In his 2005 essay, First Love, for n+1 magazine, writer Pankaj Mishra recounts his childhood in the 1970s and ’80s, spent in a north Indian railway town which lacked colour and character; and how a magazine from a far-off land promised the chance of a better life. Subscribing to Soviet Life, a newsletter that promoted Russian accomplishments in science, agriculture, sports and literature, Mishra began to long for a life in the USSR.
“I saw a photograph of Turgenev walking down a long straight path though tall birch trees. The picture, suggesting days spent in work and reflection, captivated me for a long time… On hellishly hot days, I imagined myself walking along snowbound Nevsky Prospekt in an overcoat. On other days, I saw myself studying to become an engineer in Leningrad and then settling down with one of the pretty Young Pioneers in Turkmen costume,” he writes.
Writer and publisher V Geetha quotes Mishra in her 2017 book, Another History of the Children’s Picture Book: From Soviet Lithuania to India (Tara Books), written with Giedre Jankeviciute. The book is a fantastic deep dive into the ideology, methodology and production system through which the USSR sought to disseminate its ideas and ideals to places under its Communist rule, as well as to friendly nations such as India. The Soviet publishing industry’s translation wing, the Foreign Languages Publishing House, understood that the only way the Russian State’s way of life could resonate with its wide readership was if the stories were told in local languages. “Groups of (Indian) translators were invited to the Soviet Union, where they lived and worked for several years… these men and women were fed, clothed, housed and supported by the Soviet State. Books thus produced were made available in India at extremely low prices, and distributed through publishing houses, each with a decidedly left-wing perspective,” writes Geetha.
Tracking down erstwhile translators who worked on their favourite Soviet books are three friends, Prasad Deshpande, Nikhil Rane, and Devadatta Rajadhyaksha, who, in their film, Dhukyat Haravele Laal Taare (Red Stars Lost Behind the Mist), explore Soviet children’s literature in Marathi. The 39-minute documentary was recently screen at the Godrej Auditorium in Mumbai by the Godrej Archives. “My mother had safely kept a bunch of my childhood books, including some Soviet books, in a cupboard. Around 2006, I found them again. I wondered, what happened to these books? On the internet, I came across a few blog posts on this topic. Interaction with some bloggers/commenters led to creation of the Facebook page ‘Soviet Literature in Marathi’. Nikhil and I connected through this page. A few months later, Prasad (whom Nikhil knew since college days), Nikhil and I met,” says Rajadhyaksha, a Mumbai-based finance professional.
“I remember buying these books from Majestic Book fair held in Vile Parle and other exhibitions that were organised in school,” says Deshpande, a filmmaker and graphic designer, who suggested the three make a documentary. “We chalked out three departments with respect to these books: translation, illustration, production and distribution. We listed out names of people who could talk on this subject and interviewed them,” says Rane, an HR professional. The documentary consists of conversations with those involved in the ecosystem: translators and publishers who worked at Lokvangmay Griha, which co-published several titles with Soviet publishing firms such as Raduga.
“We even got in touch with a Russia-based translator who had translated books in 1980s, and with a former manager at the Soviet organisation in charge of distribution of books in foreign countries,” says Rajadhyaksha. The filmmakers plan to screen the documentary at various public forums, including schools and cultural organisations.