Prestige Editions and Borrowing Privileges in the Stalinist Library of World Literature
(University of Chicago)
Recalling his visits to the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1950s, the Iranian literary scholar Sa'id Nafisi remarked that "they give great importance to the book, and I have no doubt that no city in the world has as many bookstores as Moscow. There's no doubt that it has larger printing runs of books than all the countries in the world." He, and other Iranian visitors to Moscow and Central Asia, were particularly impressed by Soviet editions of classical Persian and Turkic texts—the lavishly illustrated Russian translations and lovingly reproduced manuscript facsimiles produced for series such as Academia and Literary Masterpieces [Literaturnye pamiatniki]. Soviet "Eastern" writers contrasted such bibliophilia with the book-burnings of fascist Europe, making it a basis for the Soviet claim to be the leading defenders of World Culture. The circulation of such books for Soviet audiences was relatively limited, and the Stalinist project of world literature manifested differently before a broader public, in textbook anthologies and cheaper editions, often translated more literarily than philologically. Editions also varied for different language communities: a Soviet Turkic edition of a Chaghatay text or a Tajik edition of a Persian text involved a different menu of choices for prestige or mass editions. B. Venkat Mani has recently proposed "borrowing privileges" as a synecdoche for modeling the ways that institutions of book production and distribution produce the idea and reality of world literature, under conditions of unequal access. The unequal access to literature produced by censorship, samizdat/tamizdat, and central control of print runs has long been part of the mythology of Soviet Russian dissident culture, but there has been no practical examination of the role of "borrowing privileges" in Soviet multilingual mass culture. This paper provides a preliminary examination of the scholarly, prestige, and mass editions of "Eastern" classics published during the Stalin period.
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