“The risk-takers are the same in every society.”
Michael Scammell on dissent, literature, and heroes of the 20th century.


Few of the present-day Russian literature experts can boast the range of Michael Scammell’s credentials. Having started his man-of-letters career with forging a friendship with Vladimir Nabokov and translating his novels The Gift and The Defense in the early Sixties, he went on to translate some of the key memoirs of the Soviet dissidents, and eventually to author two acclaimed books of his own — a 1,000-page biography of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and a groundbreaking biography of Arthur Koestler. 


The sheer span of cultural ground Scammell has covered throughout his writing, puts the issue of Soviet dissidence in just the right degree of perspective for the younger generation to perceive. An Englishman who for nearly four past decades has permanently lived in America and taught at some of its best universities (including Columbia and Cornell), he knows how to make complex ideas accessible and to find depth in seemingly simple issues. 


Soviet History Lessons website was delighted to receive an hour of Professor Scammell’s time amidst his busy schedule and to learn not only about his work on Vladimir Bukovsky’s classic To Build a Castle, but also about the cultural and political context of the human rights movement in the USSR. 



Alissa Ordabai: In one of your interviews you have mentioned that it wasn’t your own decision to start learning Russian, but it was the decision of your superiors in the army.


Michael Scammell: It was the army. By the way, many people on that course I am still in touch with — the survivors. Every year, in London. But so many of us fell in love with Russia and Russian culture. Which was surprising, as we were trained, as it were, to be in opposition to the Soviet Union, because our teachers were Russian, and they were extremely clever, artistic, and they loved the Russian literature. So I often used to ponder the irony: we were there to learn about military divisions and battalions, and the rest of it, but our teachers are often talking to us about literature. So that was the start of the Russian influence, if you like. 


But in my case it’s a little complicated because I was brought up as very left-wing in the Labour Party. People in Britain have written interesting books about this, about the way the left in Europe inherited this kind of open and sort of friendly attitude toward the Soviet Union. In part because of the early workers’ movements and so on, and then, of course, the next step was the Second World War. Because we were allies. I don’t know how the Americans found it early on, but in Britain not a bad word was said about the Soviet Union. And Soviet propaganda too, of course, was scaled back. And my parents too, for what it’s worth, during the war used to take Soviet Weekly — the Soviet propaganda. But my parents didn’t see it that way. 


A.O.: What got you interested in the Russian dissident movement?


M.S.: When it came to acknowledging what was really going on in the Soviet Union, there were a number of steps for me. And one of the first was an earlier book that I’ve translated by Anatoly Marchenko. 


A.O.: My Testimony.

M.S.: Yes. And you want to keep that in mind — that was a huge eye-opener on the West. It was a sort of breakthrough book. Volodya’s was in a different way, as it were. And more was already known. Not enough for his purposes. [Laughs]. So that for me was an eye-opener. I also remember when I was writing my book on Solzhenitsyn, when Marchenko’s book appeared, Solzhenitsyn wrote to him. Solzhenitsyn was still underground in that time, and so on. So this was an enormous step, and for me personally. I had studied for four years in graduate school in Columbia by then, and I’d had several professors who were clearly anti-Soviet — partly because they valued Russian culture and literature so much, and the Soviets were helping to destroy it. So that was one step that took me closer. But back in England it was really the Marchenko book. So that was when I became more aware. 


My Testimony by Anatoly Marchenko. Translated by Michael Scammell. Published in 1969 by Pall Mall Press. Pages: 415. 

The second big step forward was the foundation of Amnesty International. And at that time — the late Sixties - early Seventies — "human rights" was not a catchphrase, something that you would use every day. I knew somebody who worked in the White House, just by chance — a former journalist. And he invited me to address… I think the State Department. They had open sessions of one kind or another and invited speakers. And one of the things most impressed on me at the time was one of the people working in the Congress, I think, or in the State Department, who stood up and said, "There is no such thing as human rights; only civil rights."


And that will show you the kind of battles we had. And by then I was speaking about human rights as if it was the way you would speak about it now, more or less. I forget the day, but at the end of the Sixties Amnesty was founded. And Amnesty was particularly believable because of the work they did around the world. So that was a huge step.


As you probably do know, I was a freelance translator before. When I translated Marchenko, I was translating freelance. I had translated…


A.O.: Nabokov, famously. 


M.S.: Yes, famously.


A.O.: Dostoyevsky. 


The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov. Translated by Michael Scammell with the collaboration of Vladimir Nabokov. Published in 1963 by G. P. Putnam's Sons. Pages: 378.


The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov. Translated by Michael Scammell with the collaboration of Vladimir Nabokov. Published in 1964 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Pages: 256.


Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Translated by Michael Scammell. Published in 1976 by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. ISBN: 9780671487874. Pages: 574. 

M.S. Dostoyevsky, yes, and then I began to translate work from the Soviet Union. I translated detective novels from the Soviet Union — some of them not bad, and reckoned to be the first one in that genre. I was doing this work, and then the next big step was founding the Index on Censorship. The suggestion came from Pavel Litvinov and Larisa Bogoraz. And they wanted explicitly for us not to just concentrate on the Soviet Union — make it even-handed between the right- and left-wing oppressive regimes, which suited me perfectly. There was no difference between the Soviet Union and fascism, which is a cliche now, but wasn’t at the time.

So, in any case, Index was another step forward because I was naturally dealing with a lot of materials from the Soviet Union and the Eastern Europe — because of who I was with my Slavic background. And in the Index we were certainly publishing a great deal of this stuff. 


Then another step forward was when I got in contact with Solzhenitsyn. I had seen some samizdat and I wrote to him about it — it concerned him. And he invited he to visit him in Zurich. And had already considered the idea of perhaps writing a biography. I had been following Solzhenitsyn's career, like probably millions of others, but with more inside knowledge than them. And that was another step forward. And while I was beginning to work on Solzhenitsyn, Volodya’s book came out. 


First cover of Index on Censorship, 1972.

I already had a reputation by then both as a translator in general and a translator of samizdat and various Russian dissident literature.


Solzhenitsyn: A Biography

by Michael Scammell. Published in 1986

by W. W. Norton & Co. Inc. ISBN: 978-0393303780.

Pages: 1051. 

A.O.: How much hope was there at the time — in the Seventies — that Russia would eventually become a democratic, rule-of-law state? Compared to now?


M.S.: Obviously, there was some hope — that’s why dissidents came into being and kept fighting. But it was such a miserable uphill struggle. People went to jail as a result, and some were killed, as we know. What we knew best is what was happening in Moscow and Leningrad, but the dissidents in the provinces were less well-known. I don’t know what people like Marchenko and Bukovsky told themselves, but there was no optimism among the people that I knew. It was just something that had to be done. The message was that this was a dictatorship and was by no means right or acceptable the way it was. Even nuclear weaponry on the either side — there was obviously nothing to be done about it. And also, for human rights supporters it was sort of an anathema to say "Let’s go to war" — it was the very opposite what the human rights were about. So really, it was just a stalemate. 


A.O.: In one of your interviews you have said that Arthur Koestler was "at base a religious man, but he lived in a century which was not religious, and he sought moral and ethical imperatives in politics, and he later sought those things in science, and neither science, nor politics could deliver what he was searching for." Would you say that the same is true of Bukovsky in some way?


Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic by Michael Scammell. Published in 2009 by Random House.

ISBN:  978-0394576305.

Pages: 720. 

M.S.: I really don’t know anything about Bukovsky’s religious beliefs. He hoped something could be done. But also behind that lay a vision of a better life and a better state. And I think that was the driving force behind the dissidence — that it should not be this bad, there should be observation ethics, and rules, and a life which is often expressed in terms of religion. One whole group of dissidents, let’s say, of whom Solzhenitsyn was the most prominent, either kept or returned to their religion. It was somewhat easier, I think, for older people like Solzhenitsyn, because he actually remembered going to church as a small child and having a mother who prayed. For the younger ones it was difficult. As you know, the Orthodox Church in the Soviet times was completely corrupted. 


A.O.: Still is.


M.S.: Yes. Sort of bludgeoned. 


A.O.: Talking about your work on Bukovsky’s memoirs, To Build a Castle — how much did you collaborate, or how much did he contribute to your process? If at all? 

M.S.: Well, I started out as a translator very much in the Nabokov mode. But by the time Bukovsky came around, I felt it was very, very important to reproduce the style of the original and the tone of the original. To make that really convincing — at least in my view — you’d have to be angry in an English fashion, by adding adjectives and synonyms to the original Russian. 


Well, Volodya wasn’t having any of that, you know. Because he understood that he was by no means an experienced writer, he wanted me to stay very, very close to his text. And then also there is a Russian inclination to — what should I say? — exaggeration, to overemphasize points, if you like, certainly when you are looking at it in an English context. He didn't want me, as it were, to tone anything down. I was doing it for stylistic reasons, saying, "In this register this is how the English would realize it was very extreme." But he wanted it in Russian terms. So we did have a number of


To Build a Castle by Vladimir Bukovsky. Translated by Michael Scammell. Published by Andre Deutsch in 1979. Reprinted by Dissent Books in 2017. ISBN: 9781912022038. Pages: 422. 

arguments. Not personally… I am not even sure I knew where he was. I think he was being kept in hiding…

A.O.: I don’t think he was. 


M.S.: Where was he?


A.O.: He lived for a while in a small town in Switzerland, 18 miles away from Zurich. Uetikon-am-See I think it was called.


M.S.: That’s right. I think there were reasons why we couldn’t sit down together. So he didn’t really know me, or who I was. I was recommended to him. Given his milieu — what he’d escaped from — he was also, like so many Soviet dissidents, a suspicious man. 


A.O.: He died a suspicious man. 


M.S.: He had been through so much that it was natural. But I had to fight to overcome that, to say, "You can trust me." I think he saw in the changes I was suggesting an ideological tinge as well, that I was trying to tone things down in order to… But that wasn’t my point. But, you know, in the end I said, "It is your book, and I am sensitive to that." And there were no outright quarrels. There were arguments, but in a pretty polite way, I’d say.  


So it wasn’t the sort of sitting down shoulder-to-shoulder: "Now let’s see how this is going to go," and him explaining things to me, as it happens in some cases. Or me saying, "I have a problem here," especially with some of the Soviet slang. And slang, of course, has to be checked. Because slang is never the same, except when it’s religion-based. 


So that was the issue between us. But, first of all, I was stunned by his description of what had been done to him. And one hundred percent anxious to do this book and get it out for his sake and for all the dissidents’ sakes. And for our sake too — the British, to get to know what was going on. 


So it all went pretty smoothly. And I always feel when asked by others about Bukovsky a bit of a fraud — I didn’t know him very well, except through his book. And he didn’t know me at all. And I don’t think he got around to reading my translations or anything like that. He may have… I am sure he made inquiries, very careful inquiries, I would expect.  But that didn’t matter — I was editing Index, my reputation was known. 


I don’t remember now how many of the Soviet dissidents he did know before he managed to get out.


A.O.: I think he had quite a wide network.


M.S.: He did?


A.O.: He never met Marchenko. And he commented on that once. He said, "When Marchenko was in prison, I was out; and when I was in prison, Marchenko was out; and we never met, but to me he was like a brother." 


M.S.: Yes. That’s the way I look at them. There were two: that’s why I mentioned Marchenko so early. They were not twins exactly, but they were always in my mind similar, and their books have had a similar impact.


A.O.: But while you were translating the book, could you predict or foretell that it would become such a bestseller that Bukovsky would eventually buy a house with the proceeds?


M.S.: No, I didn’t. And if I had, it only would have aroused my already… "translatory" anger, because translators were paid so little and never got a share. I think they do nowadays get a share. Although the excellence of the book was hundred percent due to Bukovsky. There was some virtue in rendering it into accurate and eloquent English. At the time I was angry about it as a general aspect of being a translator. Because I was trying to make a living as a translator. And I was buying an old wreck of a house in Southwest England at about that time — to house me and my children. Actually, a little bit earlier than that. Not that I grudge it to him. My god, he deserved it. I knew he bought a house, but I never linked it directly to the sales of To Build a Castle. Of course, it’s been translated into many other languages.


A.O.: Yes.


M.S.: Do you know how many?


A.O.: It became a bestseller in Italy and in France. And it’s been translated into Dutch, Japanese, German, Spanish. 


M.S.: I imagine its sales here were pretty big too. In the States and in Britain.


A.O.: Bukovsky once said that you can’t say anything about society unless you first know about the human being. And I’m sure your work on biographies of Koestler and Solzhenitsyn have enriched your understanding of human character. Would you say that there is such a thing as the 20th century character? As opposed the 19th century character or the 18th century character? And if so, what are its main characteristics?


M.S.: Well, that’s a big, big question. And I am not sure I can answer it. Well, I don’t think there are different characters suited to each century. I think the risk-takers, the cautious people, the sensationalists, if you like, are the same in every society, such as means of expression, and the conditions under which they are being who they are. But it’s pretty clear that one of the distinguishing features of the 20th century, to my mind, was its wars, its revolutions, and its dictatorships. Before that, in the 19th century, societies were much more stable. Even the autocratic ones, like in Russia.


There was the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which was brought about in many ways by local revolutions all across Eastern and Southern Europe. And then, of course, there was the Spanish Civil War which had a huge symbolic importance — it was sort of a Cold War, in a way. And you had a lot of revolutions in Latin America as well. And then you had these two world wars. 


So a twentieth century hero, let’s say, had to show his or her bravery in different circumstances. There were the physical hardships that were endured, and I think there was a much greater not only fear of death, but a greater incidence of death, certainty compared with the 19th century. 


Of course, you have the breakup of the British and the French empires, and the Spanish Empire on the way. So it was an extremely violent, turbulent century. And some of the people that we know best and have come to admire, are those people who stood out against repression. They might have been on the side of the revolutionaries, and sometimes they became oppressors themselves. And you can see this in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. 


The rebels, the people who helped to bring it down, are now dictators in their own way. It is true in Hungary, semi-true in Poland, it’s true in Slovenia and in Croatia. That’s been, I think, an ongoing feature of it. And Bukovsky was one of those people who most memorably drew attention to the repressions and the lawlessness of the century, and tried to do something about it. 


A.O.: What do you think young people in the West can nowadays gain from studying Russian literature?


M.S.: [Laughs]. Russian literature? Well, that’s, of course, three centuries of literature. Not counting the medieval literature. I think they can get what they’ve always been able to get from any good literature. Literature is literature.


If I look at it in the context of the dissident movement and support for them, I am only half there. Because my other great love is literature, as it happens. And when I started to write, it was very much with a literary aim in mind. The subject-matter was significant, of course, — people who I chose to write about. But, let’s say, the literary depiction of both these heroes we’ve talked about and other aspects of the century, is one part of it. The literature is also… these are cliches, but about human nature, family, relationships, about morals, ethics, well, just about anything you can think of. So if you read Henry James, you might read about conflicts which blow up by becoming very large — national or international, but it’s the form of conflict that will be picked up by novelists and poets. And by non-fiction writers too very often.


A.O.: Michael, thank you ever so much for your time. You are such a legend and I’m so flattered by the opportunity.


M.S.: [Laughs]. OK, I’ll settle for being a legend. I have to say, in all honesty, I’ve put it down for the pandemic closing everybody down for so long. I would say I am almost deluged with requests to give interviews and appear on programs… And I think there is a whole new generation that has come up, like yours. We never expected that the next generation would be so interested.


A.O.: My colleagues and I feel that the dissident movement is the most interesting thing the happened in Russia in the second half of the 20th century. And thank you for sharing your perspective on it with us today.


M.S.: Thank you and good luck. 

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