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In Session: Progressive Reading Cultures and Communist Political Thought: between South Asia and the USSR, 1930-1980
2: Reader Influence on Soviet Urdu-Language Book Publishing during the Cold War
Monday, March 22, 2021
10:00am – 11:30am EDT
Jessica L. Bachman
University of Washington, United States
Soviet books, from novels and Marxist-Leninist texts to science and engineering textbooks, achieved popularity on a mass scale in post-colonial South Asia during the second half of twentieth century. They were so popular, in fact, that by the mid 1970s, India alone became the largest consumer of Soviet books in the world outside the socialist block. This paper focuses on the production, circulation, and reader reception of Urdu language translations produced by the Soviet Union’s Foreign Languages Publishing House (renamed Progress Publishers in 1963). Drawing on a new body of evidence from the Russian archives, I show how the material and visual embodiments of Soviet translations failed to meet the aesthetic expectations of Indian and Pakistani Urdu reading publics and impeded readers’ ability to derive pleasure and meaning from the texts’ ideological and ideational content. But the story of this failure is revealing, and it carries implications for the way historians view institutions such as Progress which formed part of the Soviet Union’s larger global propaganda apparatus. Urdu reader and bookseller criticism of Soviet book design and printing methods, which grew in frequency between the 1960s and 1980s, was not ignored. Rather, Progress took reader demands seriously and made several–ultimately unsuccessful–attempts at altering its design and printing methods in accordance with voiced preferences. By foregrounding the dynamic exchanges between South Asian readers, the press’s nomenklatura, and editorial and production personnel, I argue for a bottom-up reader influence on Soviet publishing processes and printing methods.