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Keeping literature alive in Soviet Russia

Posted on 6th June 2015 by Elena Gorokhova
Against strict Soviet rules, Elena Gorokhova and her typewriter 'Erika', reproduced banned books by hand.
In the 1970s, when I was a student at Leningrad University, I sat in my apartment close to the city center and typed pages of forbidden books through four sheets of carbon paper. My portable manual typewriter, in the absence of copying machines in the Soviet Union, was tireless and earnest, the most extraordinary thing I possessed, more valuable than a pair of Finnish boots my actress sister got for me through a tangle of her theater connections. According to my mother, the typewriter was made in Germany, the word “Erika” written in gold over the keyboard.

I hit Erika’s keys as hard as I could to make the words of poems in all five copies legible, to hammer into my brain their uncommon beauty that was so different from the poetry of socialist realism available in bookstores. There was nothing in those poems about collective farmers boasting record crops of wheat or heroic steel workers risking their lives by the furnaces in order to shorten the road to our shining future. There were no Young Pioneers, no cosmonauts, no festive crowds with banners and paper carnations on wire stems. The lines my fingers pounded into the five sheets of paper quivered with love – not our love for the Motherland but for one another, the love my high school teacher Nina Sergeevna didn’t talk about in Russian literature class. Those poems asked forbidden questions and failed to give the clear answers our textbooks offered. Their rhymes floated from under my fingers, swelling with fearless metaphors and sounds, as raw and intense as life itself. Unlike the published books full of stale Soviet optimism, the poems I typed had vigor and complexity but no happy endings: their authors had been murdered or condemned by the system they refused to praise. 

Picnic on the Volga - 1964. Photo (C) Elena Gorokhova
My little Erika produced many blurry pages of Russian poets who refused to call themselves Soviet: Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak, and Osip Mandelstam, among others; and those pages – after I pulled out carbon paper and stacked them in piles - were distributed to good and trusted friends. I typed from other blurry pages or from old literary magazine issues that traveled through the elaborate and quiet tunnels of samizdat (the process of reproducing banned books in Soviet Russia) and found their way into my hands. There was obvious irony in the insanity of my Motherland: as I sat in my apartment hammering out pages of forbidden books, only three Metro stops away, censors sat at their desks branding manuscripts unacceptable. They did their job, and I did mine.

With practice, my typing skills improved and from poems I graduated to prose. I reproduced chapters from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, a multilayered novel where the Devil wreaks havoc in Moscow, exposing Soviet absurdities and bureaucrats’ duplicitous lives and finding an ally in Margarita. She sides with the dark forces to save the Master, her lover who had been arrested for writing a novel about Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ. “Manuscripts do not burn,” proclaims the Devil as he produces the novel the desperate Master had earlier tossed into the fire. “Manuscripts do not burn,” I repeated as I typed, the words that became our mantra, the words that gave us hope. In the surreal world of Soviet Russia, it is the Lord of Darkness who affirmed the resilience and immortality of art.

Out of the five copies of every manuscript I typed, one always remained in my apartment. My multiple-talented actress sister bound the pages together and made the front and back covers out of the remnants of fabric she used to sew clothes for our family. Onto our apartment shelves they went, the beautiful cloth-bound typed books Erika and I produced. The other four copies found their way into the hands of trusted friends – my literature professor, my fellow English tutor, an engineer neighbor with a secret love for Freud – who passed them on to their friends who also owned typewriters. Those pages, now gone along with the ghost of communism, bound us together. They taught me poetry; they let me breathe. They proved that Mikhail Bulgakov was right and manuscripts did not burn, despite the diligence of censors. They proved that it is pitiful and useless to sit in judgment on books and guard the reader from the raw power of imagination.


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