How African and Asian Writers Found a Soviet Audience

That’s actually a somewhat sad part of the book’s story. Literature from Africa and Asia was extensively translated by Soviet publishing houses, but could not rival the popularity of Western texts. I came across a number of Soviet-era copies in Russian libraries in completely virgin state, with pages uncut. Especially for the Western-centric late-Soviet intelligentsia in Moscow and Leningrad, Real Literature could only come France, England, Germany, and the USA — any text originating from Africa or Asia was a priori inferior.

There were exceptions: the Latin American boom novel enjoyed immense popularity in the USSR after it had received Western imprimatur, and so did Japanese literature. Several writers such as the Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet and his compatriot, the satirist Aziz Nesin, enjoyed genuine, grassroots popularity among Soviet readers.

Also, influential as it was in forming popular opinion, the intelligentsia in Russia’s two capitals was not the entire Soviet readership: there were a number of people genuinely interested in decolonization and specialists in the field. Anecdotally, readers from Soviet Central Asia or the Caucasus were particularly interested in literature from neighboring countries: Azerbaijanis in Turkish literature, Tajiks in Iranian literature, and Uzbeks in texts from Afghanistan and India.

With cinema, the story is somewhat different: certain non-Western cinemas, such as India’s, enjoyed immense popularity with Soviet viewers. Three of the twenty-five films most watched on Soviet screens (from any country, including the USSR) hail from India, and there is one from Egypt, The White Dress (1975). Topping this list, with оver ninety million viewers, is the Mexican melodrama Yesenia (1971).

Poster for Yesenia (1971).

The genre here is key: as the USSR produced few melodramas and imported even fewer from the West, the main source of this most popular of genres, as far as Soviet viewers were concerned, was non-Western cinema.

At the same time, Third Cinema — political consciousness–raising cinema, which we associate with the documentaries produced and screened in underground conditions by Latin American filmmakers such as Argentinia’s Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas, or the legal but still revolutionary fiction films of Mrinal Sen in India and Sembène Ousmane in Senegal — was not at all popular with Soviet audiences.

This lack of mass audience interest is partly understandable: this genre is itself much less popular than melodrama. The USSR sometimes bought a couple of copies of political films (essentially playing in two to three cinemas in Moscow) as a diplomatic gesture toward some important leftist filmmaker. But often, they did not even do that. Preferring to work with states rather movements, the late Soviet state was suspicious of guerrillas, whether holding rifles or cameras.

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