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By ANDREW ROTH JUNE 28, 2015
MOSCOW — Russian and American academics, publishers and Russian
government officials announced on Saturday that they would collaborate on an
ambitious new series of Russian literature in translation to be published by
Columbia University Press.
image from, with caption: Chekhov and Tolstoy, 1901
The idea, tentatively named the Russian Library, envisions dozens, and
perhaps more than 100, new translations of Russian modern literature and
classics, selected by the publisher with support from a committee of Russian
and American academics.
Academics at the conference said that the collaboration presented a
chance, at least informally, to build the relationship between the two
countries, at a time of heightened tensions.
“Think about the good work that can be done by making available a wide
variety of perspectives on Russia both from the past and the present,” said
Stephanie Sandler, a professor in the Slavic Department at Harvard University
and one of several American professors to travel to Moscow for the conference.
“For many of us, the reason to be involved in the project and have it
happen precisely at what would seem this inauspicious, high-tension political
moment, is that we can start to find bridges between the two cultures and ways
to talk to each other.”
But the project also ignited a bit of scholarly debate. In sometimes raised
voices, the academics at the conference tried to tackle a set of thorny
questions: Which books will go on the list? Should it include relatively new
post-Soviet literature? Will this be perceived as a new canon, and how can that
Jennifer Crewe, the director of Columbia University Press, said that the
book list should include a “smattering of classics” that needed new
translations, as well as post-Soviet and current Russian literature. With time
still needed to select the first series of titles and translate them, the soonest
they would be published is 2017.
The conference was organized by Read Russia, an American
nongovernmental organization partly sponsored by the Russian government
that promotes Russian literature in translation. Peter Kaufman, the head of
Read Russia, said that the project would help Russia “make up for lost time” in
promoting its culture, noting similar initiatives like Spain’s Cervantes
Institute. The Russian government is also supporting the project through
grants from the Institute for Literary Translation, an institute based in
Moscow that promotes Russian literature.
Translated works are a niche market in the United States and the
appearance of 10 new literary translations each year for the next decade would
signify an important development, especially if the authors are not named
Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoevsky.
Vladimir Tolstoy, a great-great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy and an adviser on
cultural affairs to President Vladimir V. Putin, called it the “most ambitious
project he could imagine under the current circumstances.”
“If Russian literature appears and is read then maybe it will help people
understand the way we think,” Mr. Tolstoy said after the conference.
“Literature is the best bridge to understanding peoples, what they’ve lived
through and what sort of values they have.” Mr. Tolstoy added that if the
project was successful, he hoped to see new anthologies of American and
European literature in Russian.
Russian Library is the brainchild of Mr. Kaufman, who is also an associate
director at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, and
Vladimir Grigoriev, a former publisher and the deputy head for Russia’s
Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication. The two met in the early
1990s at a conference for publishers in Russia grappling with the new
institution of copyright law.
Mr. Grigoriev led Saturday’s conference and suggested the academics try
to choose the first 12 books to be published, an initiative that was postponed
after an hour of discussion. Mr. Grigoriev noted wryly that the number of
opinions matched the number of Slavists in the room.
“Part of the problem is the delicacy of trying to define a future canon,”
said Caryl Emerson, a professor of Slavic Literature at Princeton University,
who attended the conference. “The past is established. The Russians take their
identity from what they read. What happens when you have a traumatic
regime shift? People want things out there that are not known in the West but
at what point are they worthy of being known?”