- Glasnost NoireThe Soviet and Post-Soviet Publication and Reception of James Hadley Chase
Within a relatively short period of time, starting with the reforms of the Soviet literary system in the mid-1980s and ending with the establishment of a new post-Soviet book market in the early 1990s, all ideological, economical, social, cultural, and technical conditions for the production, distribution, and reception of literature in Russia turned upside down. Initiated in 1986 by Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika reforms, the stagnating and ineffective Soviet state publishing system struggled for renewal. The aim was to raise the quality of available literature, meet Soviet readers’ tastes and demands, and overcome the chronic “book deficit” in the USSR.1 But these efforts came to an early end with the post-Soviet dissolution of the state publishing system and the ensuing chaos, perceived by both Russian publishing professionals and Western book historians as a “decline of book culture.”2
Nowhere were these changes more visually evident than in post-Soviet book design. In the transition to privatization, Russian book covers’ mediation of fiction both reflected and supported a new orientation of literature in a society undergoing radical value changes. A part of this all-encompassing redesign and reevaluation process of literature related to late Soviet and post-Soviet publishing of Western popular fiction. The new Russian book market in the early 1990s offered a very high proportion of translated fiction mainly imported from the West.3 The new private publishing houses found a fast and cheap investment opportunity in printing translated literature to feed the apparently insatiable post-Soviet reading public, whose access to popular genres such as hard-boiled crime fiction and romance novels had hitherto been limited by Soviet state control.4
An example of this process is the Russian publishing and reception history of the British hard-boiled crime-story writer James Hadley Chase (pseudonym for René B. Raymond, 1906–1985). During this turbulent transition [End Page 329] period, Chase’s works enjoyed an incredible boom in Russia and the former Soviet republics. The “Chase craze”5 demonstrates how Western popular fiction entered the new Russian book market and how this clash between two formerly separate book cultures resulted both in a mixture of highbrow and lowbrow forms and in a complete ideological transformation of the interpretation of the author’s works.
Any scholar who wishes to investigate the Russian Chase editions will be confronted with a number of bibliographical challenges. Whereas it is fairly simple to survey the scarce Soviet Chase publications until the end of the 1980s, it is near to impossible to compile a complete bibliography of Chase’s Russian editions after 1988. One reason is the vast surge of Chase publications from a very diverse field, including state publishing houses, Soviet-Western joint ventures, cooperatives, new private publishers, and homemade copies. Most of the post-Soviet publishing houses that issued Chase in Russian no longer exist; many were never registered with a license; many were never run by professionals. Second, the Berne Convention did not become effective in Russia before 1995,6 so neither the state-run Soviet publishers nor the new private publishers respected international copyright laws. As a consequence, Russian Chase editions belonged to a gray zone of piracy. Third, James Hadley Chase wrote more than ninety novels, but at least twice as many Chase titles exist in Russian due to variations in authorized, unauthorized, shortened, and even prolonged translations. Fourth, the new private publishing houses were less concerned about depositing statutory copies at the Russian state libraries than quickly floating the liberalized book market with new sensations during the early 1990s. Hence, the holdings of post-Soviet translations of Chase’s works in the major Russian state libraries in Moscow and St. Petersburg are far from complete.
As for Western research libraries, Anna L. Shparberg argued in a 2009 study that even though Russian crime fiction is an important segment of the contemporary Russian book market and a key to understanding post-Soviet book culture, the Russian detektiv-genre7 is severely underrepresented in American research library collections and not part of any institutional collecting policy.8...