Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Soviets Imposed ‘Colonial Homogenization’ on Non-Russia Folklore, Moscow Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 30 – On the 20th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, the Pravda publishing house issued a book entitled The Creativity of the Peoples of the USSR, more than half of which consisted of poetic translations from Armenian, Ukrainian, Kazakh and other languages of the peoples of the Soviet Union.

            The book, Moscow philologist Elena Zemskova of the Higher School of Economics says, was ostensibly intended to show “the cultural diversity of the USSR, but in practice, it turned out to be an example of colonial homogenization” in which translators mangled the works of non-Russians to make them conform to Soviet Russian standards (

            Her research, available in English as “Soviet Folklore as a Translation Project” (, offers a devastating portrait of the ways in which the Soviet authorities simultaneously destroyed and reinvented the culture and folklore of the non-Russians.

            Maksim Gorky was the moving spirit behind this book, Zemskova says. The book itself included 255 works, mostly poetic. “It is possible to trace a certain hierarchy in terms of the languages represented: 71 were in Russian and didn’t require translation, 37 were from Ukrainian, 13 from Belarusian, 12 from Armenian, 12 from Georgian, and 14 from Kazakh.”

            In addition, she reports, “there were small number of translations from Tajik, Turkmen and Azerbaijani languages and also works from the peoples of the Caucasus, the Middle Volga, the North and the Altay.

            Zemskova said she focused on this book because it was so atypical of colonial publishing. Typically, books and articles in most empires are translated from the language of the metropolitan people into the language of minorities. But in this case, at least the book claimed to be about the reverse.

            The book was supposed to highlight the real diversity of peoples in the USSR, but “when you look into how it was organized, you understand that the result did not offer a picture of the real diversity of folklore [in the country] at least in 1937.” That is because the translators took liberties of the kind that reduce the value of the work almost to nothing.

            The Russian State Archive has a file of documents about how this book was prepared. “Ideally, the schema of collecting material for the collection should have looked like the following: the collector, knowing the local language, writes down the folklore.” Then he and others do a line by line translation and smooth out the text for publication.

            “However,” Zemskova says, “research showed that at each of these stages took place falsifications.” The collectors often didn’t know the language of the source. What was written down had little to do with the original. And then when the translation was prepared, it was fitted into a Procrustean bed so that everything came out as Soviet Russian.

            Pravda editors did send some of the texts out to experts who were quite critical of what had been done; but the editors then ignored these scholars in the interest of speed and presenting a book that would please communist ideologists.  Everyone got well paid, but what was produced was largely junk.

            Zemskova gives numerous examples of how little of the original survived and concludes that “the harsh ideological requirements made this work as a result useless. The existence or absence of an original was ignored, the special features of folkloric poetry was not taken into account, and the literary form of the Russian translated texts were simplified to the point of cliché according to the canons of Russian poetry.”

           Thus, this book takes its place alongside all the other actions of the Soviet state to destroy what was special and unique among the non-Russians and to force them or at least their public works into a mold that did not allow for that uniqueness to manifest itself.  

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