Science Fiction Studies

#53 = Volume 18, Part 1 = March 1991

Vladimir Gopman

Science Fiction Teaches the Civic Virtues: An Interview with Arkadii Strugatsky

Translated by Mark Knighton, edited by Darko Suvin1

Arkadii Natanovich Strugatsky is the elder in the duo of the most popular SF writers in the USSR. It is no exaggeration to say that Arkadii and Boris Strugatsky am known to every [Russian] reader. They hold the all time record [among Russian SF writers] for translations of their works into foreign languages: over 200 editions and reprints in more than 20 countries. The Strugatskys were the f rst laureates of the [Soviet] yearly Aelita Award for the best work of SF. They have also been given foreign awards: from the European Association of SF Writers, the Jules Verne Society of Sweden, the John Campbell Award, and one at the World Conference of SF Fans in Brighton, England, August 1987. The movie version of their Hotel "To the Lost Mountain Climber," with screenplay by the Strugatskys, received an award at the Festival of SF Movies in Trieste. The date of the following interview, 1988, marked the 30th year of their joint creative work.—VG

VG: Arkadii Natanovich, how did you get started in SF?

AS: My brother and I enjoyed reading SF in childhood. I started writing—or more exactly, drawing comic strips of a sort—when I was about eight. Our professional work in SF began with a bet. In 1958, when we made sarcastic remarks about some very feeble SF book, we were challenged: it's easy to criticize, they said, but just try writing one yourself. We did try, and the result was The Land of the Crimson Clouds.

VG: The 1960s saw the flowering of Soviet SF. There was an astonishing variety of names and creative styles: I A. Yefremov, I.I. Varshavsky, A.G. Gromova, E.V. Voiskunsky and I.B. Lukodianov, D A. Bilenkin, M.T. Emtsev and E.I. Pamov, S. A. Snegov, G.I. Gurevich, G.S. Gor, S.G. Zhemaitis, O.N. Larionova, A.P. Dneprov, V.I. Savchenko, Kir Bulychev, A.L. Poleshchuk, G.S. Altov and V.N. Zhuravleva, etc.

AS: Three events influenced the development of SF in this country at the time: the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, which repristinated the standards of social life; the launching of Earth's first artificial satellite; and the appearance of Yefremov's magnificent communist utopia The Andromeda Galaxy. That was an amazing time! People stopped being little cogwheels, began to have a sense of themselves as personalities, as people, and not just as parts of some grey mass. Their spiritual upsurge joined with a romantic faith in science, in the omnipotence of science and technology. Instead of a wretched "close range" SF, which stayed within the limits of the scientific popularization essay and celebrated the technological accomplishments of the near future, a kind of SF came along that was concerned with wide social and philosophical conclusions. The time had passed when an SF writer who dared to write about the cosmos would be accused of cosmopolitanism, of being cut off from life, and of ideologically straying in interplanetary spaces. But the "Golden Age" of Soviet SF didn't last long. In the late '60s and early '70s, SF, like our whole culture, began to feel the influence of forces that were taking the upper hand in society and that led to the period of stagnation.2

VG: For you, personally, of course, the slow down in spiritual life began to make itself felt earlier, didn't it? For already in 1964, when your Hard to Be a God came out, ideologically condemnatory articles began to appear which "disclosed" the "reactionary essence of the Strugatskys' SF," which "libels Soviet life."

AS: At first it was disgusting to read those things, and then it became frightening. We wondered: Surely the old state of affairs can't be returning?

VG: Fans of SF will keep an unpleasant memory of such articles by V. Svininnikov, I. Krasnobryzhii, I. Drozdov, and V. Aleksandrov, all of whom heaped abuse on The Second Martian Invasion, Predatory Things of the Age, "Tale of the Troika," and Snail on the Slope.3

AS: And on top of that, someone sent Ugly Swans to the West, and the story came out from [the emigre publishing house] Possev. Even though we published a protest in 1972 in Literatumaia gazeta, we were put on the blacklist, and for many publishers our very name became an object of fear.

VG: Nonetheless, in 1987 Ugly Swans appeared in the magazine Daugava (albeit under a different title: "Vremia dozhdia"—"The Time of Rains"), and the magazine Smena published "Tale of the Troika" in full. And then it became clear that these things were timely, like dozens of other books that are today being taken off the index. Hundreds of thousands of readers got the opportunity to see how stories of yours written 20 years ago pointed straight at the symptoms of sickness in the social organism: rank ridden bureaucracy and administration by decree. The present state of affairs in science and in economics demonstrates just how prophetic your predictions were.

AS: Of course, the fact that "The Tale of the Troika" and Ugly Swans saw the light of day says something about the changes in the social atmosphere, the spiritual, moral climate of the country this is connected with the democratization in all aspects of our life. But democracy doesn't rise out of nowhere; it is the result of efforts by honest, courageous people who possess a high level of civic responsibility—people, for example, like Vladimir Mikhailov, the former chief editor of Daugava.

VG: What an interesting magazine he managed to create in literally just a few months out of a dismal, featureless monthly! But then he was got rid of was a shock for readers. I know that many cancelled their subscriptions because of that.

AS: Perestroika proceeds in a very complicated way, the opposition of the ruling structure in the realm of culture is very powerful. For the bureaucrats of literature, Mikhailov, who was very honest and highly professional, was a mote in their eye. But just remember how much did the makers of the movie Letters of a Dead Man—and the studio—have to put up with! If it hadn't been for some high level interference—from, for example, the Committee of Soviet Scientists for Defence of Peace and Against the Nuclear Threat, headed by the academician Velikhov—the opposition of Goskino [the State Film Board] could hardly have been broken, and we might never have seen that splendid movie, which received the State award.

VG: Let's return to the situation of Soviet SF in the '70s.

AS: That was a very difficult time, as if you were living under a woolen quilt. You could shout, or get angry—no one would hear you anyway. But what should I say, so much has already been written about it....Bad times set in for SF. When Sergei G. Zhemaitis left his post as the managing editor for SF at the publishing house Molodaia Gvardiia, it really seemed like the death knell. He was a splendid worker, right up there on the front lines, a very fine person. They got rid of him summarily, and his place was taken by Iu. Medvedev, who had been editor of the SF rubric at the magazine Tekhnika-nolodezhi.4 The new broom quickly swept away all of Zhemaitis's "objectionable" co workers, first and foremost Bella G. Kliueva and Svetlana N. Mikhailova—brilliant, intelligent editors to whose labor and selflessness Soviet SF is in many ways indebted for its high flight in the '60s.

VG: I remember a Fall 1976 session of the commission on SF at the Moscow division of the Writers' Union, discussing the activity of the new SF and adventure editorial board at the Molodaia Gvardiia. One of the speakers said that the walls of the Writer's Central House had never seen such an explosion of anger....

AS: And what then? Well, Medvedev and the representative of the publisher's administration were told that they were destroying the SF and adventure genres; so after a while, Medvedev left the publishing house, but his place was taken by V. Shcherbakov, a protege of his who had worked before on the very same Tekhnika-nolodezhi SF rubric, and everything went on as before.

VG: It was in the middle of the '70s that talk started about the crisis in SF—talk that is still going on.

AS: The basis for this talk was the flood of pseudo literature that has become the main, dominant characteristic of Soviet SF in the last 15 years and which is composed, for the most part, of books from Molodaia Gvardiia. A featureless, grey SF was very much to the taste of the literary bureaucrats. The greyer it is, the safer and quieter and the more convenient for the editor's smooth career. But whatever is bright, original, talented—whatever can't be fitted into the bureaucrat's Procrustean bed—has to be cut down to size. And they were cut down to size.

VG: You wrote about this last year in the magazines Ural'skii sledopyt and V mire knig.

AS: It's senseless. Critics get angry at the low artistic level of the SF books from Molodaia Gvardiia, readers send wrathful letters to the publisher, to newspapers and magazines—Literatumaia gazeta alone has received so many letters—and to all possible addresses....

VG: In April 1987 in Sverdlovsk, at the yearly presentation of the Aelita award, representatives of 58 SF fan clubs from 62 cities sent letters to the Central Committee of VLKSM [All Union Leninist Communist Youth League].5

AS: An open, democratic meeting is essential to deal with the matter, with the participation of the Goskomizdat [State Committee on Publishing], Molodaia Gvardiia, and of writers' and readers' spokespeople. The only way to solve the problem is to submit all the facts about the publisher's distorted policies to glasnost [openness]. SF cannot be allowed to remain in such a condition any longer.

VG: What is the position on this matter of the USSR Writers' Union Council on Adventure and SF literature?!

AS: Until recently the Council was headed by Alim P. Keshokov. He writes unusual poetry and novels on historical revolutionary themes. He didn't know anything about SF and wasn't interested in it. Thus, its problems were foreign to him. Now the structure of the Council has been changed, and a board has been created; I'm hoping it will wake up the Council from its hibernation.

VG: In this last while, at the time our society has begun to recover its health, have there been, in your view, any perceptible changes in SF

AS: Unfortunately, no. True, the restrictions on the release of SF in the [outlying provinces and other] republics have been removed. There is a lot of talk now about an increased volume of publication, but talk is not books. The SF library series undertaken by the Goskomizdat has started to appear now. Magnificent bindings, splendidly edited, but content? How many times has it been said that the composition of the Library does not reflect the present state of SF either in our country or in the rest of the world. But it is much easier to reprint Jules Verne for the 1000th time. It is essential to have other SF series. Many publishers are changing over to self financing (khozrashchet); they are the ones who should be publishing SF. The petrified system of SF publishing has to be broken; we have to change the situation, which was formed during the period of stagnation, whereby grey mediocrity was given the go ahead, but talented authors were deprived of the opportunity to publish. As a result of the policies of Molodaia Gvardiia, the magnificent prose writer Aleksandr Mirer has abandoned SF. Evgenii Voiskunsky, a writer who was close to the sources of contemporary Soviet SF, no longer writes SF. Molodaia Gvardiia wouldn't print Vladimir Pirsov, he died before his first book appeared (it is supposed to be brought out by Znanie publishers).

VG: Arkadii Natanovich, you were recently in Brighton, at the World Congress of SF fans. A few words about that.

AS: We went to Brighton as guests of honor at the Congress (that was Boris's and my first trip abroad, by the way). Also there as guests of honor were the Swedish SF writer Sam Lundwall and the American Harry Harrison, who is well known to Soviet readers. Several thousand fans of the genre assembled at Brighton. Everything was exceptionally well organized; I especially remember the exhibition and sale of SF books. It was a fabulous display of titles and authors, the widest range of periods and countries. Each day was filled to the limit: meetings, interviews, speeches, conversations on various topics. We were wonderfully well received; the interest in our SF, and in our country and culture in general, was enormous. They asked us about everything, in an exceptionally friendly fashion, what's more. In general the people there are hospitable, very well intentioned.

VG: How does Soviet SF compare with Western, particularly AngloAmerican work? I'm not thinking of quantity—it's well known that in the US alone more than 1500 books appear yearly, while with us it's no more than 50 or 60, including reprints. I'm interested in quality: Do we have, in your opinion, writers of world rank?

AS: Our problem lies in the extremely miserly selection of titles and authors. It's not simply that we publish very little SF; we publish beggarly little. We publish only about 20 new titles a year; for a country with such a readership, with such an interest in the genre, that's small change thrown to a beggar. Once a shortfall of SF publications has been created—artificially created!—then, as in any other shortfall, a vast field opens for all sorts of machinations. Whether or not a book appears often depends not on talent but on an author's connections and acquaintances. But we do have powerful writers; would to God every country had such SF writers. Let's go through them alphabetically: K. Bulychev, S. Gansovsky, V. Kolupaev, V. Krapivm, O. Larionova, V. Mikhailov, V. Savchenko, A. Shalimov, V. Shefner, S. Snegov, E. Voiskunsky I've only been naming authors from the older generation. The late Dmitru Bilenkin, alas, is no longer among them. One could draw up a list of authors under 40, brilliant, gifted, actively working: Pavel Amauel from Baku, Mikhail yeller from Tallin, Iuru Grekov from Kishinev, Ludmila Sinitsyna from Dushanbe, Abdukhakim Fazylov from Tashkent, Boris Shtern from Kiev, Svetlana Yagupova from Simferopol.

VG: SF writers living in [outlying provinces and] other Soviet Republics have some books appearing, if rarely, from the local publishers.

AS: Entirely true. And now for the reserves of Soviet SF. For the last ten years, seminars of young SF writers have been working constantly in Moscow and Leningrad (under the direction of Boris Strugatsky and Evgeny Voiskunsky, respectively). A literary group of young SF writers has been working in the Crimea under the direction of Svetlana Yagupova. Since 1982 the Writers' Union Council for SF and Adventure Literature has conducted yearly two week seminars for young SF and adventure writers. Recently the permanent head of the seminar, Vitalii Babenko, produced some figures: during six years, about 150 SF writers passed through the seminar; no fewer than a third of them are talented kids, already working professionally. Many of them have been published a long time, but only about ten of them have books out. More than once the directorship of the Council has approached Molodaia Gvardiia with a proposal to publish the results of the seminars, but the publisher's SF editorial board has twice flatly refused to talk about it, while in 1986 a collection of the best things from the "seminarians," recommended by members of the Council, was killed with help of biased internal readers. Add it up: because of skewed, haywire book publishing policies, our SF, our culture, has been deprived of more than 50 first class books in the '80s alone.

VG: But if all the barriers were broken down, and talented authors got the opportunity to publish?

AS: What do the 1500 SF books published in the US represent? No fewer than half are reprints. Of the approximately 750 remaining, two thirds are clearly second rate pulp, commercial reading matter. So it's a matter of about 250 books. Even there, by no means all authors are Ray Bradburys and Ursula Le Guins. There is a claim that no more than 100 books can be classed as serious prose. Our writers can certainly provide such an amount.

VG: Arkadii Natanovich, let's talk about your own work. Have you never tried to write realistic stories?

AS: No. We aren't interested in any other artistic form; we think that SF is capable of most fully embodying the problems that worry us—and that trouble our fellow citizens as well. Of course there are people writing SF now who often don't understand the specific nature and laws of the genre, who think that it's enough just to fantasize a bit more, and more sensationally. But SF is heavy artillery you don't use it for shooting sparrows. I remember when Fidel Castro came here, back in the days of Khrushchev. Some clever fellow ran up to him with a microphone: "Comrade Castro, how are you conducting the fight against abstractionism?" "I don't fight abstractionism, I fight imperialism...."

VG: How do you create your artistic worlds?

AS: At first the image of a world arises, its idea. And only then, developing the idea, do we build a universe around it and work out the plot. If the universe we create comes into conflict with our idea, we change the universe. If in the course of the action it becomes necessary to have, let's say, four moons in the sky, then we write them in, but only if they're essential for the development of the idea.

VG: Why do you dislike aliens so much? Why must they represent some sort of threat to Earthlings, as in the case of the Wanderers in Beetle in the Anthill for example?

AS: That's not the issue here. We simply don't need extraplanetary intelligence in itself, and never have needed it. When something extraterrestrial appears in one of our books, it's only there to show the reader that we can't put our hope in them. It doesn't matter whether they exist or not; one must always rely on oneself. Some people even now can't walk without some kind of crutch—they find it necessary to have faith in something, if not, of course, in a devil with horns, then in a flying saucer, the Bermuda triangle, or something else of that sort.

VG: In certain books of yours there is a perceptible lack of full explication. Is that deliberate?

AS: Lack of full explanation, understatement—they are as necessary to literature as air. The reader should receive food for independent reflection. We try to make the reader think, become our co author, work with us.

VG: "Thinking is not entertainment but an obligation." In my opinion, you have expressed your understanding of creativity in those words.

AS: Perhaps.... But explicitness, full statement, it seems to me, are only good in books on the care of houseplants. The more a literary work provokes contradictory opinions, the more actively it brings the reader into confrontation with herself or himself. That way, the reader becomes accustomed to thinking, to growing—through a spiritual, moral effort.

VG: You've worked long and fruitfully in SF movies....

AS: "Fruitfully" is putting it strongly we've written about ten screenplays, but only three movies have been made!

VG: Stalker alone is enough....

AS: Well, no. Stalker is Tarkovsky's movie, the glory of that movie is due to the director alone.

VG: You had 11 versions of the screenplay. Why so many?

AS: When we began work, Tarkovsky himself didn't know what sort of movie it would be. He needed to show people's quest for happiness and their disenchantment with it. We made four or five versions of the screenplay....

VG: Voluntarily, or under pressure from Tarkovsky?

AS: What does "under pressure" mean? The screenwriter is the director's slave; it's the director who makes the movie, the screenwriter only supplies the broadest of backgrounds. Finally Tarkovsky accepted a scenario—evidently he just grew tired of the whole business. He took the last version and began to shoot. He shot two thirds of the reels allotted to the movie. At this point his turn came up on the developing machine. But in our country at the time, it seems, Mosfilm had the only machine of that kind. We sent all our film there, half of S`benada and also, I think, The Gypsy Camp Ascends to Heaven. And they ruined it all. They wouldn't give us any more money, any more film, so Tarkovsky came up with the idea of making a two part movie —for two parts they would have given us more film. Writing began again, eliminating more and more of the SF with each version until, finally, Tarkovsky was happy with it.

VG: Many readers know your attitude toward books from interviews and various statements in print. But what is your attitude toward bibliography; what is its role in your work?

AS: In my opinion, bibliography is one of the most important factors in the development of humanity its significance is enormous and increases each year. It is the cement that binds the stones in the edifice of spiritual culture. In our work we're constantly referring to various indexes, bibliographical reference works, and source handbooks.

VG: What do you think about bibliographies and criticism of SF works? How necessary are such publications in your view?

AS: I'm convinced that as many reference works on SF as possible should come out, of the most varied kinds. Not counting the books by Boris Liapunov and a few meagre little lists in small printings, there are practically no handbooks or bibliographical reference works on SF. Recently the directory Mir glazarni fantastov (The World Through the Eyes of SF Writers) came out in a large printing, with beautiful pictures on the cover, but inside....I repeat, there are no reference works on SF, but they're absolutely indispensable to the general readership—and not just for the development of criticism and theory, which, by the way, is still at the larval stage. I've heard that in Hungary they're putting out an Encyclopedia of SF in the Socialist Countries and the USSR. But that's a disgrace—the Hungarians publishing what we ought to have published a long time ago! Recently the publishing house Knizhnaia Palata was created, and that would seem to be their task. However, the publisher's activity in that direction is not at all apparent. We can only welcome the fact that the journal Sovietskaia bibliografa has begun to show an interest in SF. We don't have a specialized SF journal yet; and although Ural'skii sledopyt is doing a tremendous job printing SF, it doesn't have the resources to occupy itself with the criticobibliographical study of the genre. It would be good if Sovietskaia bibliografa could take on that function.

VG: At present there are about 200 SF fan clubs active in this country. The fan clubs have been in existence for almost 20 years, and they've had their ups and downs. What is your attitude toward SF fan clubs, their goals and possibilities, and finally, how do you imagine their future?

AS: For me the fan clubs are above all a cultural movement. Clubs bring together cultured people, or those who wish to become so. From numerous meetings with members of SF fan clubs from various cities, I have drawn the firm conclusion that for the most part these are honest, thinking people united by noble aims. SF is a socially active genre, it teaches citizenship, responsibility for the future; for that reason it has many admirers. Unfortunately—how often is it necessary to begin with that word when talking about SF and its condition, but what can you do?—the fan clubs' movement is in a chaotic state. It needs an organizational, scholarly methodological center; without it the confusion will continue.6 However, no one is seriously concerned with the clubs.7

Thinking of how I might bring this conversation to a close, I recalled that in 1983 the magazine Tekhnika—molodezhi posed a question to several Soviet SF writers: "If you were able to travel in time, which moment in the past world would you choose and why?" The most varied responses followed, including the frivolous wish to be transported to Atlantis or to be present at an Alien landing. The most laconic answer was Arkadii Strugatsky's: '] would probably choose one of two wars—the Russian Civil War or the Second World War. In my opinion, these were the most critical periods in the history of my homeland, and have had a decisive influence on the fate of all humankind."

P.S. (October 1990)—Much of what was discussed in this interview (published in 1988 but held in 1987) needs updating, thanks to changes which in their abruptness we could not anticipate and which we couldn't even have dreamt of some years ago. What has perestroika meant for SF?
(1) Censorship of printing has been lifted. A new Press Law has been passed, which practically allows anybody to publish periodicals.
(2) Earlier forbidden, some classics of the genre—Orwell, Huxley, Zamiatin—have now been printed in huge runs. Furthermore, [contemporary Russian] writers earlier considered as "anti Soviet"—Aksyonov, Siniavsky, Zinoviev—and exiled for that reason, have also been published.
(3) The longstanding decision of the State Printing Committee which gave a monopoly on SF publishing to Molodaia Gvardiia has been rescinded.
(4) All SF which was for decades lying in drawers is now coming out.
(5) A multitude of publishing venues are now being established: cooperatives, private publishers, etc. They are publishing the widest range of SF, from Orwell and the Strugatskys to 'pulp' softcover booklets with titles like
The Adventures of a Cosmic Prostitute. Gradually, a free market of SF is coming into being, where each publication seeks out its own type of reader. The Moscow coop "Tekst" deserves special mention for its high quality and beautifully printed SF.
In sum, the relationship among writers, publishers, and readers has radically changed in the last few years. Free competition obtains now between genuine SF literature and open kitsch. The resulting situation is both hopeful and complex.


1. This interview comes from the bibliographical journal Sovietskaia bibliografa, no. 3 (whole no. 229—May/June 1988), pp. 35 41. It is followed there by a fragment from one of the latest Strugatsky stories and by a five page bibliography of works by and on them. The source also explains the interview's penultimate question (on the role of bibliography in SE; ).

The text has been edited by D. Suvin, who is responsible for translating the "P.S.," for all the bracketed explanatory words, and for the notes (except the one signed by VG). DS gratefully acknowledges the good help of the authors, messes. Gopman and Strugatsky, who gave him this interview in Moscow, June 1990, as well as of Professor Serafima Roll of McGill University and Ms. Helen Anderson of that university's library.

2. "Period of stagnation": the standard Soviet description of the Brezhnev age in Soviet politics.

3. See, for most of them, the documentation and comment in D. Suvin, "Criticism of the Strugatskii Brothers' Work," Canadian American Slavic Studies, 6 (1972):288 307.

4. A magazine mainly of scientific and technical popularization for teen readers, Tehnika—molodezhi regularly publishes SF also.

5. The context here suggests that AS is referring to letters of protest to this main Soviet youth organization against the policy of Molodaia Gvardiia, a publisher sponsored by the VLKSM.

6. When this material was ready for press, on March 16 18, 1988, under the aegis of the Central Committee of VLKSM and TsP VOK [the Central Board of the All Union Society of Bibliophiles], a conference of the representatives of 101 SF fan clubs took place in Kiev, at which an All Union Council of SF fan clubs was created. [VG]

7. The Soviet Bibliography issue #1 (1990) has a section (pp. 114 29) comprised of an essay on and a bibliography of SF fanzines, as well as a sample critique from one of them (a very good review of the Strugatskys' latest fantasy novel, Burdened by Evil; or, 40 Years Later). From this section it may be learned that there is, as of May 1989, a bimonthly "Information Bulletin" of the new All Union Council of SF Fan Clubs, edited by Gopman and others. Further, there are about 10 more or less regularly appearing club famines printing more than 50 copies per issue, as well as a lot of ephemera.

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