A few weeks ago the New York Times’s Moscow Bureau Chief, Anton Troianovski, reported on “the furor over suspected pro-Western sympathies” in St. Petersburg following the censoring of a poster displayed at the National Library of Russia. The incident was reduced to a single sentence in Troianovski’s lengthy account of increasing surveillance and censorship in Russia since the mounting of the Ukraine invasion in February. I received a flurry of screenshots of this sentence from colleagues, some of whom knew I was working on the digital edition of Mark Twain & The Russians, published today. Troianovski mentions that the poster featured “a Soviet scholar” who “a library official mistook” for Mark Twain.
The “Soviet scholar” was critical theorist, Juri Lotman, who does bear a passing resemblance to Sam Clemens in some photographs. The poster had been created for The Day of The Culture Worker, a Russian holiday established in 2007 to honor artists, writers, musicians, and other laborers in the creative economy. This year, the holiday fell on March 25th, which was the same day Russian forces started retreating from their failed assault on Kiev.
The “library official” was actually an overzealous security officer, Maxim Zuev, who confiscated the poster, called it a document of “political extremism,” and delivered it to a member of the Library’s board of directors, Polina-Tereza Davydova. Davydova convened the staff of the department which hung the poster and, even though she recognized Zuev’s mistake, chastised them. The National Library was “an ideological institution,” she said, committed to “serve the state.” Lotman’s son, Mihhail Lotman, an Estonian professor and politician, was a dissident, Davydova claimed, reading from Lotman’s social networks to prove her point. The son’s dissent made the father’s image inappropriate during a time when patriotic loyalty was required. Moreover, Davydova added, any public display should have been pre-approved by the Directors. This was a change of policy according to at least one senior librarian, who resigned in protest after 24 years at the National Library.
As an appropriate coda to this Orwellian scene, Zuev addressed the librarians, admitting his mistake, but blaming the creators of the poster, who did not adequately identify its subject. Zuev, like all the Russian officials queried about the incident, refused, beyond lazily parroting “extremism,” to answer the question raised by a reporter for the St. Petersburg news outlet, Fontanka:
What’s wrong with Mark Twain?
The answer, at least for Zuev and the rest of Putin’s regime, lies in Odessa, the populous Ukrainian port city to which the Russian military turned much of its attention after their defeat in Kiev.1The city has been under continuous shelling and navel blockade since March 21.
In January of 2021, directly following the inauguration of President Biden, a story began circulating about plans to erect a statue of Mark Twain in Odessa. The project was spearheaded by an environmental activist and conservationist in charge of the Tylihul Estuary, Tatiana Chichkalyuk, and Andre Pigulevsky, owner of one of Ukraine’s largest seafood distributors, Skifian Oyster. This publicity campaign was, most accurately, an act of geopolitical signaling. An editorial placed in the Venezuelan publication, Analítica, stated the cause most bluntly under the headline “Tatiana Chichkayluk strengthens Ukraine’s relations with the U.S.”:
With genuine aspirations emerging recently from the Joe Biden Administration to strengthen cooperation with Ukraine, the Mark Twain statue project in Odessa is the perfect opportunity for Washington to actively launch a new chapter of diplomacy and political dialogue with their counterparts in the Government of Ukraine.Peter Tase, “Tatiana Chichkalyuk Strengthens Ukraine’s Relations With The U.S.” Analítica (February 15, 2021) [Translated From Spanish]
The Analítica editorial was the second the outlet had published about the statue project by Peter Tase, an American. Tase is affiliated with the D.C. think tank, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, and was, recently, a failed candidate for political office in Wisconsin. He is also responsible for articles on the Odessa Twain statue placed in Eurasia Review and Eurasia Hoy, English and Spanish language publications headquartered in the United States and covering geopolitics for an international audience.
It is reasonable to speculate that this coalition – including Chichkaylyuk, Pigulevsky, Tase, and several Ukrainian expatriates – formed in anticipation of the Russian invasion. Putin’s creeping occupation of the sovereign nation, starting with Crimea in 2014, has been motivated at least in part by the natural gas extraction and oil distribution advantages gained by control of Ukraine’s coasts. The conversion of Ukraine to serve the Russian petrostate would obviously harm the coastal fisheries and wildlife preserves protected by Ukraine law. The coalition behind the Twain statue clearly held out hope, however desperate, that, despite Ukraine’s exclusion from NATO, the incoming Biden administration would be more amenable to U.S. intervention on Ukraine’s behalf. Their promotion of the project was a public claim of allegiance to “the West.”
But why Mark Twain? Why was this message best delivered through the idol of an author who died before the 1917 revolution, before the formation of the Soviet Union, before the earliest proclamations of Ukrainian independence?
Mark Twain visited Odessa in 1867 as part of the Quaker City pleasure cruise, the first of its kind, which he was covering as “The Holy Land Excursion” for the San Francisco Daily Alta California. Twain’s popular Quaker City dispatches would soon thereafter become fodder for his “American Vandal” lecture tour and, finally, be adapted into his bestselling travel memoir, The Innocents Abroad (1869).
Twain’s visit to Odessa came in the midst of series of stops in what was then Russian territory. Most famously, in Yalta, Twain was part of an envoy which visited with the Russian Emperor, Alexander II. The increasingly famous American correspondent composed an address to Alexander II which circulated in newspapers throughout Russia, Western Europe, and North America.2The three-paragraph address concludes “One of the brightest pages that has graced the world’s history had its birth, was recorded by your Majesty’s hand when it loosed the bonds of twenty millions of men; and Americans can but esteem it a privilege to do honor to a ruler who had wrought so might a deed. The lesson taught us then we have profited by, and are free in truth, today, even as we were before in name. America owes much to Russia – is indebted to her in many ways – and chiefly for her unwavering friendship in seasons of our greatest need. That that friendship may still be hers, we confidently pray; that she is and will be grateful to Russia and to her sovereign for it, we know full well; that should ever forfeit it by and premeditated unjust act, or unfair course, it were treason to believe.” But it is not Twain’s mock-courtly pandering to Imperial Russia which makes him persona non grata at the National Library today. Rather, it is his peculiar description of Odessa, part of his August 22nd letter to the Alta California (and reproduced in Innocents two years later):
By the time they landed in Odessa, the passengers of the Quaker City had visited more than a dozen cities in Spain, France, Italy, and Greece, including Paris and Rome, yet Twain found none of them so resembled the U.S. cities his readers were familiar with as did Odessa.3Twain’s official dispatches were paid for by papers in San Francisco and New York, both cities the author knew well, but he also knew that his dispatches were being reprinted widely and, of course, Twain had spent extensive time in St. Louis, New Orleans, and other, smaller U.S. metropoles. Still, given the framing of this dispatch and the geographic similarities, it is reasonable to suspect that San Francisco is the “American city” he has foremost in mind when describing Odessa. This is a theme Twain returns to repeatedly during his tour of Russia, a tour that was entirely comprised of destinations which are now part of Ukraine (including the occupied territory of Crimea). He and his fellow passengers feel at ease with the people, comfortable in the climate, and surprisingly familiar with the culture. And they are welcomed specifically because they are Americans, as Twain describes in his letter from Sebastopol. While several European travelers had warned him to expect problems with Russian customs agents and to carry his passport at all times, Twain discovered upon his arrival, “my true passport had been floating gallantly overhead – and behold it was only the Stars and Stripes. They never asked us for any other.”
That Twain would describe the territories which became Ukraine not only as recognizably American, but also as un-Russian4Young Twain had decidedly little upon which to base his imagination of what Russia should look like. He had certainly never traveled to the inland cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, nor even spent time (as he later would) in neighboring Eastern European nations. Much later in life, Twain would become fascinated by both Russian history and outraged by the antisemitic, colonial, and oppressive violence of Nicholas II (see “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” among other late works). is obviously antithetical to Putin’s ongoing claim that Ukraine is nothing but a political fiction, that its people are properly Russian citizens and, as such, are overwhelming aligned against “The West.”5As Putin has made clear, for instance in his interviews with Oliver Stone, he regards what he usually calls “The West,” including NATO, as a convenient illusion of multilateralism disguising what is, as he perceives it, the unilateral geopolitical regime of the U.S.
That culture war battle-lines are being drawn around Twain’s likeness in Russia and Ukraine is not surprising to me. Nor, I suspect, was it surprising to many of those assembled at the National Library, especially those old enough to remember the Cold War. Even the security officer, Zuev, who ignited the controversy by associating Twain with “extremism” lets it slip that, whereas he had never heard of Juri Lotman before March 25th, Mark Twain was somebody he assumed every Russian would recognize and remember reading as part of their public education.6As part of a “cultural exchange” about Twain in 1959, a Russian Professor, A. Sarukhanyan, claimed that three books were familiar to every “schoolboy in the USSR”: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court.” What Zuev unintentionally acknowledges is, though Twain has recently fallen out of favor with the Putin regime, through most of the 20th century he was one of the Americans whose writings circulated freely in the Soviet Union, was even “required reading.” Twain was one five American authors whose Russian translations remained continuously in print, even under Stalin, with not just the approval, but the insistence of Soviet authorities.7As mentioned in Rósa Magnúsdóttir’s Enemy Number One: The United States of America in Soviet Ideology & Propaganda, 1945-1959 (Oxford UP, 2019). The others were Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, and Howard Fast. The educational and publishing apparatuses which, as Davydova says of the National Library, were “ideological institutions” committed to “serve the state,” devoted much energy to producing a doctrinaire Mark Twain for Soviet subjects. And, they further alleged, U.S. cultural institutions were simultaneously engaged in promoting a carefully-sanitized and propagandistic version of Mark Twain.
This was the fundamental conflict between the Russian literary critic, Yan Bereznitsky, and the Ukrainian-American Twain scholar and editor, Charles Neider, which fueled their “exchange of views” in the Moscow-based periodical, Literaturnaya Gazeta, which Neider had translated and repackaged for an American readership as Mark Twain & The Russians (1960).8Annotated and republished as a digital edition by CMTS with the permission of Neider’s daughter, Susan M. Neider. Bereznitsky and Neider go back and forth on the question of whether in each of their countries there exists an “official line on Mark Twain” and, if so, how it departs from and eludes the “real Twain.”
In the aftermath of our publication of the digital edition of Mark Twain & The Russians, I am taking up this question again. With the advantage of hindsight, including, in this case, the declassification of government documents and the lifting of other embargoes, as well as the digitization of vast archives of publications from both the U.S. and former U.S.S.R., it becomes easier to see that both were right. Twain became, whether by design or accident, one of the cultural touchstones of the Cold War, and both nations did, undeniably, deploy official powers to this front of their ongoing culture war.
Neider remarks that the considerable publicity he and his books received in 1959-1960 “was not a commentary on me but on the nature of relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.” This point cannot be overstated. In both my annotations of Mark Twain & The Russians and this essay I sometimes contradict points of fact made by both men. But given how deeply embedded they were in Cold War paranoia and the associated censoriousness, and how little of the archive they could see compared to a 21st-century researcher like myself, I’m actually frequently impressed by how much they intuited correctly and how committed each was to civil discourse, even though each (rightly) doubted the other’s freedom to express themselves unencumbered by official pressure to polemicize. One of Troianovski’s predecessors in the Moscow office of the New York Times, Osgood Caruthers, told Neider, “I think that if you were able to talk to Mr. Bereznitsky or his like privately, you would come across less polemics, even though the whole premise of accepting Twain and others is so dogmatically based.”9Neider quotes Caruthers in “Mark Twain Uncensored,” his foreward to the 2000 edition of his collection of “Twain rarities,” Life As I Find It, first published in 1961. As that date suggests, Neider remained the in-demand editor of Twain’s works for the remainder of the Cold War. In 1961 alone he published three more collections. Foremost among the “others” Caruthers alludes to is Dreiser, who both Bereznitsky and Neider cite in their “exchange.” Caruthers adds, “They just won’t give up old Dreiser”(xx).
Mark Twain & The Russians takes shape during a superficial “thawing” period in Soviet-American relations, characterized by a moratorium on Nuclear testing – which begins in October of 1958 and extends until August of 1961 – and by the signing of the Lacy-Zarubin Agreement, in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to a series of “Cultural, Technical, & Educational Exchanges” on the basis of the “belief that these exchanges will contribute significantly to the betterment of relations between the two countries, thereby contributing to a lessening of international tensions.”10Agreement Between The United States of America and The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Exchanges in the Cultural, Technical, & Educational Fields, Signed January 27, 1958 by William Lacy of the U.S. State Department and Georgy Zarubin, the Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. The language of “cultural exchange” proliferates in the U.S. press for roughly the next decade. In Mark Twain & The Russians there are numerous examples of both Bereznitzky and Neider trying to signal sincere commitment to the ideal of exchange while also frequently showing tangible frustration with foundational differences in their worldviews.
Timeline of The “Armed Thaw”, 1958-1961
Among the first examples of such cultural exchange, explicitly negotiated as part of the Lacy-Zarubin talks, were exhibitions to be staged in Moscow and New York City in the Summer of 1959 which would expose residents to the “ways of life” on opposing sides of the Iron Curtain. But while the language of diplomacy and mutual understanding dominated the public discourse around the cultural exchanges in both countries, we now know that the Eisenhower Administration and the U.S. espionage branches conceived of the American National Exhibition in Moscow explicitly as an inception campaign in the accelerating propaganda war, and expected their counterparts in the USSR to operate analogously.11See, for instance, Ellen Mickiewicz “Efficacy & Evidence: Evaluating U.S. Goals at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959” Journal of Cold War Studies 13.4 (Fall 2011)
The exhibitions were constructed with the assumption they would be treated as object lessons in the ideological conflict between American Capitalism and Soviet Communism, and the press and public figures from both nations found it imperative to vigorously interrogate all aspects of the imported exhibition while vehemently defending all aspects of their exported exhibition. Famously, at the opening of the American National Exhibition on July 24, the Soviet Premier, Nikita Krushchev, traded barbs with U.S. Vice President, Richard Nixon, an incident which would become known as “the kitchen debate” since in began over the display of an “average” American kitchen which Krushchev criticized as emblematic of capitalism’s proclivity to produce superfluous consumer goods, like the lemon press.
This incident epitomizes the “armed thaw” period and the relative futility of cultural exchange so long as the prevailing geopolitics of stockpiling, covert intelligence, agitprop, and atomic brinksmanship remained in place. In his memoir, Nixon describes preparing for the visit by consulting with the CIA and former Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, the hardline architect of Eisenhower’s “massive retaliation” strategy. Nixon’s visit began the same week President Eisenhower signed the Captives Nations Week Resolution, a statement of solidarity with 22 properly independent nations (including Ukraine) “subjugated” by “the imperialistic policies of Communist Russia.” The resolution was authored by Lev Dobriansky, a Ukrainian-American professor and activist who was among Krushchev’s most vehement critics.12On September 9, 1959, Dobriansky testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee on “The Crimes of Krushchev,” arguing he was “really the greatest and most infamous genocidist alive today.” The resolution specifically stated “the enslavement of a substantial part of the world’s population by Communist imperialism makes a mockery of the idea of peaceful coexistence.” “Peaceful coexistence” was the name adopted by Krushchev to describe his post-Stalinist foreign policy, and thus Nixon knew the Captive Nations Week Resolution would enrage the Premier and the timing – Captive Nations Week in the US was scheduled to conclude the same day the American National Exhibition opened in USSR – would be seen as an “intentionally belligerent act.”
Nixon’s calculated strategy for his visit was to provoke, antagonize, and face down Krushchev, who he regarded foremost as a “bully,” and to perform his obstinance in both their highly-publicized interactions and the intervening closed-door diplomatic meetings. “Krushchev would respect only those who stood up to him, who resisted him, and who believed as strongly in their own cause as he believed in his,” Nixon later wrote. And so the Vice President adopted the policy of contradiction or noncommittal reply to the Premier on every subject, from the relative merits of washing machines to the relative accuracy of ballistics to the relative pungency of manures.13see “Khrushchev & the ‘Kitchen Debate'” in The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (Grosset & Dunlap, 1978)
While Nixon would speculate that his perceived inability to “get along” with Krushchev might have cost him some swing votes in the 1960 presidential election, his approval rating among Republican voters surged in the months following the kitchen debate, allowing him to coast to the GOP nomination.14Gallup found 61% of Republicans preferred Nixon over the other Republican candidates in June of 1959. That number rose to 75% by the time the primaries began in March of 1960. He won every one of them. Public responses to Nixon’s performance were overwhelmingly laudatory. In effect, Nixon and Krushchev set the tone for cultural exchange for the remaining months of the “armed thaw.” Both were playacting diplomacy while pandering to their native television audiences. Each saw himself as the personification of a political ideology which had to be perpetuated at any cost. Every conversation was combat. No point, no matter how trivial, could be accepted without a counterpoint; no quarter given without a compensatory toll. As Raphaelle Auclert puts it, “During the Thaw, in an unexpected although logical way, the more the threat of an armed war moved away, the harder the propaganda offensive became.”15Raphaelle Auclert, “The ‘Armed Thaw’: Cultural War & Peaceful Coexistence” Journal of Russian American Studies (November 2018)
All the cultural exchanges of this period including, as we shall see, the competing claims made on Twain’s cultural capital, are infected by this mutual suspicion and intransigence. The intrinsic paradox of Cold War cultural exchange is that it cannot happen without state sanction, but the assumption of state sanctioning (and sanitizing) the exchanges precludes their having the stated effect of increasing familiarity, sympathy, and trust.
The exchange which becomes Mark Twain & The Russians was directly catalyzed by the American National Exhibition in Moscow and dogged by the same artifices and agitations which characterize the Krushchev-Nixon kitchen debate. Yan Bereznitsky begins his review of Charles Neider’s Autobiography of Mark Twain with the allegation that there were initially no works by Mark Twain included in the book display at the Exhibition and that the belated addition of Neider’s edition is indicative of how the U.S. intentionally misrepresents its most famous author. Bereznitsky takes for granted that the book exhibit is a carefully-curated work of American propaganda and that Neider’s book is selected for purely ideological reasons, not simply because it was among the newest releases from U.S. publishers. Neider, thereafter, claims to be breaking his usual policy of ignoring bad reviews because he feels not a personal, but a patriotic duty to respond to Bereznitsky’s charges that the U.S. habitually “forgets,” “crops,” and “deflowers” Twain.
When, after appealing directly to Krushchev, Neider is invited to respond to Bereznitsky’s review, the U.S. press rushes to publicize this invitation as exceptional, as tangible evidence of the “thaw,” the kind of cultural exchange which the Lacy-Zarubin Agreement advocates for, though not explicitly negotiated in advance. However, there is a major dissonance in this coverage. Even as commentators applaud the policy of increasing cultural exchange, they repeatedly charge that Literaturnaya Gazeta is an extension of the Communist Party, not to be trusted. Yet, with an unexamined hypocrisy appropriate to Twain’s own cynical view of human nature, U.S. federal bureaucrats and politicians are summoned to dispute the details of Bereznitsky’s description of the book exhibit. Often the positions of U.S. agencies and U.S. publications become indistinguishable in these reports.
One example, a syndicated editorial from the Buffalo Evening News, cites an anonymous source involved in the creation of the display who alleges that, if Bereznitsky found the display had no books by Twain the first time he visited it, it was because his countrymen stole them. Furthermore, “the books that were lifted were those by Twain the humorist,” not, this statement implies, Twain the social or political commentator. This curator fails, predictably, to give examples of which of Twain’s works were written solely by “the humorist.” The News reporter concludes that this interview proves “the Soviet literary world’s own unwitting, self-indictment by its charge of a cultural lockstep in the land of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.” The unintentional irony is that the interview is, in fact, a document of exactly that “cultural lockstep,” as its odd invocations of “Twain the humorist” are explicitly intended to support Neider’s reply, which the News quotes earlier in the report, even though (to their knowledge) it had not yet been published in Moscow.
In documents like this we see both journalists and government agents aligning themself behind Neider in the construction and proliferation of an “official line” on Mark Twain, exactly the “official line” Neider claims does not and has never existed in the United States. Whether or not he was correct about earlier eras of U.S. cultural history, in 1959, partly as a result of the American National Exhibition and Neider’s ensuing exchange, the official line on Mark Twain was codified, and this codification was driven, at least in part, by Nixon’s politics of polarization. What the Soviets contended Mark Twain was, the Americans had to prove that he was not – and vice versa in perpetuum – no matter what kind of obtuse rhetorical calisthenics this repositioning required.
Both Neider and Bereznitsky contend that their countries, concurrent with their exchange, are undergoing something of a “Twain revival.” In the next installment of “The Twain Doctrine” I will survey what exactly that looks like and argue that the resurgence of interest in Twain’s life and work was in fact fueled in both nations by propaganda arms of the state which increasingly treated the legacies of prominent literary figures as opportunities to score points in a geopolitical contest. Alexey Surkov, who began 1959 as leader of the Soviet Union of Writers which published Literaturnaya Gazeta, writes, “Literature is the sharp-edged weapon of socialist-political action.” The metaphor of literature as weapon – one of the most tortured metaphors of the Cold War – was equally popular with U.S. bureaucrats. In their examination of covert activity from this period, the congressional Church Commission outlined a strategic inter-agency interest and investment in both domestic and international publishing:
Twain was not immune from being deployed as “a weapon of strategic (long-range) propaganda.” The active circulation of Twainia around the world during the midcentury, which has had lasting effects on the field of Twain Studies, cannot be disassociated from the Cold War infiltration of academic and trade publishing. While the Church Commission found that the CIA abandoned this practice in 1968, the Russo-American propaganda wars certainly never ended. In fact, Auclert argues, the most coherent precedent for the “parade diplomacy” of Vladimir Putin’s regime since 2014 is the “armed thaw.” This is among the reasons we are so pleased to publish Mark Twain & The Russians and, hopefully, provoke further discussion of how the Twain Doctrine still reverberates.
Matt Seybold is Associate Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, as well as Resident Scholar at the Center For Mark Twain Studies, and editor of MarkTwainStudies.org. He was also responsible for preparing and annotating our digital edition of Mark Twain & The Russians.
Many thanks to Susan M. Neider for permission to republish her father’s pamphlet. Susan is also an editor, as well as an acclaimed nature photographer. Check out her collections: How We Saw Yellowstone (2020), Wild Yosemite (2015), Classic Yellowstone (2015), and more.
We would also like to thank the following scholars and friends of CMTS for their essential contributions to the creation of this resource:
Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities at Stanford University
J. D. Iles, Host of Hidden Landmarks TV
Benjamin Peters, Hazel Rogers Associate Professor of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa
Jeffrey Clapp, Associate Professor & Head of Department of Literature & Cultural Studies at The Education University of Hong Kong
Joseph Lemak, Director of Center For Mark Twain Studies