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True Songs of Freedom

Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russian Culture and Society

John MacKay

Publication Year: 2013

Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was the nineteenth century's best-selling novel worldwide; only the Bible outsold it. It was known not only as a book but through stage productions, films, music, and commercial advertising as well. But how was Stowe's novel—one of the watershed works of world literature—actually received outside of the American context? True Songs of Freedom explores one vital sphere of Stowe's influence: Russia and the Soviet Union, from the 1850s to the present day. Due to Russia's own tradition of rural slavery, the vexed entwining of authoritarianism and political radicalism throughout its history, and (especially after 1945) its prominence as the superpower rival of the United States, Russia developed a special relationship to Stowe's novel during this period of rapid societal change. Uncle Tom's Cabin prompted widespread reflections on the relationship of Russian serfdom to American slavery, on the issue of race in the United States and at home, on the kinds of writing appropriate for children and peasants learning to read, on the political function of writing, and on the values of Russian educated elites who promoted, discussed, and fought over the book for more than a century. By the time of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, Stowe's novel was probably better known by Russians than by readers in any other country. John MacKay examines many translations and rewritings of Stowe's novel; plays, illustrations, and films based upon it; and a wide range of reactions to it by figures famous (Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Marina Tsvetaeva) and unknown. In tracking the reception of Uncle Tom's Cabin across 150 years, he engages with debates over serf emancipation and peasant education, early Soviet efforts to adapt Stowe's deeply religious work of protest to an atheistic revolutionary value system, the novel's exploitation during the years of Stalinist despotism, Cold War anti-Americanism and antiracism, and the postsocialist consumerist ethos.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-9


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

This book took a while to reach completion, partially because it was a lot of fun to write. As usual, everyone at the University of Wisconsin Press was terrific. My heartiest thanks to Matthew Cosby, Frances Grogan, Sheila Leary, Carla Marolt, Adam Mehring, Barbara Wojhoski, Logan Middleton, Lauren Vedal, and especially...

Historical Timeline

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pp. xiii-xv

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pp. 3-11

My two epigraphs, drawn from occasional comments by two major twentieth- century Russian writers, represent not the full range but rather the extreme antipodes of Russian and Russo- Soviet opinion surrounding Harriet Beecher Stowe’s legendary antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (1852...

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1. Before Emancipation

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pp. 12-31

Tsar Alexander II officially abolished serfdom in Russia on 19 February 1861, thus freeing circa twenty- two million men, women, and children (or over 35 percent of the entire population of the country) from the approximately one hundred thousand nobles who owned them. Although...

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2. After Serfdom, before October

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pp. 32-61

Gauging in detail the immediate response to the Russian translations is difficult. To my knowledge, no reviews appeared, although we do have a few letters reporting strong reactions (like those of Leo Tolstoy, discussed below). It is worth noting, however, that government censors, who sometimes expressed their concerns about a text after it was already...

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3. The Early Soviet Period (to 1945)

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pp. 62-80

The historian Sheila Fitzpatrick has described the central dynamic of early Soviet cultural politics as a struggle between the Bolshevik Party and the intelligentsia—“ two great protagonists,” she writes, that in many ways “had more in common than either cared to admit”:...

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4. Uncle Tom, Cold Warrior

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pp. 81-92

Kornei Chukovsky may not have even known about the edition of the 1941 translation (together with his preface, much altered) published in Sverdlovsk in 1950. It is safe to say that he would not have been pleased. The original preface contained a good deal about Stowe’s early life, but the later edition removes virtually all that material, except the references to her poverty...

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Coda: Tom, Meet Scarlett

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pp. 93-95

Although standard (i.e., condensed) Volzhina versions are occa-sionally republished, and at least one entirely new translation has appeared since 2000, religious publishing houses have begun releasing their own editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, sometimes selecting from among the many prerevolutionary options, properly aware of the distortions in the Soviet editions....

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pp. 96-102

Scarlett and Uncle Tom, matter and spirit: no two protagonists could be less compatible. Might the shift from Stowe to Mitchell be symptomatic of a fundamental mutation within Russian attitudes toward literate culture as such? As Stephen Lovell notes, For the first time in 130 years . . . the reader was no longer a subject of impassioned debate...

Appendix: Summary of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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pp. 103-106


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pp. 107-136


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pp. 137-150


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pp. 151-157

E-ISBN-13: 9780299292935
E-ISBN-10: 0299292932
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299292942
Print-ISBN-10: 0299292940

Page Count: 136
Illustrations: 6 b/w illus.
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 852160116
MUSE Marc Record: Download for True Songs of Freedom

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Subject Headings

  • Stowe, Harriet Beecher, 1811-1896. Uncle Tom's cabin.
  • Stowe, Harriet Beecher, 1811-1896 -- Appreciation -- Russia.
  • Stowe, Harriet Beecher, -- 1811-1896 -- Influence.
  • Stowe, Harriet Beecher, 1811-1896 -- Translations into Russian -- History and criticism.
  • Russia -- Intellectual life -- 19th century.
  • Russia -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • Soviet Union -- Intellectual life.
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