One Courageous Translator Kept Readers in the Soviet Union Waiting Years to Find out
By Rex Bowman
Anyone old enough to remember the Soviet Union, or anyone who’s studied the history of that mercifully defunct nation, knows that one of the character traits of its unfortunate citizens was their heroic patience. It was a truism of Soviet Communism’s command economy that citizens had to wait to get the things they wanted.
Soviets stood in line for bread, for sausage, for cheese. Sometimes they reportedly didn’t even know what they were waiting for: they simply saw a line outside a store and joined it. They put their names on waiting lists for cars, for apartments, for televisions. For the right to immigrate.
Often they waited in vain.
But the maddeningly protracted translation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” into Russian surely tested the patience of even those Soviet comrades accustomed to standing in lines in the dirty snow of Moscow winters. Thanks to the repressive Communist Party leadership, eight years elapsed between the formal appearance of “The Fellowship of the Ring” in 1982 and its sequel, “The Two Towers” in 1990. For years, Soviet readers were left hanging on a cliff: they knew only that Boromir had tried to seize the ring, that Frodo and Sam were on their way to Mordor, and that the other members of the fellowship were desperately searching for them. For all the Russians knew, Gandalf was dead.
“An entire generation of people were left alone with that terrible knowledge,” Russian literary critic Galina Yuzefovich recalled last year in a podcast for the website Meduza.
Soviet students who read the “Fellowship” in middle-school were in college by the time “Two Towers” was published. Those who read the first book in college were young parents when the second book appeared in stores. And those who read “Fellowship” in their old age… well, some of them probably didn’t live to encounter Treebeard or witness the battle of Helm’s Deep, or to read of Saruman’s demise in the “Ring” trilogy’s final book, “The Return of the King.”
Imagine having to wait eight years between publication of the first two Harry Potter books. Or if TV’s your thing, imagine an eight-year hiatus between seasons one and two of “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad.” The plot suspense has reached a nearly unbearable intensity, and then, silence…
For Soviets yearning to know Frodo’s fate, the uncertainty was agony. Researcher Inna A. Sergienko, seeking to plumb the depths of modern Russia’s passion for “Lord of the Rings,” interviewed different generations of Tolkien fans and found that those born in the 1960s and 1970s often had traumatic memories of going years without knowing the hobbits’ fate. For instance, one Soviet woman who read “Fellowship” in 1983 as a 10-year-old told Sergienko this not unusual story: “I checked it out at the library, someone had recommended it, and I read it all in one night. I asked, where’s the next part? No one knew. I began to look for it everywhere. My mom also began to look, my friends too. Trying to find this book literally drove me crazy. Then suddenly papa had to go to Moscow on a business trip! Well, papa could do anything. He was a big boss back then. So I told him, ‘Papa, please bring me back this book, I only want this book.’ He promised, ‘I’ll get it,’ and he left. He came back dismayed. ‘Little one,’ he said, ‘there’s no such book in Moscow. I searched everywhere.’ Well, I began to cry. But there was nothing to do.”
Another reader, born in 1970, recounted the desperation he felt when unable to find a Russian translation of “Two Towers”: “Driven by thirst to know what happened next, I phoned the library and asked if the second and third books had been translated into Russian. No, they hadn’t been, but the library had copies in English.” As a schoolboy with a limited knowledge of English, he began to translate “Two Towers” and “The Return of the King” himself. “I sat and pondered the definite article for two hours.” [Author’s note: Russian language has neither definite nor indefinite articles, so their use in English often proves a mystery to Russian readers]. … “But I began to acclimate to the English, and when I reached the middle of the second book, I learned that Gandalf was alive – oh man!”
The first Russian translation of “Fellowship” was done by Vladimir Muravev and Andrei Kistyakovsky in 1982. Muravev was the more accomplished translator of the two, having translated Flannery O’Connor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Washington Irving, among others. Kistyakovsky had previously translated Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” and C.P. Snow’s “The Masters,” and the poetry of Ezra Pound.
The state-run Children’s Literature publishing house released the Muravev-Kistyakovsky “Fellowship”—which they had titled “The Keepers” (“Хранители”)—in 1982, and re-printed it the following year. Though the book omitted some parts of the original, it was considered the first real translation of the book beyond the few self-published samizdat copies shared among the elite of Moscow and Leningrad. Soviet readers eagerly awaited the translators’ sequel.
But in a plot twist worthy of Tolkien, their expectations were confounded.
“At that point something terrible happened,” Yuzefovich recalled. “Either Muravev or Kistyakovsky wrote some kind of letter in defense of one of the dissidents,” and publication of the second volume, nearly ready to be typeset, was halted.
Yuzefovich’s account is close, but not quite accurate, which is understandable given the Soviet Union’s culture of secrecy surrounding the fate of critics. Kistyakovsky didn’t just support dissidents, he was one, and the Sauron-like eye of the Kremlin had fallen upon him. On June 7, 1983, the UPI newswire carried the following story:
NEW YORK — Risking execution, a respected Soviet literary translator said Tuesday he has taken over management of the Alexander Solzhenitsyn fund for political prisoners because the previous director was arrested.
Andrei Kistyakovsky, 47, said in a statement smuggled from Moscow he became director of Solzhenitsyn’s Russian Social Fund on May 1, replacing his friend Sergei Khodorovich, the New York-based Freedom House organization said.
Kistyakovsky’s act was selfless and courageous, and career suicide. Khodorovich had been arrested in April for his work with the Social Fund, and another fund worker, Valery Repin, was shortly after sentenced to two years in a Soviet labor camp and three years of internal exile. Solzhenitsyn’s wife, Nataliya, noted that working for the fund had been declared treasonous and punishable by execution, so “under these conditions, Andrei Kistyakovsky’s action is truly an act of self-sacrifice, a heroic deed.”
The following week, in a June 14 letter to the New York Times, Freedom House spokeswoman Ludmilla Thorn said “it is doubtful that Mr. Kistyakovsky’s work will ever again be published in the U.S.S.R., which means that he and his family will be deprived of a livelihood.”
She was prescient. According to a wiki page on Kistyakovsky, the following years were full of searches, interrogations, and beatings. He died of cancer in June 1987. His last translation, of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” was published posthumously in 1988.
The Muravev-Kistyakovsky translation of “Two Towers” didn’t appear until 1990, in the wake of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost thaw and on the brink of the Soviet Union’s demise. Muravev’s solo translation of “Return of the King” appeared in 1992—a full decade after the initial appearance of “Fellowship” in Russian. By the time he published the third volume, other translators had beat him to the finish line: Natalia Grigoreva and Vladimir Grushetsky jointly published a Russian version of the entire trilogy in 1991, as did translator Zinaida Bobyr. (That same year also saw a ghastly film version of “Fellowship” on Soviet television, a no-budget production so bizarre it became an Internet sensation when it was rediscovered earlier this year.) Various other translations of the trilogy soon followed. In contrast to Soviets who had to endure the agony of waiting years for “Two Towers” to be published, modern Russians now enjoy the pleasure of reading “Lord of the Rings” in half a dozen translations.
But the appearance of the Muravev-Kistyakovsky “Two Towers” was the most significant and anticipated event in the lives of Tolkien fans in the Soviet Union, who often referred to Tolkien, with both reverence and affection, as “The Professor.”
The account of a Saratov reader identified by Sergienko only by the initials A.S., who read “Fellowship” as a 10-year-old in 1983, captures the thrill many Soviets experienced when the translation of “Two Towers” finally appeared in print: “My brother Alex says, ‘If you want, I’ll give you a book. But it’s really strange.’ When I read [“Fellowship”], I knew three things right away: that I’d never have such a book again, that I’d never see it again, and that I’d never find out how it ends. …I thought, this is the only copy of this book in the country. …And if I didn’t read the whole [trilogy] now, then I would never read it. But I didn’t read it.
“I did finish reading it a while later… As soon as I entered university, I dashed to the library …and there I found it, finally! I read it as if in a trance, bewitched. And no one bothered me, and no one even knew what I was doing… I was convinced that I was the only Tolkien fan on the planet. Really, the only one in the whole world.”
Like readers the world over, former citizens of the Soviet Union still remember and relish the valor of Tolkien’s heroes—Aragorn and Faramir, Legolas and Gimli, Frodo and Sam. But Kistyakovsky’s real-life heroism, his fight against the dark forces of Mordor, remains almost completely unknown, or forgotten. It is as if he put the ring of power on his finger and, invisible, threw himself into the cauldron of Mount Doom.
Rex Bowman is a translator and writer whose work has appeared in various journals, including The Smart Set, Literary Yard, Modern Literature, Literary Heist, and Parhelion. He is the co-author, along with Carlos Santos, of “Almost Hemingway: The Adventures of Negley Farson, Foreign Correspondent,” to be published in the fall of 2021 by the University of Virginia Press.