'To Kill a Mockingbird’ was translated into Russian and published in a very good edition (a hardcover with an introduction and the author’s bio) somewhere in 1968. Not that Harper Lee received any royalties. I read it in 1970 when I was 14 years old. That puts me a year older than Jem Finch in the book. As far as I know the book was not popular among the teenagers but I did notice a special interest among adults. That was the reason I decided to read it at that time and it triggered the events that followed. The dialogs and encounters I site in my essay are real; they really took place, although not always with me personally. But they happened. Since I had arrived into the US, my son went through the US school system and there they read and digested that book. To my utmost surprise the specific aspects of that book, the ones that drew the most attention in Russia here were not even mentioned. I thus had decided to recreate those discussions of my childhood so that my American readers would be able to get some valuable input into the way other cultures pursue theirs.
On a specific issue: I will use the word Negro in the essay. That was and is the word Russians use to describe black people, not only Americans. The word does not contain any negative connotation in the Russian language. On the contrary, the ‘black’ adjective has a very strong negative connotation and as such is used in Russian culture as an insult. It is thus understandable that I wanted to show that when referring to the black folks we in Russia did not mean to insult them in any way.
1. To kill what? The book on the shelf
No teenage boy in Russia would pass the book with ‘To kill’ on the cover. I perused the book looking for illustrations. There were none. It was a thick book though. I looked at the cover again and asked my dad,
-What’s Peresmeshnick (Mockingbird- MS)?
-It is a translation,- my dad said, “In Russia we do not have those birds.”
-We have soroka, I said.
_ Yes, and I heard it is a sin to kill it although it is very noisy, nosy and is the first to warn all the forest about the hunters approaching.
-Is this book about hunting?
-Hunting, indeed, - my dad said, “Something similar to Mark Twain’s. Only modern, 1930s or so. The author is a woman. Like the one who wrote The Gadfly.”
-Boring,- I said.
Women- authors were the automatic turnoff. No self-respecting boy of my age would consider reading a book written by a woman. That was because most of the books for the little kids were written by women and we all went through the sea of nursery rhymes where banner was rhymed with amber and granddad Lenin was the savior of all children on Earth.
The Gadfly, written by Ethel Lilian Voinich, somewhere in 1900s was a different story. That book was immensely popular, an eternal bestseller. There were also at least two movies. Children played in those characters. It was a tough argument but again, no teenager would admit at first that he was interested. Not a chance. Boring.
2. Kolya, the boy wizard
We were sitting with Kolya on the stone wall, eating ice-cream and watching cars.