Did the Russian Wizard of Oz Subvert Soviet Propaganda?
Olga Zilberbourg on Aleksandr Volkov's Adaptation of
L. Frank Baum's Classic
The story I read as a child growing up in the USSR in the 1980s begins in Kansas, in a community of poor farmers. An eight-year-old named Ellie Smith lives with her mother and father in a wagon, its wheels removed. Ellie is too young to go to school, but her mother reads her fairy tales about wizards and her father teaches her to read and write. When she gets bored, she takes her dog Totoshka to visit her neighbors: two boys, Dick and Bob, to play with and an old man, Rolph, who gives her toys.
It’s a happy and peaceful life, if occasionally disturbed by cyclones. Beyond an impassable desert and mountain range, in the Magic Land, is a cave decorated with a stuffed crocodile carcass, rodents and reptiles. There, a wicked witch named Ginghema is brewing a storm. She hates the enterprising farmers who, in the name of progress, have destroyed the forests and killed all the delicious frogs and snakes. These creatures provide her sustenance and also serve for her magic. As humans rein in nature, her livelihood has become threatened.
“Tear, break, crash,” chants Ginghema as she releases the cyclone from her cauldron, with the help of her broom. “Destroy the people, the animals, the birds. Leave only the frogs, the mice, the snakes, the bugs, the spiders. Let them multiply for my sake.”
Ginghema’s name sounds foreign to a Russian ear, but in the picture that accompanies the story, the witch is drawn with a crooked nose and wielding a giant broom: she resembles Baba Yaga, a character from Russian folk tales.
When the cyclone reaches Kansas, it sweeps up Ellie’s wagon, picking it up with the girl and her dog Totoshka stuck inside. Tearing Ellie away from her parents, the cyclone carries her across the desert and the mountains, and finally brings her to the Magic Land. A good witch named Villina intercepts Ginghema’s magic and drops Ellie’s house on top of Ginghema’s head. The wicked witch is dead, but now Ellie and Totoshka have to find their way back to Kansas. By the way, we learn that the Magic Land is truly magic because here Totoshka can talk.
In 1939, the same year that The Wizard of Oz premiered in US theaters, Aleksandr Volkov, a 48-year-old history teacher turned children’s book author in Moscow, published Magician of Emerald City, his adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
The term “the Iron Curtain” is customarily used to describe the Cold-War-era virtual boundary, but in effect, the Soviet Union had severely limited its informational ties with the West soon after the October Revolution of 1917. In the 1930s, English-language books were rare and hard to find across the USSR. In 1934, when Volkov decided to study English, his teacher lent him her copy of Baum’s book.
A scholar of Soviet children’s literature, Miron Petrovsky, quotes from Volkov’s unpublished diaries (translation is mine): “The fairy tale’s plot and its marvelously genial characters charmed me. I read the story to my sons, and they loved it, too. I was reluctant to part with this book (moreover, it had high production values), and I gave its owner various excuses to continue to borrow it. Finally, I decided to translate it to Russian, thoroughly revising.” He found the work so engaging, he claims to have completed the initial translation in two weeks.Volkov took pride in transforming and adapting The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for his audience. He was not the first Soviet author to do this.
Perhaps part of his speed can be attributed to the fact that he didn’t feel obliged to be faithful to the original. Quite the opposite: Volkov took pride in transforming and adapting the book for his audience. He was not the first Soviet author to do this. New Soviet realities demanded new stories and retellings of the old stories. By the 1920s, fairy tales had fallen suspect in the eyes of a new generation of critics and pedagogues, who argued that they had been an instrument of class subjugation and that children of the proletariat would be harmed by reading them. But in 1933, as Stalin was consolidating his power and taming some of the most revolutionary ideas of the 1920s, the Communist Party established DETGIZ, a new publishing venture to produce children’s books, aiming to raise future generations of bright-eyed believers in Communist ideals.
The new initiative was entrusted to an experienced editor, Samuil Marshak. Marshak, though not himself a party functionary, knew how to engage children while teaching them the Marxist view of the world. He called for treating children’s literature as literature first—as a form of art—and asked for books that would combine “brave realism” with “even braver adventure.” A writer and brilliant translator himself, Marshak had built his literary career publishing poems for children and adapting British ballads and nursery rhymes into Russian. Building on his source material, Marshak adjusted emphasis, stressing the revolutionary potential of the folk ballads.
In 1937, during the height of Stalinist terror, the Leningrad headquarters of DETGIZ came under the scrutiny of NKVD, and many authors and editors were accused of treason, arrested, and either murdered or sent into exile. Many books published by Marshak’s press were deemed ideologically incompatible with the party’s current direction. Among the murdered authors were the modernist poets Nikolai Zabolotsky (who had adapted Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais for Soviet children), Nikolai Oleinikov, and Daniil Kharms. Lydia Chukovskaya, one of the editors who worked for Marshak and left notes about this era, recounts the story of how her husband Matvej Bronshtein, a physicist, whom she had asked to write children’s books about X-Rays and the radio, was arrested and summarily executed based on his connection with the press.
Many others, including Marshak himself, escaped persecution. Marshak moved to Moscow, away from the eyes of agents focused on his activities. In Moscow, he continued to write and work as an editor, taking up, for instance, the work of a new author—Aleksandr Volkov and his Magician of Emerald City.
In the hands of a lesser editor not bound by copyright law (the Soviet Union didn’t sign any international copyright treaties until 1973), an adaptation of Baum’s novel could easily have become a blunt tool of propaganda. This isn’t what happened. Kansas remained Kansas, and though most of the characters got different names, Ellie Smith sounds even more American to a Russian speaker than Dorothy Gale.
As a child in Leningrad in the 1980s, I first encountered Magician of Emerald City as an oral tale in my aunt’s retelling. When I grew old enough to sit through a chapter book, she read the novel to me, over and over, until I memorized it and could pretend that I was reading it myself. Eventually, I did read it myself—and out loud, to my younger brother. What captivated me beyond the incredible setting and the magic was the dynamism of the plot and the way I could imagine Ellie, the main character, to be an ordinary girl, just like me.
Volkov pares down all of the descriptive passages and gives his protagonist a loving mother and father. Following the initial publication in 1939, Volkov reworked the book once more in 1959, getting further away from Baum’s original. It’s this later version of the book that my aunt read to me and that Russian speakers reading it today encounter. Compare the two opening passages. First, Baum:
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cookstove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner. There was no garret at all, and no cellar—except for a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole.
Here’s Volkov (I’m retaining Baum’s idiom as the basis for my back-translation):
Ellie lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies. Her father, Farmer John, spent the day working in the field; her mother Anna did the housework.
They lived in a small wagon, taken off its wheels and set on the ground. They lived poorly: they owned a metal cookstove, a cupboard, a table, three chairs, and two beds. Next to the house, they had dug a cyclone cellar. The family hid there during storms.
Then comes a new paragraph, Volkov’s own: “Prairie whirlwinds often threw Farmer John’s abode to the ground. But John didn’t despair: when the winds died down, he picked up the house, set the stove and the beds in their places; Ellie picked up the tin plates and mugs—and everything was in order until the next cyclone.”
Volkov writes in short sentences and tightens the paragraphs, making the book particularly well-suited for a reader with a short attention span. This narration is visual, direct, and emphasizes the ordinary—to create a deeper contrast with the magic about to begin. Volkov, I believe, adapted Baum’s work not only with the different culture in mind, but also targeting a younger readership.
Consider the central conflict of the book. Both Dorothy and Ellie long to return home, to Kansas. But why? “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful,” says Baum’s Dorothy, concluding with the famous line, “There is no place like home.” Dorothy’s Kansas is quite a bleak place, and her desire to return there is not immediately logical. This gap in logic makes her desire ever more credible to an adult reader who has experienced the paradoxes of homesickness. But to the imagination of a young child who is yet to leave her parents for any considerable length of time, nothing speaks stronger of home than the idea of reuniting with father and mother. To Ellie, who might as well be Dorothy’s younger and more sheltered sister, Kansas is home because that’s where her parents live.
Notably, Volkov doesn’t change Baum’s setting: the book takes place in Kansas, and it is Kansas that Ellie longs to return to from her travels in the Magic Land. Anti-American political campaigns of the post-WWII era didn’t directly affect Volkov’s 1959 revision of the material. Had the edits to the book been motivated by anti-American ideology, Volkov might’ve been pressured to paint Kansas bleaker and drearier than Baum’s own. In fact, the opposite is true.
Volkov’s Kansas is populated by poor farmers, but despite of it—or, in fact, because of it—it’s a friendly place. Volkov leans on the political ideas of the Communist International (Comintern) movement, particularly popular before in the 1930s Stalin began executing its members. Comintern was officially disbanded during World War II, but some of its ideals were allowed to live on. As children, we were taught to believe that all poor people of the world were united in their strife against the wealthy bourgeois exploiters, whether these poor people lived in Kansas or in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, where Volkov was born. From her house, Ellie can see the houses of her equally poor farmer neighbors; they are her friends who play with her and share with her the little they have. To us young readers, Kansas seemed in fact so wonderful that even in the middle of Cold War, we dreamed of going there as though it itself was the Magic Land.
What’s even more remarkable is, as Miron Petrovsky observes, that some of Volkov’s additions seem to reflect the atmosphere of Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. In the later chapters of the novel, when Baum’s Oz returns to Kansas on his balloon and Scarecrow assumes the rule of Emerald City, coming into power doesn’t affect Scarecrow’s attitude. Volkov’s Strashila, however, becomes quite a changed character. He gets himself a new suit of fancy clothes, and expects everyone to obey him—everyone and everything. When winged monkeys come to Ellie’s aid for the third and final time and say goodbye, Strashila promises them, “Next time, you’ll have a different master, and you won’t get rid of him so easily.” He means himself. In a new chapter, called “Flood,” Strashila, suffering from a terrible downpour as the straw he’s made out of becomes soggy, contemplates creating a law that would prohibit rainfall.What’s even more remarkable is that some of Volkov’s additions seem to reflect the atmosphere of Stalinist terror in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.
In contemporary post-Soviet countries and the diaspora, Baum’s and Volkov’s books exist simultaneously. In 2012, a popular children’s press, Pink Giraffe, published a gorgeous new edition of Baum’s book, faithfully translated into Russian by Olga Varshaver, Dmitry Psurtsev, and Tatyana Tulchinskaya. Comparing the two books in her review “Ellie vs. Dorothy,” Evgeniya Gubskaya firmly upholds Baum’s artistic superiority, given Baum’s understated yet more complex treatment of emotion (he doesn’t name the emotions as Volkov does but allows them to come through in scene).
Personally, I hate the idea that these two books must be pitted against each other, entered into a competition that disregards the historic circumstances of their creation and reading.
Recently, as my four-year-old and I were walking home from his preschool, we watched the fog roll in from the Pacific and cover San Francisco’s skyscrapers. A gust of strong wind blew into our backs. “Have I told you a story about a girl named Ellie and her dog, Totoshka, who once were swept up by a storm and traveled all the way to the Magic Land?” I asked my son.
He was captivated by the premise, and it wasn’t until deep into the story that I realized I was telling him the Soviet version. After a moment’s pause, I stuck to it. One day my son will watch the Judy Garland movie, and once he learns to read, he will have the opportunity to compare Baum’s and Volkov’s books for himself, and to appreciate their differences. My desire to retell Volkov’s version goes beyond nostalgia, or at the very least, it complements nostalgia for the book that I loved as a child. Of course, my son must know that Totoshka can talk!
But I also want him to learn that good stories can exist in multiple versions. I want him to know that in order to survive, a story must change.
Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Water and Other Stories is out now from WTAW Press.