From the Desk of Steven I. Levine: Russian Lessons

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The following contribution comes from Steven I. Levine, translator of Russia’s Dead End: An Insider’s Testimony from Gorbachev to Putin (August 2017) by Andrei A. Kovalev. Levine a retired professor of politics and history, is the coauthor of Mao: The Real Story and Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam.

Kovalev_AndreiAndrei A. Kovalev’s Russia’s Dead End: An Insider’s Testimony from Gorbachev to Putin is a treasure trove of fascinating information on contemporary Russian politics. In the course of his analyses of late Soviet and post-Soviet Russian politics, Kovalev offers thoughtful reflections on Russian history and culture and suggests how Russia might eventually escape from the swamp of corrupt authoritarianism in which it is presently mired. As translator from the original Russian, I would like to explain how I, a retired professor of Chinese history and politics, came to the task.

As an undergraduate in the late Jurassic Period (1958-1962), I studied Russian. By my senior year I managed to wade through Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In graduate school at Harvard in the 1960s, I began studying China and Chinese on my path to becoming a professor of Chinese history and politics. (Incidentally, I continue these pursuits as a septuagenarian.) At the same time, I had a serious interest in what was then called comparative communism and I was determined to maintain my Russian to be able to deploy both “communist languages” in research and teaching. Against the advice of a sage mentor not to waste my time, I began translating Russian books on China as a way of keeping my Russian alive. I found it both challenging and relaxing. Over the years, while teaching and publishing in my own field during a forty-year academic career, I translated half a dozen Russian books on China as well as several books from Chinese into English.

When Peter Reddaway, the distinguished scholar who wrote the foreword to Russia’s Dead End, asked if I might like to translate Kovalev’s book, I jumped at the chance. Several years earlier a senior China scholar had introduced Professor Reddaway and me, and with his encouragement I translated a book by Sin-Lin he had recommended: Shattered Families, Broken Dreams (Merwin Asia, 2012), a book that describes the experiences of a Chinese woman who grew up in a Russian orphanage before returning to China and living through the traumas of the Mao Zedong era.

Translation is indeed work even though it is work I happen to enjoy. As I began reading the Russian original of Russia’s Dead End, I realized that I was receiving the equivalent of a splendid tutorial in Russian history and politics, a subject that had been largely absent from my previous education. Here in the person of Andrei A. Kovalev is someone who really knows what he is talking about. And what he has to say he says with insight, wit, and analytic keenness from his personal experience in the corridors of Russian power from the early 1980s until he retired from government service in 2007. These were momentous decades spanning Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s heroic but failed attempt to reform and democratize the Soviet Union, the collapse of the USSR, President Boris Yeltsin’s ambivalent and wavering efforts to make Russia a “normal country,” and the rise of Vladimir Putin as the embodiment of the corrupt and repressive secret services-oligarch cabal that now rules contemporary Russia. I could not ask for a better tutor. I have come to think of my translation as a form of payment-in-kind for the education I was happily receiving from Andrei Kovalev. After all, the Chinese sage Confucius received payment-in-kind from many of his disciples.

An added bonus—and one I truly treasure—is the correspondence that began between myself and Kovalev across the distance between western Montana, where I was living when I translated his book, and Belgium where Kovalev lives in self-exile from his homeland. At first it was quite formal—after all he was an experienced senior diplomat and I a mere college professor although I outranked him in age. But gradually it became less formal and we have long since been on a first name basis and gotten to know each other at a distance. I look forward to meeting him and his wife in person this coming fall on a trip to Europe and toasting his book with a glass of wine since I don’t drink vodka. Andrei writes to me in Russian, and I to him in English since, at best, my written Russian is at grade school level and his English is rudimentary though his French is fluent.

Given the importance of Russia to our country both as a nuclear power, a sometimes adversary but also a potential partner on the world stage in addressing such issues as regional conflicts, global climate change, and terrorism, I think we all need Russian lessons, if not in the Russian language then about Russia. Andrei A. Kovalev’s Russia’s Dead End fills that need admirably.