July 23, 2021
In grade six, I spent hours with a friend turning tattered pages of a Sinhala translation hardcover of Vasilissa the Beautiful, a Russian fairytale about a young girl who must escape the clutches of a witch and her cruel stepmother. By grade eight, we were reading translations of The First Teacher by Chinghiz Aitmatov, Hot Snow by Yuri Bondarev, and Virgin Soil Upturned by Mikhail Sholokhov. At that age, we didn’t really understand these stories. But we read them because everyone around us — including our parents — was reading them.
Across Sri Lanka, people had been reading Russian literature for decades, from Aitmatov’s Jamilia to Maxim Gorky’s Mother. These books explored the Russian Communist uprising, the bloodbath of World War II, and life in the Soviet Union through the lens of everyday people. They nurtured Sri Lankan literature and, some argue, even sparked a short-lived Communist uprising in Sri Lanka, not once but twice, in the 1970s and 1980s.
During the Cold War, as the U.S. and the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) were carving out their spheres of influence, the Soviet Union used literature to propagate communist ideologies by translating and distributing free Russian books in local languages around the world. The U.S.S.R. started offering scholarships to Sri Lankan students; in return, they would have to master Russian and translate Russian books into local languages, including Sinhala. So when Sinhala and Tamil translations of Russian love stories, communist novels, children’s picture books, and young adult fiction arrived in Sri Lanka, it didn’t matter that these books were based on a far-flung land that experienced harsh winters, or that most Sri Lankan readers could barely pronounce the characters’ names. The books resonated deeply because they often depicted stories with a strong resemblance to Sri Lankan agrarian life, speaking to the country’s masses.
Sarath Lal Kumara — the owner of publishing house Rusiyawa Prakashakayo and bookshop Duishenge Pothhahala in Colombo — traces the popularity of Russian books in Sri Lanka to the beginning of the country’s diplomatic relationships with the Soviet Union in 1956, after the People’s United Front — an electoral alliance then-prime minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike led — came into power. In 1959, literature scholar Gunapala Malalasekera became then-Ceylon’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union. “From there, the diplomatic relationships between the Soviet Union and Sri Lanka grew stronger,” Lal Kumara said.
The People’s Writers Front (PWF), one of Sri Lanka’s oldest collectives of writers and artists, hosted several events with “the aim of furthering Sri Lankan literature,” journalist Dilina Amaruwen wrote for Roar Media. “But it also was a key group in fostering the relationship between Sri Lankan and Russian literary circles.” By the mid-1960s, the PWF was arranging seminars, book exhibitions, and literary festivals to celebrate writers such as Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. Amaruwen notes that the People’s Publishing House (PPH) teamed up with PWF and helped print and distribute the books, going as far as holding book fairs on wheels to reach more rural parts of the country. The PPH distributes Russian literature and sells it online to this day in India and Sri Lanka.