(Article changed on December 23, 2012 at 09:24)
Intermission. Did they really read it in Russia?
As far as I remember from my childhood Uncle Tom's Cabin was translated into Russian first somewhere in 1880s as a Russian tribute to the US Civil War. Then it was republished and retranslated many times, especially during the Soviet period as a recognized American classic. American readers would be surprised to find out that all references to Jesus Christ, gospels and prayers had been painstakingly translated and included into all those editions. Most of the editions were illustrated, supported by the appropriate historical narratives and reality comments. I am pretty sure Harriet Beecher Stowe would be totally satisfied with the treatment extended to her book in the far- away Russia.
The book was designated as a summer reading for the children in the 7-8th grade. The US movie Uncle Tom's Cabin was a must-see in English classes of the same levels. Children would be sent en masse to watch that movie on a field trip. Soviet Russia was officially fiercely internationalist; racism was considered a crime. At the same time the term "Negro' was not considered an insult because it was a traditional definition of the people from Africa in Russia. On the contrary, the term "Black' is considered a negative connotation in Russian language whether used as a noun or an adjective. Sometimes terms "black- skinned' for Africans and "red-skinned' for American Indians were used in Russian everyday literature. Old books had one more definition "An Arap' (not Arab), which attributed primarily to the story by Alexander Pushkin " The Arap of Peter The Great'. Alexander Pushkin (the portrait attached), maybe the most revered person in Russia, a literary genius and as famous as Leonardo Da Vinci, was on his mother's side a descendant of the Ethiopian boy, presented as gift to Czar Peter. That boy became a Russian Admiral and a count. His name was Abraham Hannibal.
It was common to discuss summer books in Russian inner -- city schools. In case of this book the discussion would happen in the History room with portraits of the great historical figures on the walls, among them Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain. Children at 13-14 would be the senior young pioneers with red ties on their uniforms. It was customary for everyone to have the book in question or share it with the nearest person. The teacher would monitor the discussion by going from topic to topic to cover the whole spectrum of the issues.
Teacher: Order, please. We will discuss today the very famous book. Anyone here wants to tell us why is it so famous?
Olya: I know. It was the book which ignited the Civil War in the US. It was published somewhere in the 1850s and the war started in 1861 between the Northerners which were primarily industrial and did not have slavery and Southerners who were more agricultural and had slavery as an institution.
Teacher; Who won that war?
Kolya: The Northerners won. The were led by President Abraham Lincoln. He also passed a proclamation which freed all the Negro slaves from bondage.
Teacher: Interesting. What great event happened in our country in 1861?
Sasha: The serfs were freed.
Teacher: Yes, the serfdom was abandoned in 1861. That year is considered a starting year of the Russian Industrial Revolution. When the Civil War in the US broke out Russia actively supported the Union. We all know about Russian officers which volunteered for the cause and fought in the ranks of the Union Army. They mentioned this book as their source of inspiration. So who can tell us in one sentence what is this book about?
Sasha: I'll try, It is the story of the path of the slave family to freedom.
Teacher: Very good. Any such stories in our literature?