20 years have passed since the premiere of “The Fellowship of the Ring” by film director Peter Jackson. As Amazon nears the completion of the main shoots on the first season of their $ 465 million TV reinterpretation of JRR Tolkien’s Second Age, a continuation of the epic neo-medieval visuals that have become synonymous with Middle-earth seems inevitable.
However, the appearance in April of Leningrad TV’s Khraniteli (“Keeper”), a “lost” two-part Soviet television narrative from Volume I of The Lord of the Rings from 1991, has both western and young Russian Tolkien fans alike with short but colorful ones Insight into an alternate vision of the story. This delightful lo-fi production, with its catchy opening song, rudimentary special effects, and cobbled-together costumes, has been described by some as symptomatic of a country on the verge of collapse. In fact, however, Khraniteli represents a rich subculture of ingenuity and creativity in the face of oppression: the world of Soviet Tolkien.
Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring was published in the UK on July 29, 1954, followed by The Two Towers and The Return of the King. The first foreign language editions of the trilogy arrived soon after, including the controversial translation by Swedish author Ake Ohlmarks from 1959, Harskarringen. The Ohlmarks text was a particular source of irritation for Tolkien, not least because of the translator’s claim that the dark Lord Sauron was an analogue for the former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Tolkien refuted Ohlmarks’ remark by writing in 1961 in a letter to his publisher Allen & Unwin that such an allegory was “completely alien” to his thinking. He repeated this in his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings from 1966, stating that he did not like allegories “in all their guises”. However, the problem reappeared when The Lord of the Rings reached the Soviet Union.
As noted by Russian scholar Olga Markova, interest in Tolkien’s story behind the Iron Curtain grew rapidly. The first Soviet readers were primarily philologists and translators, people interested in researching the literary and philosophical elements of the books. For them, The Lord of the Rings offered an escape route from socialist realistic literature to a rich and colorful alternative world.
However, the Soviet authorities were extremely suspicious of what they perceived to be a thinly veiled parable of the Cold War, especially one depicting bourgeois landlords (hobbits), bearded mystics with a suspicious ability to cure sick kings (Gandalf), and hereditary monarchs ( Aragorn, Théoden, etc.) against an eastern industrial nation presided over by an omniscient ruler. As a result, The Lord of the Rings was banned from publication in the Soviet Union, and any remaining English copies of the trilogy were sent to secret KGB archives called Spetskhrany.
Fortunately, there were individuals who were determined to bring Tolkien’s epic poem to the Russian reader. Including Zinaida Bobyr, translator for the popular science magazine Tekhnika Molodezhi (“Technology for Youth”). Bobyr’s plan for The Lord of the Rings was simple: it would condense the trilogy and repackage it in a form that met the requirements of the Principal Directorate for Literature and Publishing, known as Glavlit, the Soviet Censor. According to Markova, this meant turning the story into a science fiction story, complete with an additional cast of scientists and engineers (stolen from Stanislaw Lem’s 1958 novel Eden) and a A Ring that was turned into a pseudoscientific energy storage device. When that bizarre attempt was turned down, Bobyr opted for a fairy tale format and threw in a magical Númenoreon crown to sweeten the deal. Again, this was refused, so that she had little choice but to distribute her manuscript entitled Povest ‘o Kol’tse (“The Story of the Ring”) in samizdat form.
It was a risky move. Banned by the Soviet authorities, samizdat was a secret underground press that dealt with copying and distributing banned literature. Anyone who owns or distributes such material risks criminal prosecution. Even so, Bobyr made several copies of her manuscript and secretly distributed them to a cadre of like-minded people. Later, as documented by Mark Hooker, fellow translators Aleksandr Gruzberg, Natalya Grigor’eva, and Vladimir Grushetskij followed suit and flirted with the arrest to produce samizdat editions that luckily were more faithful to Tolkien’s original.
During this time, interest in Tolkien’s earlier work The Hobbit or There and Back Again (published 1937) had also grown. A brief excerpt of the story was admitted to the Angliya (“England”) magazine in 1969, and in 1976 Detskaya Literatura was officially given the green light to publish the full translation by Natalia Rakhmanova: Khobbit, ili Tuda I Obratno. Although Khobbit was considered a less controversial work than its successor, its pages were still scoured with east-west references. This included changing the compass rose on the redrawn version of Tolkien’s Thror’s Map by illustrator Mikhail Belomlinsky. While the original map had shown a “dwarf” compass rose, with east pointing to the evil dragon Smaug at the top, Belomlinsky’s version at the top returned north to avoid blushing party officials.
Belomlinsky’s lively scrapboard illustrations for Khobbit represented one of the earliest heydays of Tolkien’s visual culture in the Soviet Union. His cheerful round-faced Bilbo was especially admired for his resemblance to popular film and stage actor Yevgeny Leonov, a detail that quickly made the hobbit popular with his Soviet audience.
Another breakthrough came in Detskaya Literatura in 1982 with the publication of Vladimir Murav’ev and Andrej Kistyakovskijs Khraniteli (“Guardian”), the first state-sanctioned Soviet translation of The Lord of the Rings and the inspiration for Natalya Serebryakova’s viral TV production from 1991. Khraniteli was not a full translation of all three volumes, but an abridged retelling of The Fellowship of the Ring, complete with maps and illustrations by Gennady Kalinovsky. Murav’ev and Kistyakovskij have taken an inventive approach in their translation of Tolkien’s original nomenclature by using Baggins in Torbins (from torba “pocket”), the Shire in Khobbitania and the companions in the eponymous Khraniteli Kol’ca, “keepers of the ring “Renamed.” They also gave the story a darker, somber tone, hinting at real political problems. Kalinovsky’s illustrations added another dimension in the form of semi-abstract Cyrillic chapter initials that complemented the narrative without highlighting its potentially uncomfortable content.
Khraniteli was extremely successful, selling more than 300,000 copies in three editions. Unfortunately, the release was followed by a hiatus that would last until the 1990s when Murav’ev’s solo translation of the full trilogy was finally released. Meanwhile, Soviet Tolkien fans were forced to console themselves with samizdat manuscripts or smuggled overseas editions.
One of these fans was Ukrainian artist Sergei Iukhimov. Iukhimov had started producing illustrations based on his reading of Khraniteli in the mid-1980s, but found his artistic vision hampered by the lack of a full story to work on. Since the possibilities were limited in his hometown of Odessa in the Ukraine, he finally decided on a Polish edition of the trilogy and set about meticulously translating the entire work with the help of a Russian-Polish dictionary.
In the years that followed, Iukhimov created more than 100 full-color Tolkien illustrations. His vision of Middle-earth remains one of the most complex and nuanced to date, and can rival that of a western Tolkien illustrator. In his pictures, medieval and modern motifs combine to form mosaic-like compositions in which biblical elves stand side by side with Dickensian hobbits and punk orcs roam through gloomy tile backdrops that are reminiscent of hospitals from the Soviet era. Although Iukhimov’s art may seem alien to the western observer, his creative approach is comparable to Tolkien’s own. Just as Tolkien’s philological research underpinned his literary work and added to its depth, so Iukhimov’s use of historical imagery gave his illustrations a similar feel.
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Iukhimov’s greatest publication success came in 1993 when 32 of his pictures were included in a new version of Grigorevas and Grushetskij’s samizdat translation Vlastelin Kolec (“The Lord of the Rings”). This two-volume edition was published as part of the upswing in the Tolkien publishing house after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The same explosion of interest had already resulted in Bobyr’s The Tale of the Ring being repackaged for a new audience, along with the release of two other weighty editions of Vlastelin Kolec, affectionately known as “Yellow Brick” and “Blue Brick” are designated. The latter version featured illustrations by Denis Gordeev, an artist whose Tolkien paintings would eventually bridge the gap between Eastern and Western styles.
It can be tempting to classify Soviet Tolkien adaptations as strange or comical expressions of a dysfunctional society. But this is not doing them any favors. Soviet Tolkien wasn’t a sad indictment of communism. It was an example of what was possible when talented, resourceful people braved the chance to recreate something they loved. Tolkien himself often referred to his fantasy world as “sub-creation”, namely an imaginary, subordinate world that exists within a real one. The Soviet Tolkien, with its many variations on the author’s original themes, replicates this in a microcosm.
Modern blockbusters like the Amazon series or Warner Bros.’s new anime fantasy The War of the Rohirrim seem to have little in common with the happy theatrics of TV Khraniteli or Frodo Torbins of Khobbitania. If their productions hit a creative wall, however, they could do worse than seek inspiration from the East – to the writers and artists who brought Tolkien to the Soviet Union.