The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Nov 18, 2016


Growing up in Moscow in the 70s, I'd devour Russian books, as many as I could get my hands on. The Soviet publishing machine was prolific, especially where children's books were concerned, but their availability was always a matter of chance. As Mark Grigorian pointed out to me, in the USSR, one could never be sure which book would suddenly be banned. So books were a scarce commodity; they would always be treasured, passed from hand to hand, read till they fell apart from use.

My dad, meanwhile, stalked the bookstores for translations into English. He wasn't always successful. In any case, although the books were relatively cheap, his salary didn't quite extend to large-scale purchases. Still, he managed to amass a small collection of fiction by the great Russians.

When we came back to India, I discovered English translations of the books I'd loved. Exported from the USSR as part of cultural propaganda - no wonder hardly any were available in Moscow. At the time, I wasn't fussed about the quality of the translation - if it conveyed the story with fidelity, I was content. Nor did I particularly bother about the translators. Some of my favourite books were translated by a Margaret Wettlin. But other than wondering if her last name should have been spelled Wetlina, in the feminine Russian ending, I didn't think too much about it.

Recently, I found out that Wettlin was an American woman who had sailed off to Russian in 1932 to join what she thought was a great social experiment - the establishment of a new economic model for the world. Disappointed by the fraying of the American social fabric during the Great Depression, she fancied an adventure in an unknown land. She taught English for a bit in Russia, fell in love with a theatre director, had children. Then Stalin announced that foreigners would either have to take up Soviet citizenship, or leave. Unwilling to abandon her family, she naturalised. She would end up staying in the USSR for nearly fifty years.

Her house was a hotbed of artistic fervour. Her husband was a friend of Stanislavsky; there were actors and playwrights in and out of their lives. The family travelled extensively across the country, even to Mongolia, setting up regional theatres. It was a heady time. It was also a nervous time for her, personally, as the KGB recruited her to spy on her neighbours.

Then the war happened and they were caught in Moscow. The suffering of the Russians during that bitter conflict has been covered extensively. The famines in the Soviet Union caused by misguided Communist policies are also well-known. Her own voice was added with the eventual publication of Fifty Russian Winters: An American Woman's Life in the Soviet Union.

After the war, Wettlin began to translate Russian fiction into English for publication by the Soviet press. Her translations of Gorky, Pasternak, and Tolstoy were well received. As I found out, she also translated Nikolai Nosov, whose books I still recall with undimmed affection.

She continued to live in Moscow till about 1980, when the Soviets finally granted permission for her, her daughter and grandson to leave the country. The US State Department determined that she had become a Soviet citizen under duress and restored her US citizenship. She returned to Philadelphia. Her son couldn't join her for another seven years.

Wettlin died in 2003.


Parmanu said...

Fascinating vignette. Could we have more of from your Russian past, please?

This reminded me of my childhood fascination for books from Russia, something I wrote about 13 years ago here:

Fëanor said...

so good of you to keep visiting the blog! i'll post about russia gradually. as you may have noticed, blogging in general seems to be dying out as genre, certainly in my case!

Porcupyn said...

Blogging (or least commenting on blogs) has been dying it does appear. I've lost almost all of my blog pals (though a few have graduated - or degraded? - to FB friends now). Thankfully, Parmanu is still around :-).

First time on your blog. Liked the post, so am commenting. Like Parmanu, a long time ago, I was exposed to Russian translations. Was impacted by The Story of a Real Man

Fëanor said...

thanks for stopping by! i noticed your comments on parmanu's blog too. haven't read the book you mentioned. it appears that it is available online.

Post a Comment