешно (lived sinfully and died ridiculously) ‘on a piece of paper inserted into his anus’, or in an outhouse drowning.”

  2. Looks like Luka was translated into English in 1982, by Anne Peet and Sharon Miller, and published in an illustrated limited edition (alas, the sample pages contain little filth.)

  3. And here is a 2020 article, Provocateur, Pirate, Book Artist: An Introduction to Alec Flegon.

    This article provides a short overview of the life and work of Alec Flegon (1924-2003), a Russian publisher based in London during the Cold War. Working for the first time with the publisher’s archive, the article reconstructs the broad contours of Flegon’s life, including his first Western editions of Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha, Sobach’e serdtse, and Kotlovan; his frequent disregard for authorial rights; and his series of lawsuits against Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In addition, the article calls attention to Flegon‘s output of bibliographic oddities and false imprints, such as a copy of Arkhipelag Gulag published under the Soviet imprint of Izdatel‘stvo politicheskoi literatury. Based on this and other such works, the piece argues that Flegon was an insightful book artist, creating critiques of Soviet publishing practice only possible within the medium of the book.

  4. It’s completely improbable that the modern version of “Luka Mudishchev” could have been written before 1768. I don’t think it could have been written before Pushkin at all. I would say that it is a pretty straightforward parody of Pushkin’s versification.

  5. David Marjanović says

    Furtseva, the Minister of Culture

    huh huh
    heh heh

    I would say that it is a pretty straightforward parody of Pushkin’s versification.

    Could it be the other way around…? I mean, various national anthems used to be drinking songs, for example.

  6. PlasticPaddy says

    Russian wikipedia agrees:
    «Лука́ Муди́щев» — «срамная» поэма неизвестного автора (авторов?), написанная в XIX в., отчасти стилизованная под непристойные стихи Ивана Баркова и потому зачастую ему приписываемая.
    It goes on to say that an original published text was not locatable and that it seems to have been circulated privately in manuscripts.

  7. Could it be the other way around…?

    No. Pushkin [I was reading a collateral thread and, of course, wrote “Putin”. Tfui, anathema!] invented a new way to write Russian poetry.

  8. Yes, even as a young and ignorant Russian student it didn’t seem to me as if it could possibly be 18th-century.

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    “Во время Великой Отечественной войны советские военнослужащие прозвали «Лукой Мудищевым» фугасный реактивный снаряд М-31 за его похожесть на мужской половой член ”
    i.e., during WWII, a missile was named by servicemen after the hero of the poem, because of its shape. For those who doubt the veracity of this story, Wikipedia provides a source, but does not say whether the Mudishchevs were stored separately from the Katjushas…

  10. Amanda Adams says

    Google obligingly translated the page at your link for me – not particularly obscene, but not mincing words. Perhaps it will for you!
    I’d like to know more about “like a sparrow through a barn” – I bet it means swallow, for example…
    I think it misses a lot cached in idioms…so I look forward to a better version.
    Please, O polyglots, what is being “translated” as “manda”? I have a personal reason for asking.
    The automatic translation of the page gives:”And painfully beats on the manda.”
    & Google Translate gives: “And the trembling seemed to be in the manda.”
    for “И дрожь почудилась в манде.”

  11. what is being “translated” as “manda”?

    A pussy—not of the feline kind.

  12. Manda is one of the less famous Toho kaiju.

  13. and [a] shiver почудилась in [her] pussy.
    почудилась – appeared as an illusion. “Began to seem” (and in this case, “began to seem to be felt”).

  14. One of my friends used to jokularly address another my freind (then an economy student in an Orthodox university. he later would defend a dissertation in sociology based on hagiographical sources) archimandey.

    < archimandrit “archimandrite”, a title, protomandey “a proto-Mandaean”.

    /manda/ is a particularly common sequence, WP lists 5 languages named so (the fifth is “Mandaic”, a language of Mandaeans, from manda “gnosis”).

    And WP sais the story of Mandaeans after 2003 is sad.

    The obcene manda is /mandá/, though.

  15. Polit-izdat
    can be pizdat

  16. economy
    economics! Oh:(

  17. This guy, from the Doctor Who story “The Androids of Tara,”* is probably the only example of somebody called an “archimandrite” I have encountered in the wild. His hat is particularly memorable.

    That has not stopped me from using the word myself, for a similarly exotic effect.

    “So, a trickster,” she purred, and perhaps there was a hint of admiration buried amidst her contempt. Damel inclined his head in a mock-gracious nod, and the priestess continued, “No easy prey, but your hide will make a worthy prize.” She raised her slim pink hands and began a series of arcane gestures, twirling her fingers in a complex circular pattern. As she moved, spots of plum purple light appeared in the air before her; her swiftly gyrating hands coaxed and cajoled these gleaming specks to swell in size and potency. In mere moments, the woman became mistress to a whole host of throbbing violet motes. They swirled around her, glimmering wetly and pulsing like bits of gangrenous flesh. Damel did not recognize these apparitions, but he feared them. In ancient days, the archimandrites of the evil cults had possessed magics unknown even to the wisest and most learned of wizards. Some of that sinister lore had survived, passed on from prelate to acolyte by Reezari’s faithful, and now it would be brought to bear against Damel’s own inherited sorcery.

    With a flourish of her arms, the hex set her queer army in motion. The shimmering bits swam up towards Damel’s perch, sliding their fluid forms effortlessly through the air. The wizard sensed a malignant sentience emanating from those amoeboid forms; they seemed insatiably hungry, like supernatural parasites that had been imprisoned for a thousand years with their appetites eternally ungratified. As they wriggled lustfully in Damel’s direction, the shapes swelled to even greater size, and their colorations shifted toward a more reddish, heliotropic hue. Stubby tendrils pricked out from their squishy-looking bodies and stretched eagerly toward the wizard’s tender flesh.

    * The script was originally titled “The Androids of Zenda,” and if you watch the serial, it should be obvious why.

  18. I must modestly note that I mentioned James Reid Parker’s short story, The Archimandrite’s Niece, here.

  19. There is the Uzbek word sharmanda/шарманда ‘disgraced, defamed; shameless’, and I’ve heard some—not Uzbeks—saying шарманда and мандашар, jokingly, as if trying to decide which sounded better.

  20. sharmandaga shahar keng погов. (букв. для бесстыдника город просторен)

    for-shameless city is wide/spacious

    I do not understand the metaphor:(

  21. PlasticPaddy says

    Is the idea that in a large place (city, ocean) one can commit shamelenessness without being noticed, but in a small village this is not possible?

  22. Or that a shameless person wanders anywhere at will, while decent people will confine themselves to their homes and/or neighborhoods?

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m not sure if there are any real-life planet-earth archimandrites currently resident in South Carolina, but some have certainly passed through the state for one or another religious occasion while Brett has been living there. E.g., I can find a news story indicating that one was in Beaufort in 2015.

  24. David Marjanović says

    for-shameless city is wide/spacious

    Ist der Ruf erst mal ruiniert, lebt sich’s gänzlich ungeniert.

    “Once your reputation is ruined, you don’t need to worry about ruining it any further, because that’s not possible anyway, so go ahead and do what you want.”

    (ungeniert with g pronounced à la française or however close you can get)

  25. Lars Mathiesen says

    lebt sich — like the Spanish se habla inglés and so on? Of course Danish has the “mediopassive” -s on verbs, but only nerds know it had a reflexive pronoun 2000 years ago. I assume the ‘s is a dummy subject es? — in which case it’s very parallel to Danish leves der (subordinate clause order).

  26. I assume the ‘s is a dummy subject es?
    Yes, this is seen more clearly in the wording I know:
    Ist der Ruf erst ruiniert, lebt es sich ganz ungeniert.

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